Monday, January 21, 2008

Public Health Implications of How We Define Human Nature

By Earon S. Davis, J.D., M.P.H., L.C.M.T.

We generally don't think about the public health implications of how we view humanity. Yet, if we view human nature as constantly struggling for survival in a dog-eat-dog world, we are encouraging those around us into exteme competition, and probable tolerance of war and violence. If we are seen primarily as consumers, in a "produce or die" world, then we focus on generating products, exploiting people, resulting in massive environmental crises. If we are viewed only as divinely moral beings, we embrace the extrme in religions and may neglect or distort practical health issues, focusing far too much attention on moralizing health issues related to sexuality, fertility and reproduction, as well as idealizing our religion as "the one true way" to live.

Through experience, we are thus learning that extreme beliefs in fundamentalist religions or economic and political ideologies serve to redefine human nature in a profound manner, and carry major implications for the public's health. Our pluralistic, free society seeks a compassionate balance so that war, extreme consumerism and intolerance might ultimately be relegated to history, and yet we live in a shrinking, complex world struggling to live sustainably and in peace.

Perhaps we need to spend more time and effort on developing a mindful definition of human nature that will help bring us together, rather than relying upon the myths of the past, whether those are carried by religious theologies, economic theories, political ideologies or even the scientific method. As Albert Einstein said, we can not solve our problems by thinking in the same ways that created them. So, let us step back from the intense debates of the past and consider the world we would like to inhabit, and how we can get there.

There is no better starting point than looking at a newborn child, born with no beliefs, ready to be programmed and nurtured, and vulnerable to all manner of disease, injury, emotional trauma and stress. When a human child is born, what do we know about the life they will have? What are their burdens and opportunities? Is their health simply a function of how injuries and diseases are expressed through contact with the world, mediated by their own genetic endowment? What about the role of family, culture, community and global sustainability?

Human babies face an immense program of training and discipline which seems to be growing and changing every year. What they are expected to learn varies greatly from culture to culture, from one economic and social class to another. In the United States and the "Western" world, children are programmed with an ever growing array and intensity of information. They emerge as a defenseless primate and are "enhanced" with a multitude of learning experiences and stimuli, both real and virtual (e.g., television, Internet). The goal is to produce productive adults, but we do not know the long term implications of this training period, nor precisely why many children fail to engage in the educational systems, or drop out at various stages.

We do not know whether we may be inculcating life-long emotional and social difficulties through our educational training expectations and experiences. By increasingly emphasizing economic success, what are we doing to our children and to our future? The greatest predictor of "success" in education is the wealth of one's parents. What about happiness? Is happiness simply a function of social and economic successes?

What about the cultural beliefs that are passed on to our children? Many children are taught to believe in one of numerous variations of "God." They are taught that humans have an infinite destiny, having been created by the Divine force. Many are taught that life is a battle between good and evil. If we are divinely created, then what are our obligations to other animals and to our planet in general? Stewardship is presented as a value, but our clearly "non-divine" popular cultures and personal motivations inevitably lead us to place human comfort and passions ahead of the needs of ecosystems or global sustainability. If we are not divinely created, and are merely another species inhabiting this planet, perhaps we would behave differently.

Human divinity, indeed, presents a host of public health challenges. First and foremost is overpopulation, which, itself, is draining the life out of our planet in many ways. Billions of humans use renewable and nonrenewable resources on this planet and generate unfathomable quantities of contamination and pollution, as well as the toxic and radioactive products and wastes from our industrial processes. Decreased populations would help reduce this growing pressure, but fertility cults continue to promote the opposite.

Overpopulation is endangering our planetary ecosystems, our global climate and threatening famine and warfare. Yet, some organizations in charge of our "moral" lives paint birth control and abortion as mortal sins? If this is what divinity means, perhaps we should find smarter gods if we want to survive as a species. Divinity means that killing animals by the billions is okay even if we don't need to eat them in order to be healthy, and even if it is a horribly inefficient way to produce food, a major factor in global warming and pollution.

Divinity must mean that elitism is okay. As long as we allow a few underprivileged people to attain wealth, then it is okay for the masses of people to constitute an underclass of hopelessness while we each discard more of the earth's materials than it would take to sustain thousands of people elsewhere.

Drugs and violence are severe problems, for those with success as well as those who do not find opportunity through our educational systems. In poverty, basic safety issues and lack of productive social structures fuel hopelessness and lawlessness. In wealth, an endless array of opportunities to get oneself into trouble are presented, and privilege can also lead to hopelessness and lawlessness. Are we asking too much of our children? Are we overstimilating them from birth? Are we behaving as if we are divine beings when we inculcate childhood fantasies of becoming sports stars, television, film and music celebrities or corporate CEO's?

"Underachievement" is a huge reality among the young adults of privilege in the "West." Many have formed adaptations to protect from the rampant "stressed for success" aspects of our culture. They have diminished expectations and their fantasies are of living independent, well-rounded lives, with modest jobs and living arrangements, raising children or not. But they hope to avoid the epidemics of stress-related diseases such as anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, digestive problems and chronic pain from musculoskeletal problems exacerbated by sedentary jobs and overcompensated workouts.

These young people tend to not favor organized religions. And they do not believe that humans are divine beings. They represent a new wave of hope for sustainability and for improved public health in the human species. Talk with them. They are in your family and your community. They may not be able to articulate their role in changing the face of the "West," but that is what they are doing. Whether the rest of our culture continues its bizarre obsession with wealth, and marginalizing those who don't make the "cut" of "success," it is important to know that there are other ways to live.

Global warming, terrorism, famine and war, will eventually provide the smelling salts to wake up our culture to the irresponsibility of what it has wrought. In the meantime, public health issues abound, and radical religious organizations appear to be protected and empowered as role models despite their institutional debaucheries of fundamentalism, magical thinking and cultism; the pedophilic culture of priesthood and the hypocritical extravagance and promiscuity of televangelism.

At some point, we will wake up, drop the fantasy of our divinity, and get to work at building a sustainable culture that respects all life and honors as success the simple living of a good life. From my own point of view, "We, and our world, are sacred, and that has nothing to do with whether we were created or dropped off on earth by a flying saucer or some other extra-terrestrial entity."


Anonymous said...

A brilliant way of looking at our current global crises. Yes, if we consider ourselves more divine somehow than the rest of creation, how do we learn that we can't exploit it? When are we going to grow up as a species?

Earon S. Davis, JD, MPH, LCMT said...

I'm pleased to receive a positive comment, oh mysterious one. I think that the first steps to growing up as a species include truly recognizing that we are a species. Up to this point in history, we have saddled ourselves with the notion that we are very special, unique beings with a special realtionship with God, who seems to have abandoned us, but is coming back any day now.

I think we need to take a more pragmatic, atheistic (or deistic view like Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and many other American founders) and stop being obsessed with our wonderful future relationship with our absentee (of imaginary) creator. Perhaps then we will be able to stop our intense and violent competition between various fundamentalist religions to become God's favorite upon its return, very soon, any day now.