Sunday, August 26, 2007

Cosmic Crimes

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about crimes for which there is no parallel, and thereby no adequate punishment. How do you punish someone for genocide? What is the punishment to fit the crime of the Holocaust?

But in truth, the punishment was really only an afterthought. What I’m stewing over is the cosmic nature of our current crimes themselves. I’ll address only three: the crime of governments that refuse to properly address global warming; the crime of George W. Bush in invading a country, Iraq, which had done nothing to the U.S.; and the crime of U.S. agribusiness in not just poisoning the soil, but also in imposing its several other practices which assault the very basis of life.

Let’s look at agribusiness first. Since roughly the end of World War II, chemical companies have promoted industrial-scale farming with horrific consequences for the food supply, and for the topsoil upon which all life depends. Huge machinery that requires special breeds of vegetables (like tomatoes with hard skins and delayed ripening schedules) that can survive the assault of automatic picking machines is only the beginning. Allied with these monsters are the pesticides that have been piled in increasing tonnages onto crops to combat the ever-evolving bugs and molds and fungi that feed upon them (about 400 gallons of gasoline per year per citizen--17% of our national energy use—goes to agriculture, with more than 1/4 of all farming energy going into synthetic fertilizers [see Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, p. 5]) The problem is that these poisons are lethal not just to the bugs, but to us as well. And though the chemical companies and our FDA have assured us that these poisons are benign, the truth is that our rivers, our groundwater, our oceans, and our soil are all becoming more and more lethal to life. The worst part may be the latest chapter in this war. Now, seed companies like Monsanto and DuPont have produced genetically modified varieties of crops whose chief advantage inheres in a gene that makes them "Roundup-ready." Corn, soybeans and canola with the new gene implanted can withstand what would otherwise be lethal doses of the pesticide Roundup. Mostly hybrids, these plants do not reproduce from their own seed. And so dependent upon pesticides have farmers become that most cannot survive without buying new GM seed each year from Monsanto (those who try to use seed from Monsanto crops are sued).

Manipulating life in this way, making seed a patented commodity rather than the basic mechanism of life itself (six companies now control 98% of all seeds), is a cosmic crime. Alarmingly, it is matched in the farm-animal world as well. Farm animals no longer reproduce on their own. Artificial insemination does the job. As Barbara Kingsolver points out in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the ability to reproduce has been bred out of most farm animals, particularly fowl. So, when she tried to get even her heritage-breed turkey hens to lay eggs, and then sit on them to incubate them, the hens were mystified and had no idea what to do. "Normal" turkeys, of course, never even get the chance to breed; for one thing, they’re so top-heavy from big-breast genes that they can hardly stand up. Kingsolver sums it up this way:

The longer I think about a food industry organized around an animal that cannot reproduce itself without technical assistance, the more I mistrust it. (p. 322)

To my mind, this is putting it mildly. The corporate way of breeding farm animals—the cruelty involved in raising chickens, cattle, and other animals, the arrogance involved in seizing animal reproduction and molding it to the lust for profit—amounts to a cosmic crime. In a real way, this arrogance regarding the most fundamental acts of any form of life, eating and reproducing, leads inevitably to all other cosmic crimes.

The next crime is easily stated. The nation of Iraq had nothing whatever to do with the assault on the Twin Towers on 9/11. No Iraqis were among the hijackers. No link between the hijackers and Iraq has ever been found. And yet, the Bush administration consistently tries to link Iraq with this event in order to justify its war of aggression. Attacking a defenseless nation is an international crime, but it’s not quite cosmic. What makes the fiasco in Iraq cosmic in its criminality are the catastrophic impacts upon the Iraqi people. Even before the U.S. invasion in March 2003, Iraq was a nation reeling from a dozen years of brutal sanctions that even Madelyn Albright, the U.S. Secretary of State under Clinton, admitted had resulted in the deaths of upwards of 500,000 Iraqi children. These child deaths directly followed the embargo on hospital equipment and all other materials that would allow Iraq to repair its infrastructure devastated by American bombing in 1992. Water treatment plants could not be repaired. The result, in a country that prior to 1992 had boasted of the highest standard of living and education levels in all the Middle East, was a reversion to Stone-Age conditions. Then in 2003 the U.S. invaded again. The death toll since then has been estimated at upwards of 600,000 Iraqis, with over 2 million Iraqis fleeing their country and another 2 to 3 million displaced within the country. This in a population of only 26 million. To call this anything but a war crime is pure propaganda. Add to it the devastation that will follow forever from the uranium-tipped munitions our forces have spread throughout that sorry country, not to mention the destruction of a wealth of art and artifacts testifying to the very birth of civilization, and you have a cosmic crime. It should be borne in mind, incidentally, that the United States is the only nation ever to drop a nuclear weapon on civilians, its sanctimonious hectoring of nations like Iran and Iraq for even considering the development of such weapons notwithstanding. U.S. hypocrisy is itself cosmic.

