Emotion implies motion and motion necessitates direction, intentional or not; this is the origin of emotion: the concentrating of motive force in an organism to move toward or away from some external object or event.
The actual energy delivered through the eye of a baboon from the quick glimpse of a leopard a couple of hundred meters away is not enough to bend a gnat’s wing and yet that moment of light energy energies a 30 kilo body and then, through perception of the first baboon’s actions, many other baboons in the area. In this example the energized baboons use emotion to fix their attention and organize their actions around the possibility of a leopard sneaking into their ranks and killing one of them; an appropriate and survival supporting use of the calories that they gather every day.
In fact, 99.99999% (I am guessing at the location of the final 9s) of all amplified behavior – “emotional” behavior for living things – has had this relationship with its stimulating sources, only humans have bogeymen, devils, witches, al-Qaedas, Nazis, monsters-under-the-bed, socialists and a hundred others that energize our motion, demanding a direction for action, while having no meaningful survival-enhancing direction to go in.
It is said that politics is perception. But the natural history of politics is organization for community action: stimulating and organizing emotion for the benefit of the community. When the community is no longer the focus of emotionally based action (reform your idea of emotional action to mean energized action), then individual self-interest cloaked in some story of how said action will ‘benefit us all’ takes true community interest’s place. Then, politics is perception and so it has been for a long time.
There is a great and terrible clue to our human construction in the functioning of these matters. I remember so very clearly listening to the original recording of South Pacific, especially, ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’ – I must have been 7 or 8 years old – and thinking about being taught to hate. I think that I somehow believed that so clear a statement must be everywhere understood. I was hearing this understanding and so, in my child’s mind, everyone must be hearing it too. How was it possible, if such a thing were so clearly understood in a song, that the most virulent of prejudice could go on?
I soon discovered that hearing a song had no particular effect. The children with whom I schooled and played, even if they heard the song, had their own interests and uses (organizing principles) for prejudice and other emotion driven actions. I became the ‘nigger lover’ for a portion of my elementary school, though not so much in a ‘burn a cross on the lawn’ way. It was pretty soon clear to me that ‘fitting in’ didn’t mean being the same as everyone else, but rather being identifiable in some already established pattern. So the scrappy little Yankee boy was the ‘nigger lover’ who could bloody a nose as well as anyone else.
An incident some years later – which I present only as evocative – added some bit of meat to my skeletal understandings. In an argument over some feat of physical prowess a new boy to school claimed my claim impossible. I tried my jocular way of deflecting the argument, but he persisted. I could not perform the feat in the light rain that was falling and said so. At this point this new boy, supposedly ignorant of our traditions, pulled ‘nigger love’ casually from his bag of tricks – it came out with a whole new tone and meaning. The gathered, formerly more or less on my side and enjoying the distraction, were drawn as a body to demand performance there and then. Something odd in my experience had happened. It was not to remain odd.
Each society has its formative emotional states – it is, in fact, these formative emotional states that define membership in a given society. In my personal example above my schoolmates were primed by long experience to the dreaded phrase (and many others). We had grown beyond its practice stages and it was now being pulled out to control people in the adult world. The new boy was part of that society and I was not.
We are, in this sense, much like the baboon. The sight of a leopard results in a largely standardized set of behaviors by the whole troop, behaviors with a long history of being successful in minimizing the leopard’s success at eating baboons. A major difference is, of course, that our largely standardized set of behaviors has only to do with sustaining the behaviors themselves, organization for organization’s sake, and especially empowering those individuals who discover best how to use those behaviors to their advantage.
The earth’s dominant humans have been for some time at a place where we measure our success with immediate personal outcomes.1 This sounds right in evolutionary terms except for the fact that the primates evolving into humans had long ago moved beyond individual success as the evolutionary design principle for the species. Our community design has been for millions of years our evolutionary center of gravity.2
Our relationship to instinct is also new. As living things we have most of our behaviors driven by genetically written instruction, but elements of detail have been selectively removed from the operational end of these patterns: we are ‘expected’ to learn from presently (and previously) existing humans the last bits. However, the existing humans, during the development of our designs, were making almost all of their adaptive learnings around a natural environment that changed only very slowly in terms of human lifetimes. The operational end of instinctive behavior was for this reason very little changed in content, but added orders of magnitude of refinement of detail and speed of adaptation.
