Friday, March 14, 2008

Introduction to Divine Primates

Following is a narrative introduction to my book project. Please send comments and inquiries to me at If you are involved with sustainability issues, please help bring this to the attention of other leaders in the movement. Note: This is extremely long for a blog entry, but is published here to provide background for the concept.

Divine Primates:
Help for Our Stressed-Out Species

by Earon S. Davis, J.D., M.P.H., L.C.M.T.Copyright 2007-8 Earon S. Davis


I viewed my fellow man not as a
fallen angel, but as a risen ape.
-- Desmond Morris, Author,
The Naked Ape

I love the human race.

Over the past 57 years, I have had a lot of different experiences. I've faced serious challenges and I've had my successes and my losses. I've witnessed the process of birth and I've witnessed the process of death. I've lived through some turbulent times and times of peace. I've served in many roles, having degrees in sociology, law and public health, having been a stay-at-home Dad, environmental advocate, writer, and consultant and now massage therapist and student of traditional wisdom, spiritual and healing practices.

Out of all of my experiences, I think that being a parent changed my life the most. It was quite a transition going from being a working class Chicago kid to becoming a lawyer. But becoming a parent eventually led me to see life in an entirely different way. I grew to love my children more than I'd thought possible, so much so, that I was able to allow them room to grow and to find their own paths.

After experiencing that process, I did not want to return to the complex, conflict-driven world of advocacy and law. I was drawn, instead, to the healing arts. I needed to become more familiar with the human race. And, in the field of bodywork, one does get to know people, on a level that is anything but superficial.

I'm not sure how this book became mine to write, but there was a gradual process through which I came to claim it, and nobody objected, so I eventually let it emerge, with the support and encouragement of my wise partner, Martha. But I know that it is an accumulation of all of my life experiences, that it is not about being an "expert" in any given area, and that it comes predominantly from a place of love and concern.

Writing about one's own species is a complex responsibility. Since I am an independent person, not entrenched in any of our human institutions, and able to say what I want without fear of offending people, I am also free to see what I see. I have always been that way. In a class or a meeting, I would be the one who asked the "good questions" that were difficult to answer. I always looked for the key to understanding any particular issue or concern, while others wrestled with getting things done.

And what I see in our society, after years of trying to resolve environmental and other issues, is a culture that has lost its grounding and is too full of itself to understand when it is moving in disastrous directions. Even when those directions become difficult to deny, as with global warming, we seem incapable of developing consensus and implementing solutions. I see a culture that is massively stressed, self-involved and distracted from the basic priorities of life.

While I might define myself as politically "progressive," I perceive much the same problems as do "conservatives." Like the vast majority of Americans, I am troubled by drug use and addiction, by violence and entitlement, by the concept of rights without responsibilities. I am troubled by child abuse, sexual promiscuity and by aspects of abortion. I am concerned about the sexualization of our media and popular culture.

What I do not share is the view that our problems can be solved by a "free market" economy, nor by privatizing military and civil justice functions, nor by authoritarian censorship and "zero tolerance" policies that expel students for taking an aspirin or for hugging each other, nor by laws that eliminate our basic freedoms, nor by policies that facilitate people's earning great sums of money without working for it, nor to shifting more burdens onto the poor and disadvantaged in our country or in other nations.

My thesis, in this book, is that we, the human race, have become increasingly distracted by our accomplishments, our technologies, our power, and even our shame and fears. We need to acknowledge our human primate nature and begin the process of rebalancing and prioritizing our lives and our culture so that we can be proper stewards of our own species and our own planet.

This book is not about scholarship. Although I have acquired a great deal of information in my life, what is most important to me is the experience of living. I have been a lawyer, with a masters degree in public health; a consultant and project manager; government employee; advocate; writer; newsletter editor and a nonprofit organization executive. I've had a book and many articles published and have testified before Congress. I have raised three children as a stay-at-home Dad. I am currently working as a massage therapist and integrative bodywork specialist, and I have studied a number of wisdom, faith and healing traditions.