Cosmic crime number three: global warming. It has taken me a long time to view Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Even after all that has been written and said about it, however, its effect is still shattering. While the whole world and each one of us shares responsibility for the carbon released into the atmosphere, the criminality enters only when a nation not only refuses to do anything about it, but works night and day to confuse the public by ridiculing and undermining the scientific evidence. What more needs to be said? The Bush Administration chiefly, but every single member of the U.S. Congress which collectively colluded in refusing to sign the Kyoto Treaty as well, is guilty of a cosmic crime. This is not simply a crime against an individual committed by a criminal looking to feed a drug habit. This is not "mere" murder, or even the murder of 3,000 innocent civilians in the 9/11 attack. This is the murder of an entire planet, of that planet’s life-support system. The data visually attested to by Gore’s film was shocking, infuriating, conclusive. The planet’s ice is melting. The water upon which billions depend is in jeopardy. The climate upon which life itself depends is changing, has changed in clearly measurable ways. To fiddle while the planet burns is a crime. It is the ultimate cosmic crime.

And yet. We tolerate an administration which concerns itself more with the sex habits of teenagers than with the melting of the planet. We tolerate an administration which the record shows has consistently lied about this issue, has consistenly suppressed and distorted the information upon which the public depends to make a decision. We tolerate world leaders who refuse to address the greatest challenge to life humans have ever faced. The cosmic crime is theirs. But, in the end, it is also ours. For we sit in our comfortable living rooms allowing ourselves to be "entertained" by cosmic crap on our flat-screen TVs, our ever more powerful music-and-video-downloading computers, our Ipod-delivered "personal" music, rather than attend to the crisis threatening our very existence as a species.

How else to describe such crimes other than to say they are cosmic, they are terminal, and as such may be the last ones we will ever be allowed to commit.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, August 19, 2007

What Free Market?

Don’t you just love these Wall Streeters, these high-flying hedgers?

When they’re raking in billions in mortgage skullduggery, and a booming housing market makes them look like geniuses, they praise the system to the skies. Capitalism has proved its superiority. The Free Market is the system nature intended. Which is why Americans must never let socialism in any form sneak into our way of life: neither as socialized medicine, nor as handouts to the poor. Free Market medicine must be allowed to work. Though some may suffer from a "correction" here and there, this is the only medicine that ever has, or ever will produce a cure. It must be swallowed.

But then the housing market goes bad. People start to default on payments. "Subprime" loans are suddenly in the toilet, increasingly joined there by everyone, including the banks themselves. No one, not even the big boys, can get credit.

"Help," they cry. "The government must help. The Fed must help." And of course the government does, pouring billions of new currency into the system. And the Fed goes it one better, cutting interest rates despite its recent warnings about the dangers of inflation. And Wall Street breathes a sigh of relief, singing hosannas in the highest:

"The system works,"they crow. Look how we’re rebounding.

Excuse me? The system works? By bailing out the fools who pushed credit on everything with a pulse able to sign its name? By rewarding those who committed the unpardonable crime in capitalism—taking high-stakes, stupid risks? Isn’t capitalism supposed to punish precisely this kind of failure? Isn’t that what the free market is about—correcting by ruthless pruning every venture that does not turn a profit?

Well yes, but that’s when the mistakes are made by the lower classes. By the poor. By the underprivileged. When the gaffes are made by the ruling classes, however, by the brokers and bankers and CEO’s, well that’s a different story. Then the government is obliged to step in and save the system. Save those who run the system. Save those who game the system, but whose gaming is sanctioned because after all, they are the important ones, the prominent ones, the ones who own the ones who make the laws.

