The late Arthur Koestler was of the view that mankind is an evolutionary mistake doomed to extinction. To have given a killer ape the capacity for intelligence was not, he reasoned, nature’s smartest strategy.
Intelligence has been a factor that has, in many ways, set humanity apart from other species. The stabilizing influence of instinct has kept other life forms within a relatively narrow range of development: the possum, for instance, one of the oldest of animal species, has changed very little over the tens of millions of years of its presence on earth. In contrast, mankind has fundamentally changed itself and the world in what may be the first million years of its infancy.
But what has been the nature of man’s development? How has intelligence informed our behavior? A view of human history — not just from the political perspective upon which historians focus — provides substantial evidence of our using the powers of the mind for both creative and destructive purposes. Sad to say, the use of our intelligence to generate tools and systems that destroy life has been in the ascendancy for well over a century. Why has this been so? Was Koestler right?
Our problems may well have their origins in the dualistic nature of our brain, which appears to be divided into "left-" and "right-"sided functions. "Left-brain" thinking tends to be linear, mechanistic, and analytical; it expresses itself verbally, using logic, math, and other forms of reasoning. The "right-brain" is represented by non-linear, intuitive, spiritual, emotional, and spatial thinking; it is the realm of spontaneity and the imagination. Reduced to overly-simplified terms, the "left-brain" is more dominated by a desire for structuring; the "right-brain" by concerns for liberty.
Only a handful of pathological cases could be said to be totally "left-" or "right-brained" in nature. Yet each of us tends to be more or less influenced by one side of the brain or the other. I have a number of friends who, as "left-brain" driven engineers, physicians, or business managers, are equally insistent upon defending individual liberty and unstructured ways of organizing with others. The examined and well-lived life consists not so much in balancing these forces, but in integrating them.
To the extent that our culture has become institutionalized, our thinking has come to be dominated by "left-brain" influences. This phase of our thinking has produced the inventions and discoveries, the scientific understanding, the technology, and the means by which we produce our material well-being, that reflect our mind’s capacity for life-serving behavior. But as we intensify the importance of what this side of our brain produces, we tend to ignore the voices from the right-side. Seduced by the material benefits we enjoy, we relegate other values to a lower level of concern. In such ways has the non-material become increasingly immaterial to us.
Political systems, and the thinking that drives them, are almost entirely grounded in "left-brained" activity. For propagandistic purposes, politicians will give lip-service to such concepts as "liberty," but without any sincerity. The politician who does express a genuine, deeply-held concern for individual autonomy, incurs the enmity of the established interests who control the political machinery for their ends.
If one wishes to see what a world would look like when dominated by "left-brained" thinking, one need only look to recent history. Long before Barack Obama was born, Americans gave themselves over to the structuring of their lives in service to the institutions with which they had come to identify themselves. When corporate-state interests find wars to their liking, most Americans go into a frenzied flag-waving, all the while condemning those who fail to shout "hurrah!" Most parents willingly invest their children in the sordid enterprise, emblazoning their cars with bumper-stickers that announce to others how much more they love the corporate-state than they do their own sons and daughters.
This country is now experiencing the logical extension of people identifying themselves with the institutional order. If major corporations are — by virtue of their incestuous relationship with the state — unable to withstand the demanding disciplines of the marketplace, the political system comes to their rescue by looting taxpayers of trillions of dollars to bail them out. In a corporate-state world, whatever the corporations need the state will provide, regardless of the impact such activity may have on ordinary people and on the values that can only find expression on a now-excised "right" side of the brain!
The rest of the institutional order — with its own interests to advance in the structuring of the lives of people — offers its support to the corporate-state cause. The mainstream media and academia — each functioning as public-relations flacks — create and reinforce the conditioned thinking that makes us subservient to the establishment cause. In his novel, The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley observed: "one of the primary functions of societal institutions is to conceal the basic nature of the society, so that the individuals that make up the power structure can pursue the business of consolidating and increasing their power untroubled by the minor carpings of a dissatisfied peasantry."
I have written elsewhere (In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival, Boundaries of Order) of the destructive impact that institutionalized thinking has on the vibrancy of a civilization. The problem may run much deeper than this. Just as an individual, or an organization, or a civilization requires resiliency and adaptability to changing conditions — qualities that implicate such "right-brain" values as liberty and spontaneity — so, too, does the fate of a species. We ought to have learned from the dinosaurs — whose enormous size allowed them to dominate the planet for as many as 165 million years; far longer than the meager human timeline — that a lack of resiliency can make you extinct. The logic of "too big to fail" that now directs the destructive transformation of the American economy, proved no benefit to these giant reptiles.