To most people, this combination of skills and professions may seem a bit odd. And I admit that I've always thought in ways that were a little "different." Growing up, I would often hear from my Dad, "Earon, you think too much. Why do you always try to figure things out? I just know what I have to do and I do it."

In public school in Chicago, I wasn't a very good student, but I didn't get into any real trouble. I was usually one of the first to understand a new concept that a teacher would introduce. The teacher would briefly explain something to the confused faces around the class, and I would listen and easily make sense out of it. Then I'd be ready for more, but we'd soon be back to the routine lessons that bored me to death.

I wasn't a particularly bright child, in the estimation of my parents and most of my teachers, and I was tall and left-handed. Nobody could figure out why I was left-handed, nor why anyone would want to be, but they all knew that my Dad was six foot four. My grades were mediocre and I was identified as an "underachiever." Today, I would be diagnosed with learning disabilities, but we couldn't afford learning disabilities in my working class Chicago neighborhood back in the 1950's. We all did the best we could, with whatever we had.

My Dad was a construction electrician, who had served in the Army in WWII, and my Mom was a housewife who had dropped out of high school. My grandparents immigrated to the US with their parents (one came on his own), when they were children, and my two grandfathers became a cab driver (for more than 50 years) and an independent painting contractor (who never learned to read or write). None of my immediate relatives was among the most successful or educated people in their respective families, but they worked hard and did their best.

I continue to be baffled by the fact that I, and my three brothers, each graduated from college and graduate school, without major financial help from our family. We each seemed driven by traditional values and a desire to learn, rather than an obsession with becoming wealthy. Among us, my brothers and I earned two law degrees, Masters degrees in Sociology, Biology and Public Health and an MBA from Dartmouth.

So began my journey. I later came to realize that my family pet, a border collie named Ginger, had played a major role in my upbringing. That amazing dog kept us kids out of trouble and herded us to where we were supposed to be. Ginger was my introduction to our animal kingdom, to the partnerships we have with other species. That experience taught me that wisdom and instinct are not necessarily different. In fact, perhaps wisdom is merely instinct that works.

It didn't matter whether Ginger protected us because it was her instinct, or some high level cognitive ability, because the result was the same. The fact that parents care for their children is not because humans have high order intelligence. I have learned in life that most of what we do and value in life has more to do with our nature than with our cognitive abilities to think things through; that our technologies and intellectual lives, no matter how much they impress us, are window dressing for our basic human nature.

This book is not directed at the debate between "nature" and "nurture," which I believe to be a misleading question, driven more by alliteration than by common sense. To be sure, the way we are treated in life has a great deal to do with how our nature manifests. We can be peaceful and loving when our life experiences are peaceful and loving, and we can be violent and hateful when our life experiences are violent and hateful. My basic point is that over 90% of "who we are" as human beings is deeply influenced by our nature (and by nurture) and less influenced by the intellectual constructs of our conscious minds.

An important part of our nature is to get carried away with ourselves and our accomplishments. We are so impressed with the tall buildings and intricate technologies we create that we increasingly act as if we were all-knowing and all-powerful. We create more and more complex social, philosophical, technological, economic and political systems.

It is a shame that few people seem to read all of the bible these days, including "fundamentalists". The tower of Babel is the perfect cautionary tale for our culture. Arrogance and technology combined to build a ridiculously tall structure for no reason other than to prove that humans were all-knowing. As a result, people became specialized to such an extent that they could no longer communicate with each other. The result was collapse and dispersion. Duh? And, by the way, religion, science and politicians didn't prevent this collapse.

Just as much as it is our human nature to care for our families, it is in our nature to tinker with our world, whether to attain wealth and power, or just to see what we can do. When we struggle for survival, we can create brilliant solutions to resource problems and food storage. At such times, we do not have the luxury of building irrelevant, or marginally useful, technologies. However, when we have time on our hands, and there are vast accumulations of wealth and power, we can easily get carried away, often by building huge things (e.g., palaces, pyramids and very tall buildings) and technologies (e.g., cell phones with digital cameras, remote controls, high definition TV, ad infinitum) that we don't really need.