It is to laugh. It is to puke. It is to make one want to blow the house down, and the entire population out of its stupor. The system is rigged, folks. And all the rosy talk about free markets and our capitalist way of life—it’s all designed to keep the rubes running on the treadmill for as long as possible, while the money boys rake in the cash and salt it away in anticipation of what they know (because they’re doing all the stealing) must be the inevitable collapse.

Free market? More like a free-for-all. As long as you’re on the inside with your fingers in the till, that is.

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Hard-Wired for Empathy

The dominant notion of modern economics, and hence of life itself, is that humans are basically selfish beings, interested only in advancing their own welfare. Even if altruism were to be granted, so this theory goes, it can be reduced to the same selfish dynamic: we help others only if we expect something in return, or to prop up our egos by telling ourselves how generous we are. The metaphor which sums up this attitude is the "Selfish Gene," first proposed by Richard Dawkins. To wit, we are run by our genes, and genes are designed only to reproduce more of themselves than other, competing genes. Advancing ourselves economically, usually at the expense of other competitors, is critical to this genetic race.

What follows from this is the alleged primacy of certain attitudes that benefit us in this race. Most prominent is the ability/need to ignore the welfare or feelings of others who may be affected by our striving for self-advancement. Be it businessmen who run companies or politicians who run governments, the direct effects which include killing or maiming or poisoning large numbers of people as well as the environment itself, all can comfort themselves by knowing that this is as it should be, must be. Everyone is required to look out for number one. To feel for those who may be hurt by one’s drive for dominance is to cripple one’s ability to thrive or even survive.
Since at least the Reagan era, and going back to the social Darwinists, all of this has become so self-evident as to need no proof or argument. It’s just the way it is. Just the way we are. Economics proves that we are economic beings.

Recently, however, studies by animal biologists and the results of brain imaging have begun to demonstrate that this view is partial at best, and, more likely, fundamentally wrong. Scientists are discovering that empathy for others, far from being an aberration, or the product of cultural/religious training, is built in not only to all humans, but probably all primates as well. We are empathetic and thereby altruistic not because we’ve internalized religiously-inculcated fears about everlasting punishment for the selfish, but rather because primates, and possibly many other animals, are hard-wired to have concern for the other. As Daniel Goleman puts it in his recent book, Social Intelligence (Bantam:2006), Our brain has been preset for kindness. Most of us will go to the aid of a screaming child without thinking. Our reactions happen instantly and without premeditation. As Goleman puts it, "That this flow from empathy to action occurs with such rapid automaticity hints at circuitry dedicated to this very sequence." (p. 60)

Franz deWaal is an animal biologist who has written about this propensity for empathy that we share with primates (Frans deWaal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton U Press: 2006) He argues specifically against what has been the dominant view among philosophers—to wit, that there exists between humans and all other animals a break or gap, a gap which is signaled most decisively by the fact that we humans exhibit morality, whereas animals don’t. The point has been made by philosophers and by virtually all religions: humans are special, we are the special creatures of God, and as such, fundamentally different and separate from all other life. DeWaal, contrarily, argues that morality is a trait that has evolved, and like all other evolved traits, it has its origins in other (what we call "lower") forms of life. In this case, morality is an outgrowth of empathy, and empathy has now been observed widely among primates like chimpanzees. DeWaal cites some remarkable studies and observations to prove his point.
For example:

"Wechkin et. al (1964)...found that rhesus monkeys refuse to pull a chain that delivers food to themselves if doing so shocks a companion. One monkey stopped pulling for five days, and another one for twelve days after witnessing shock delivery to a companion. These monkeys were literally starving themselves to avoid inflicting pain upon another." (deWaal, p. 29.)

To be sure, as deWaal points out, the inhibition about hurting another monkey was greater among individuals who were familiar with each other. But the inhibition pertained even among unfamiliar individuals. Anyone who has read the famous Milgram experiments done at Yale in 1960-62 (students as "teachers" instructed to shock "learners" were quite willing to do so if they were authorized to shock their peers as part of a "learning experiment". See, has to wonder if rhesus monkeys are not, in fact, more moral than humans.