It is ironic that our successes in serving our material needs should cause us to become attached to and dependent upon the systems that produced such values. Our ancestors — living at a more subsistence level than ourselves — seem to have understood the importance of "right-brained" elements that help to make up our well-being. An etymological dictionary informs us of the inter-related origins of such words as "peace," "freedom," "love," and "friend," sentiments that speak to other than material concerns. In a world in which people treat one another as friends in a spirit of love, peace and freedom prevail; conditions that our "left-brain" powers are meant to serve.
"Right-brained" considerations reflect the individualized nature of life, and thus are of little to no importance to the spiritless character of institutional interests. What activities are more destructive of life than wars, and the restriction of personal liberty that allows men and women to make creative responses in an inconstant world? The study of history and economics inform us what intelligent minds can no longer doubt: privately-owned property and the economic freedom implicit in the property concept are the most effective means of maximizing the self-interests of human beings.
Nor can rationality fail to grasp that the war system — central to the well-being of the state — is antithetical to life. Beyond the millions killed in battles and bombings, as well as those who die from the destruction of the instrumentalities that produce life-sustaining goods and services (e.g., factories, office buildings, farms, etc.) there are numerous unintended consequences to warfare that hasten an end to life. Even the most entrenched military mind must begin to suspect that, when more soldiers die by suicide than on the battlefield, their system of structured slaughter serves no human purpose. I saw a televised interview of an Army general addressing the reported problem of fourteen acts of homicide engaged in by soldiers returning to his installation during a present four-year period. His response to the problem reflected a purely institutionalized mindset: the returning soldiers required more counseling and/or drug treatment to help them "adjust" to the insanity that had been made of their lives. As with children who do not conform to the mind-dulling expectations of school systems, the soldiers must endure a more intense program to silence their inner voices.
Our language reflects our attachment to war-like thinking. Almost any social condition of which we disapprove is met by a declaration of war: be it the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on terrorism, the war on obesity, the war on climate change, etc. Most of us are at war with life itself, regarding the exercise of institutionalized violence (i.e., politics) as the most effective means of accomplishing social change. Two decades ago, the idea of nuclear war represented a monstrous horror. Today, psychopaths in high office casually speak of initiating nuclear devastation against other nations that pose no military threat to America. What was once considered unthinkable has since become just one of many acceptable political strategies.
Fortunately, we are living at a time when decentralized social practices are weakening institutional power-structures: vertical authority is giving way to horizontal networking. The Internet is but the most familiar of the means by which individuals communicate with and inform one another, rather than remaining conditioned to having institutional voices (e.g., mainstream media, governmental agencies, academia) directing the content of their thinking. President Obama’s announced plan to appoint an "Internet czar" to regulate this system, as well as those statists who urge an expanded definition of "hate crimes" to include people who express distrust of government or who insist upon constitutional protections, represent the desperate responses of the political system to influences that run contrary to the primacy of institutionalism.
If the survival of a species depends upon its success in adapting to changed conditions, how much more burdensome is the task when members of that species must overcome conscious sabotage placed in their way in the name of intelligent planning? We are too much at war with the processes by which life sustains itself to be assured of our continued presence on earth. People whose minds are dominated by mechanistic linear thinking and a desire to structure all human behavior represent a lemming-like force that may make mankind the first known species to destroy itself by collective suicide. Perhaps the stated concern so many practitioners of "left-brain" regularizing have in preventing the extinction of other species is little more than an unconscious projection of the fears of our own removal from the grand experiment the life force has long conducted on this planet. Perhaps we humans sense what we are afraid to speak; that, in the words of the late stand-up philosopher, George Carlin, "we’re going away!"
There is no determinism at work here; we are not fated to ends we are unable to influence to life-enhancing purposes. But if we are to avoid joining the dinosaurs on the sidelines, we must do what these predecessors were unable to do, namely, abandon our reptilian brains and allow our "right-brain" voices to inform our behavior.
Kenneth Boulding has expressed the problem as succinctly as anyone else: "If the human race is to survive it will have to change more in its ways of thinking in the next twenty-five years than it has done in the last twenty-five thousand." At a time when both "conservatives" and "liberals" advertise their spiritual bankruptcy to a benumbed world, we have never faced a greater opportunity, or need, to explore alternative ways of thinking. The poet Seamus Heaney has written that "we are hunters and gatherers of values." It is time for us to take our search to other fields.
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.