The Question: So, how can the human race find a balance that allows us to live in a more sustainable manner? This book attempts to answer that very important question, but not by pointing out specific solutions. The key to understanding our problems is to understand ourselves, both individually and collectively. Albert Einstein once said that we can not solve our problems by thinking in the same way that created them. Thus, if our problems were caused by false assumptions, we won't be able to solve them until we uncover, examine and correct those assumptions. The challenge, then, is to identify the patterns of thought that set the stage for our problems, and the behavior patterns that bring them to fruition, and to do so while we are still able to make changes that will solve or ameliorate the problem.

I do not claim that any of the ideas expressed in this book are unique, but will limit the use of footnotes and chapter references because each source carries its own baggage and preconceptions. I would like these assembled ideas to be weighed on their own merits, in a common sense manner, as a story about the human race, rather than as any sort of political, ethical or intellectual "movement," dissertation or thread, not that I would mind being associated with the likes of Charles Darwin, Margaret Mead, Samuel Clemens, Daniel Quinn, Frans de Waal or Desmond Morris.

I am an American and I do not mean to imply that my observations and ideas are equally applicable to other cultures and other peoples around the world. I would like Americans to accept responsibility for the leadership role we have in our own country, as well as this world, and of the mess we are making of things. At times in this book, I do attempt to apportion responsibility for some of the problems in American institutions and belief systems. However, I recognize that we have all participated in the development of these problems and I see the analysis herein as serving to guide us in creating new solutions rather than focusing on blame and recrimination.

This book, and its author, are influenced by all of the very same aspects of human nature we all face. For this reason, I want to clearly state that I do not pretend to have all of the answers to our national and global problems and that I am not offering specific solutions. Instead, I am offering a different way to think about these problems, especially in observing that our problems are problems of human beings, not machines. Thus, our solutions must be consistent with our nature, and cognizant of the competing physiological, cultural and psychological traits and values we must deal with.

Today, we often think that our problems stem from the differences between men and women, the differences between religions and the differences between the various cultures and nations. To be sure, these have historically been the flash points of conflict. However, what I am offering is that all of these differences are merely symptoms of an overarching problem.

The problem is that we are attempting to abandon human nature in favor of intellectual constructs (e.g., a rational, corporate, technological society). As a result, we appear to be assuming that a free market economy, or some other "invisible hand" can result in collective decisions that are in the best long term interests of the survival of our nation and of the human race. This assumption is preposterous. It assumes that we will always have sufficient time and information to collectively change our behavior before we do anything that would cause permanent damage to our biosphere. And yet, we appear incapable of stopping the global warming processes that are already causing catastrophic climate change.

Designing an engineering solution to an engineering problem is one thing. However, designing a solution to a human, cultural problem will always require far more than science and engineering. We humans are a peculiar lot, indeed. We have traits, abilities and consciousness that give us incredible creativity and adaptability. Yet, we don't consistently follow logic and we are capable of doing things that are clearly opposed to our self interest, and even threaten the sustainability of our culture and planet.
Many of our individual and collective choices are governed by our unconscious minds, which may have more in common with apes out on a limb than with any omniscient beings of pure light and reason. We choose flawed leaders and insist on following them. We get into pathological patterns of behavior and can't stop. And yet we have the ability to show amazing courage and faith, acknowledging our mistakes and moving forward with incredible skill and persistence to create and implement solutions. What is the source of this genius? It comes from our awareness as humans, from our nature as what I call "Divine Primates."

Parts I and II of this book explore human nature. The parallels between human nature and primate nature are so obvious that they speak for themselves. They reveal much of who we are, as a species, and why we are often unable to find collective solutions to problems on a small scale, let alone a global scale. There is consideration of the roles of the institutions in our culture in perpetuating or triggering the unpredictable over-reactions and excesses that undermine internal, societal and intercultural peace and cooperation. Part III focuses on how we can fully engage the process of finding solutions.