DeWaal cites another observation that makes his point even more strongly. A female bonobo (a primate related to chimpanzees) was observed at an English zoo empathizing not with her own kind, but with a bird.

"One day, Kuni captured a starling. Out of fear that she might molest the stunned bird, which appeared undamaged, the keeper urged the ape to let it go...Kuni picked up the starling with one hand and climbed to the highest point of the highest tree where she wrapped her legs around the trunk so that she had both hands free to hold the bird. She then carefully unfolded its wings and spread them wide open, one wing in each hand, before throwing the bird as hard as she could towards the barrier of the enclosure. Unfortunately, it fell short and landed onto the bank of the moat where Kuni guarded it for a long time against a curious juvenile." (deWaal, p. 30)

DeWaal comments that what Kuni did was not only to empathize with another species, but conformed remarkably to what economist Adam Smith called "changing places with the sufferer." This is empathy, pure and simple. And in this case, it moves immediately to action—the attempt to help the bird fly, and then to guard it against harm.
DeWaal then cites one of Jane Goodall’s observations to the same effect:

"In some zoos, chimpanzees are kept on man-made islands surrounded by water-filled moats...Chimpanzees cannot swim and, unless they are rescued, will drown if they fall into deep water. Despite this, individuals have sometimes made heroic efforts to save companions from drowning--and were sometimes successful. One adult male lost his life as he tried to rescue a small infant whose incompetent mother had allowed it to fall into the water." (deWaal, p. 33)

DeWaal then goes on to cite a theory to account for this empathic behavior:

"...the core of the empathic capacity is a relatively simple mechanism that provides an observer (the "subject") with access to the emotional state of another (the "object") through the subject’s own neural and bodily representations." (deWaal, p. 37)

That is to say, when one animal sees another in distress, the neural and bodily representations of the first are automatically activated to match those of the second, i.e. the one in distress. The motor and autonomic systems (changes in heart rate, skin conductance, facial expression, body posture) of the two animals come into sync. As deWaal puts it:

"This activation allows the subject to get "under the skin" of the object, sharing its feelings and needs, which embodiment in turn fosters sympathy, compassion, and helping." (deWaal, p. 37)

Sympathy, compassion, and helping: are not these the essence of what we consider human, what we consider morality? This is precisely the case that deWaal makes. There exists in primates a simple "Perception-Action Mechanism which results in immediate, often unconscious state matching between individuals." According to deWaal, all higher levels of empathy (understanding the reasons for the other’s emotions; adopting the other’s perspective) build on this "hardwired basis."

It is precisely this "hardwired basis" for empathy that has been increasingly observed and isolated in the primate brain. Here we return to Goleman’s summary of recent research. In a chapter called "Neural Wi-Fi," Goleman relates the story of how brain researchers discovered, quite by accident, the phenomenon known as "mirror neurons." Neuroscientists were "mapping sensorimotor areas of monkeys’ brains by using electrodes so laser-thin they could be implanted in single brain cells, and seeing which cell lit up during a specific movement." This was remarkable enough. But, as Goleman tells it, the surprise came

"when a research assistant came back from a break eating an ice-cream cone. The scientists were astonished to see a sensorimotor cell activate as one monkey watched the assistant lift the cone to his lips. They were dumbfounded to find that a distinct set of neurons seemed to activate when the monkey merely observed another monkey--or one of the experimenters--making a given movement." (Goleman, p. 41)

These same "mirror neurons" were subsequently found in the human brain. In a 1999 study by W.D. Hutchinson and his colleagues, an electrode monitoring "a single neuron in an awake person" was observed to fire not just when "the person anticipated pain—a pinprick—but also when merely seeing someone else receive a pinprick." Goleman calls this a neural snapshot of primal empathy in action. And indeed it is. Because what these experiments are demonstrating is that human brains are hardwired to feel empathy for others even before our celebrated cerebral cortex—our thinking brain—is able to decide it would be a "moral" thing to do. As Giacomo Rizzolati, the Italian neuroscientist who discovered mirror neurons has recently put it: these systems "allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation; by feeling, not by thinking." (Giacomo Rizzolatti, in Sandra Blakeslee, "Cells that Read Minds," NY Times, 1/10/06; cited in Goleman, p. 43)

