"There's good news, and there's bad news. The bad news: civilization, as we know it, is about to end. Now, the good news: civilization, as we know it, is about to end."
We find ourselves at a strangely schizophrenic moment in our history as a species. Never have we had such understanding of the workings of our world, and yet we appear to be propelling ourselves inexorably towards our own extinction through a combination of exponential population growth, an economic system which is dependent on an ever-increasing addiction to the consumption of unnecessary material goods and an unsustainable food production system which is emptying the seas of fish and removing vast tracts of forest which act as our world's lungs, replenishing the air we need to breathe. Many of us are also at war with members of our own species. How is it that we are, at one and the same time, the smartest of species when it comes to knowledge and the stupidest of species when it comes to behaviour?
Just as a computer is only as capable as its programming, the human mind is dependent not just on the accuracy of the information it has to work with but also the integrity of the conceptual framework with which it seeks to associate and draw conclusions from that information. Maybe some of what we "know" is wrong? Is it possible that our self-destructive behaviour can be traced back to what Lipton calls the "Four Myth-Perceptions of the Apocalypse"?
1. "Only Matter Matters"
There has been a tendency in science towards reductionism (an attempt to understand things by reducing them to their constituent parts), mechanism (making analogies between living things and machines) and materialism (a denial of the relevance, or in some cases the very existence, of consciousness or spirit). Personally, I like to think of this trend as an attempt to avoid considering the importance of relationship. Reductionism denies the importance of the relationship of parts in a functioning whole. Mechanism denies organic interrelatedness, trying to replace it with the simple inflexible workings of a machine. And materialism looks at things but not at their relationship to each other.
While there are advantages to breaking things down into their constituent parts, making analogies between living things and machines (if only because we can make more effective machines by copying the superior technology of nature) and considering forms of matter in isolation, each of these approaches falls far short of the apprehension of reality we can achieve when we take an holistic approach. And the denial at the heart of materialism can no longer be maintained now that we know that, when we look at the subatomic structure of matter, there is nothing there but relationship.
One of the major effects of this "myth-perception" on society is the tendency to over-emphasise the material aspects of our relationships to each other. Is it about whether we communicate with each other in a loving way or is it about whether or not we wear Armani designer clothes?
2. "Survival of the Fittest"
Lipton has a lot to say about theories of evolution. Natural selection is only one aspect of evolution. It was first written up in a scientific paper by Alfred Russel Wallace. Charles Darwin, who'd been thinking along similar lines but not yet written a paper, became a co-presenter of the theory and then, in writing it up in The Origin of Species, became the figure who sold the idea to the general public. In the process, the focus changed somewhat. Wallace's theory was that evolution progressed through the elimination of the weakest. While Darwin was not the originator of the term "survival of the fittest" (philosopher Herbert Spencer used the term in reference to Darwin's theories and then Darwin adopted the term himself in the fifth edition of The Origin of Species), the distortion of reality which it represents is attributable to his articulation of the theory of natural selection rather than to Wallace's.
Natural selection takes place through the survival of the fit, not the fittest. There is no advantage to being "the fittest" only to not being unfit, and thus eliminated. There is more cooperation than competition in nature. Predator/prey relationships between species are not competition but cooperation. By eating the weakest of an antelope herd, a pride of lions is helping that species to remain within the carrying capacity of its ecosystem and thus avoid the mass die off which would happen if there were too many antelopes and not enough grass. Within species there is some competition for food or for mating opportunities but, compared to human conflicts, these are relatively trivial. Stags may butt antlers to establish dominance, but what is being decided is no more than whether they get to pick the most appealing mate or the second most appealing mate. The major eliminations of species occur based on inability to adapt to environmental changes. It is less "survival of the fittest" and more "survival of the most adaptable". And "most adaptable" tends to mean "most able to cooperate with members of one's own species and with other species".
A social impact of this "myth-perception" is the idea that we need to fight our way up the "ladder of success". When we live our lives from this perspective we are so keenly focussed on the next rung above us, that we miss the opportunities to enrich our own lives and those of others which surround us right were we are now. In a "survival of the fittest", even if a few might "win", the majority will always be losers.
3. "It's In Your Genes"
Lipton is a geneticist, so this is one question on which he has a lot to say. This is another area where there is an attempt to deny the importance of relationship. In the "nature/nurture" debate, "nurture" is all about our relationships to each other and our environment. Clearly our genes provide us with certain physical tendencies and they probably have some kind of impact in the complex interactions of our emotional life. But they also are the perfect scapegoat if we wish to deny the importance of our relationship to each other or our environment. If you get caught being unfaithful, don't worry, you can blame it on the "cheater's gene". If you end up feeling defeated and depressed by your futile attempts to climb that "ladder of success", its not because the cultural expectation driving your life is faulty, its because you have a genetic pre-disposition to depression.