In Part IV, the focus shifts internally, towards practices that nurture humans and help us to find balance and harmony within, and to thus be more compassionate and cooperative with others. Among these, meditation, contemplation, and healthy touch are important parts of any potential solution to our national and global challenges. We have ways to help people slow down and encounter some very positive aspects of human nature, and we should use them. We should teach them in our schools.

We can not effectively manage our economic and environmental systems simply by setting forth somewhat "greener" alternatives in a highly competitive free market place. We can not expect fearful, overstressed, insecure humans (or any other primates) to behave rationally and in their own long term self-interest. Thus, reducing our stress levels and increasing the perception of belonging, support and safety are critical parts of any solution to our growing health, emotional, ecological and addiction problems.

Nor can we expect children in impoverished, gang-dominated neighborhoods to consistently develop strong respect for education, science, hard work and being law-abiding. These children are not safe from violence, abuse and intimidation. Without that safety, and without the kinds of help, support and encouragement experienced by children in other neighborhoods, too small a percentage will be able to overcome the violence, fear and distorted values that are part of their chaotic world.
By nurturing humans in a healthy and effective way, we cultivate both wisdom and altruism. It is time that our culture refocused more of its attention from the acquisition of "shiny" objects to the nurturing of our young and everyone else. Then, we will be more able to and to extend that compassion to all of the creatures and ecosystems of the earth, and to recognize and act upon the larger challenges we face nationally and globally.

Our contemporary culture is incredibly complex and confusing. By serving as a meeting place for all the cultures of the world, America is also host to virtually every value and tradition, every historical thought and dogma from antiquity forward. The marketplace of ideas is thus rich beyond belief, but also far more than we, or our children can comprehend. Each discipline, each dogma, each history, each aspect of art and science seemingly demands our attention. Prejudice and denial often arise as social forces to help humans limit the stimulation of our infinite world. They can be especially powerful for people who are financially or emotionally overwhelmed and/or uneducated.

As Margaret Mead commented, in Coming of Age in Samoa, "A society which is clamoring for choice, which is filled with many articulate groups, each urging its own brand of salvation, its own variety of economic philosophy, will give each new generation no peace until all have chosen or gone under, unable to bear the conditions of choice. The stress is in our civilization." Through the perspectives offered in this book, I feel that we can form umbrella approaches that don't require us to choose. One of my favorite concepts was derived from the tendency of people to describe situations where "there are two types of people" - those who are mean and those who are kind - those who are prejudiced and those who aren't. My approach is to go one step further; that there are two types of people - those who think there are two types of people and those who don't. Of course, I'm not sure which category that would place me in.

However, the point is that we do not have to choose, and that those who force us to choose may not be acting with wisdom. We don't need to adopt one or another philosophy or political ideology. We don't need to adopt one religion. In the "Tools" section of this book, we will look at ways to open our minds without becoming overwhelmed. This is a key to sound decision making, both personally and as citizens.

I would also l like to be clear about what this book is not about. This book is not intended as a scientific study. I am not saying that genetic similarities between chimpanzees and humans actually prove that we both evolved from a particular common ancestor, although it is difficult to image any other conclusion. My assertions about the similarities between human and nonhuman primates are observational and serve as a means to help us better understand human nature, rather than answers to complex scientific, political and theological questions. My thesis works whether humans evolved from common ancestors with chimpanzees, whether humans were created instantly by a divine presence, or whether we were brought here by unidentified flying objects.

This book is not intended to determine whether chimpanzees and gorillas are self-aware, sentient beings, but rather the extent to which humans are. Rather than uncovering deeply hidden secrets that will change our lives forever, this book is about telling a story about the human experience, a story that may help us to step out of some of the dysfunctional, self-destructive patterns in which we humans have become entrenched. It is my hope that this story will help us to move on to a more sustainable "next step" in our continuing quest for meaning.


Deborah said...

Found your blog through the question you posted on LinkedIn. You have some very interesting stuff here! Amazing how much we have in common -- background, graduate degrees, and interest in sustainability as a personal issue rather than a challenge to find the "magic pill" to solve everything. Check out my blog: It's much more practical, but has a lot of the same underlying ideas and themes.

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