The incredibly powerful tools for human adaptation to the details of environment and to other humans in the community resulted in an organism of such outsized potential that humans literally exploded onto the biological world with the consequences that we see today. We are emotionally primed to see this explosion as a great and powerful positive rather than as the destruction of the community order natural to the human animal.
Each infant is born into the world with the potential to become a fully functioning human organism, ready to absorb the last bits of instruction for how to fit into a particular environment with supreme skill. But what is often not understood, and did not need to be understood in our early history, is that much of what is learned as device to adapt behavior to the environment is, when separated from the context of its application, absolute nonsense.
Emotions are the energy source for action. Actions must have some effective relevance to the conditions of the world they are intended to address. But there is nothing that says that the triggering of the emotions must be done by something directly related to the real. A major human adaptation has been the creation of stories (beliefs) that trigger and guide emotions; the emotions are real, the actions are real, but the stories are only coded devices to attach motive force to action.
It is this absolute nonsense upon which we base our present world. Gods and dominating growth, human omnipotence and Exceptionalism (the two phrases mean the same thing!) are beliefs to guide action, not truths. They are only adaptations that are now in desperate need of change.
This is not an argument that says we must believe nothing, but that we understand that what we believe is adaptive, to serve as a mnemonic guide to attach stimulation to motive and motive to action. These are the most complex relationships; we could not act if each situation required a statistical level of certainty. But it is not necessary to make belief more important than reality. This last has come about because reality was, in the formation of our new talent, so immediate and undeniable while now it is belief that seems so much closer; and reality, like some will-of-the-wisp, spins and beguiles beyond comprehension.
Our individual existence has become tied absolutely to the details of our believing and daily living. The larger images of life, happiness, connection, biological order, personal power in the natural world pale to insignificance as we try ‘getting ahead,’ selecting insurance coverage, finding a good school for the kids, paying bills, catching a favorite TV show and a thousand other things that crowd moment-to-moment experience.
Philosophers and mystics have told us for thousands of years that this all illusion, that devotion to these illusions withers the soul – what I would rather call ‘specieshood.’ Yet, our deepest biological designs make each new generation ready to absorb the illusions into which it is born as reality.
If the magnitude of these simple statements is difficult to grasp – they are for me – I will amplify: each nation, each region, each culture and subculture, each community (no matter how dysfunctional) imparts its own stories to its young. We know from early childhood experience research (and from rational consideration of biological functioning in primate societies) that much of habit structure is well set before puberty. Given our great numbers and the hundreds of thousands of subcultures, all with their own stories held as truth, the chances of making some reasonably rapid universal response to globally intense and rapidly changing biophysical conditions is very poor.
For any other organism than humans, the situation would be utterly unrecoverable – and will be (and has been) for many species already. But humans have one possible way out of the mess our unprecedented capacities have led us to: we can change our story. This has been done on a small scale many times – it is the adaptive process of the Consciousness System of Order; large scale processes depend primarily on education and communication… and on our next story being as veridical to biophysical reality as is humanly possible.
The struggle, for all its variations and permutations, is between those who literally cannot imagine life without the story that they absorbed in youth and those who see that life as we know it cannot continue if we remain in the illusions of those very same stories. The emotion controlling messages, all part of the story, are very powerful, and left unchallenged will dominate action every time – they are designed to do exactly that. If we want a new ending, then we must forcefully write and tell it until the new story competes for spontaneity of response with the old one.
- Technologically and economically dominant humans – the so called first world. Another way that we measure our success is the amount and speed of change we can make. It has become an unquestioned certainty that doing more faster is essential for “our way of life.” [↩]
- Human communities are only like other complex social organisms, e.g., social insects and herd mammals, in the most superficial ways. Our social organization, while biologically evolved, is dominated by a new system for the ordering and using information. The community is the central structure for Consciousness Order; story, the information nexus of consciousness, only has function in community. [↩]