Genes tell our cells what kinds of proteins to make, but our genes take orders from their environment. The genes are not the "brain" of the cell. You can remove the nucleus of a cell, where all the DNA is stored, and the cell will continue to function in a healthy way until it dies from lack of proteins. The "brain" of the cell is the receptors in the cell-membrane which transfer information from the cell's environment. And a major part of the information which effects how our body operates is information which comes from our mind. The problem is that most of what goes on in our mind is subconscious. We know about the placebo effect in which the mind tells us we are going to heal and we do. But Lipton emphasises that there is also an opposite kind of effect, which he calls the "nocebo" effect, in which telling someone they have a genetic predisposition to cancer may be the very thing which causes their body to malfunction in this way. Stress has been shown to be a major factor in making the human body prone to all kinds of illness.
To embrace our power to replace faulty beliefs, to chose our actions and to build a basis for our health in loving community and responsible lifestyles doesn't preclude taking full advantage of the advances in pharmaceutical medicine and gene manipulation in those rarer instances where we can benefit from doing so. But to view our genetic make-up as destiny or excuse is an unrealistic form of disempowerment.
4. "Evolution is Random"
Recent experiments have shown that living organisms can evolve quickly to adapt to changing environments. Environmental stress can trigger a response which speeds up the cycle of reproduction while making the reproduction of genetic material "deliberately faulty" in such a way as to generate mutations which may prove a better fit to the new environment. This backs up Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge's theory of punctuated equilibrium, which views evolutionary change as something which happens in bursts with long periods of stability. It also shows that Jean Baptiste Lamarck's original theory of adaptive evolution is at least as relevant as Darwin's and Wallace's later theory of natural selection to a complete understanding of the evolutionary process.
The key insight of Lipton and Bhaerman's book is that we can be conscious agents of our own evolution. They make a comparison between human beings and cells. Each of us experiences our self as a single human being, but we are really a community of cells operating autonomously but cooperatively, the self-interest of each requiring the survival of the whole. Now we stand at a comparable evolutionary threshold to that which separated single-celled organisms from the first multi-cellular organisms. For certain single-celled organisms there was a survival advantage in grouping together in communities. Eventually these communities developed a membrane around them and became a multi-celled organism. Originally all of the cells were the same. Later the specialisation of cells within the community of the organism allowed for more complex development. As human beings we are grouped together as members of a society, but we are still working, to some degree, at cross-purposes. When these communication problems are solved we can work together, like our cells, as a single organism pursuing not just survival but "thrival" as Lipton terms it.
This is a very important book which I would recommend to anyone. There are aspects of it which many may not like, from its folksy tone full of cheesy puns (many care of Bhaerman's alter ego Swami Beyondananda) to what could be viewed as its America-centric view of politics to the enthusiastic presentation of experimental evidence for the power of prayer. None of these things put me off. I'm hardly one to complain about bad puns. While Lipton talks a lot about the virtues of the Founding Fathers, and even more about the Native American culture they emulated, this doesn't seem out of place when one considers that he is using these as examples of a tendency away from the oppressive monarchism dominant in other parts of the world at the time. He certainly is not slow to criticise his own country in most other ways, so I don't think this is a cultural bias. And when it comes to scientific studies in the healing power of intention and such like, I find myself increasingly able to keep an open mind. I won't place belief in these things without seeing a good deal of evidence, but I ask myself "Why do I believe in the existence of Black Holes?" I've never seen one. I don't even understand the theory of how they are supposed to work. If I believe they exist it is because a significant bunch of scientists say so. I have tentative faith in those scientist's perceptions. But, as Lipton shows clearly, the majority of scientists in a field can be wrong for quite some time. I could say "I don't believe in prayer because it doesn't make sense." That is to pre-suppose that we live in a world in which communication can only happen through easily detectible channels. We can't presume the non-existence of something invisible. There is a longstanding cultural belief in the power of prayer. I needn't take that as evidence, but there is something very arrogant in assuming that "the great unwashed don't know their arse from their elbow". An interesting problem arises when it comes to scientific testing in this area. Skeptics will accuse researchers of bias and may try to replicate the results, but, if psychic intention really does effect outcome, the results for the skeptics will necessarily show a negative result because that is their intention. So I'm happy to leave that as an amusing dispute for those who care about it.
However, it would be foolish to reject this book on the basis of any one aspect of it, or even a handful of aspects, because what it offers as a whole is tremendously valuable, the way that it brings together the threads of disfunction in our society - scientific, economic, political, religious, medical - and offers a constructive way of addressing them at their roots. Even if one doesn't agree with his viewpoint, the questions he raises are ones which will not go away. If we are going to come together into a single organism, it will not happen through a victory by one side or the other in any of the conflicts going on in our society, but through a process of attraction away from those conflicts to a unifying vision which sees a place for all. This is the kind of vision Lipton and Bhaerman (and others like them) are articulating. Maybe one day you'll join it, and the world will be as one.