This attunement of humans, brain to brain, constitutes a literally mind-bending confirmation of the human (and primate) propensity to empathize, to resonate with the emotional or physical condition of an other. Much of the primal activity seems to take place in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with emotions and feelings like anger and fear. If a research subject is shown a photograph of a human face expressing fear, the amygdala instantly reacts to mimic the same fear. Goleman refers to this (especially in its usual face-to-face occurrence) as "contagion" between brains:

"Moments of contagion represent a remarkable neural event: the formation between two brains of a functional link, a feedback loop that crosses the skin-and-skull barrier between bodies." (Goleman, p. 39)

This can also be described as resonance, the "sympathetic vibration" of two brains matching each other "outside our awareness." The fact that it requires no attention or intention is a testament to the sheer speed of this brain matching:

"…the amygdala spots signs of fear in someone’s face with remarkable speed, picking it up in a glimpse as quick as 33 milliseconds, and in some people even in a mere 17 milliseconds (less than 2/100ths of a second.) This quick read attests to the hyperspeed of the low road, so fast that the conscious mind remains oblivious to that perception..."(Goleman, p. 40).

Thus the examples cited at the outset: when we see someone in distress, the hardwired parts of our brain resonate to match that distress, and we are moved to empathy, compassion, and helpful action. As Goleman concludes, though the Media constantly bombard us with examples of selfishness, indifference to suffering, and cruelty, the actual ratio of benevolence to meanness on any given day is overwhelmingly positive.

The impact of these studies seems to me profound. It is not "natural," as we are constantly told, to be selfish, rapacious humans necessarily indifferent to the suffering caused by our drive to "have it all now." Even rhesus monkeys will refuse to accept rewards if it means causing pain to another monkey. Nor is it natural or even tolerable to the average human being to don a military outfit and execute orders to kill, maim, torture or vaporize other human beings. Doing so requires the cerebral cortex to override, blunt, and even disable the natural human tendency to empathize with another’s pain. It requires some leader or group of leaders to assure his soldiers that the other is evil, and therefore undeserving of our empathy or consideration.

From a more positive angle, brain studies cited by the Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard in his book Happiness (Little Brown: 2003), indicate that, in fact, empathy, compassion, and altruism are the source of brain activity of a type that Ricard associates with "happiness." He cites Richard Davidson’s report that,

"During meditation on compassion, most experienced meditators showed a dramatic increase in the high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves, "of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature." (Ricard, p. 191)

These gamma waves are focused in a part of the brain called the left middle frontal gyrus. Here is what Ricard, himself a former cell biologist, writes about this activity:

"Davidson’s research had already shown that this part of the brain is a focal point of positive emotions and that fluctuations in its balance are generally modest. But the data drawn from the experiments with meditators were striking. As they began meditating on compassion, an extraordinary increase of left prefrontal activity was registered. Compassion, the very act of feeling concern for other people’s well-being, appears to be one of the positive emotions, like joy and enthusiasm." (Ricard, p. 194)

What Ricard adds to the above discussion of empathy, then, is that not only are humans hardwired for empathy, but that empathy and compassion for others—which lead directly to helping others, or altruism—form the true basis for human happiness. Happiness to Ricard does not mean pleasure, usually for ourselves. For though we can gain some short-term pleasure at the expense of others, we cannot gain lasting happiness thereby. Real happiness, according to Ricard’s study of it, is literally equivalent to altruism. Which is to say, by acting on our brain’s hardwired structure to exhibit concern for the wellbeing of others, we remain true to our real, our evolved human nature. As Ricard summarizes it:

"Living in harmony with that nature sustains the joy of life, while rejecting it leads to chronic dissatisfaction." (Ricard, p. 204)

Lawrence DiStasi

(NB: my interest in empathy was sparked by Gary Olson’s splendid article, "Hard-Wired for Moral Politics: Neuroscience and Empathy," Znet, May 20, 2007. I recommend it highly for a more wide-ranging discussion of the issues sketched here. See it at