When I was a kid I much preferred the company of dinosaurs to that of other human beings. Even before I could read, my father would drive the family to the American Museum of Natural History on Sundays. Like many kids I assumed people had evolved from dinosaurs. Oh, to be a T. Rex again and throttle those neighborhood bullies! A few years later I would subway to the museum on Saturdays with a sketch pad and copy the famous drawings of Charles R. Knight. It didn’t take long to find out that people had actually evolved from small mouse-like mammals that had scrambled underneath the vast hulking reptiles, a line of animals that ironically was older than the dinosaurs themselves. In nature, no matter how impressive the design, you didn’t win until the race was over.
Later still, I learned that evolution even permits two kinds of utter uselessness. One is the uselessness of an organ in transition, before it has given the species a competitive advantage — for example the feathers on running lizards before they become birds. The other is the uselessness of an organ that has ceased to be used but which isn’t otherwise detrimental — for example, our appendix.
The “wisdom” of evolution in the first case — to talk in a very old-fashioned way — is that it allows a kind of engineering to exist in nature. Not the kind where goals are sensed, but the kind where forms can peacefully migrate in different directions before the best contestant wins the bridge-building prize.
In the second case, transitional forms are tolerated because, although evolution is a primarily a game of economics, transitional forms often cost more to retire than to tolerate — like in-laws. Once the genetic programming is in place, it’s easier to keep reproducing appendices than to unravel the program without damaging the rest of the system. This is why many organs contain earlier renditions of very different organs within them. Cut open a whale’s flipper and you will find forelimbs. Denude a bat wing and you see the very large hand of a mouse.
Ever since I was five, I have used the idea of evolution to understand why unusual biological forms persist. If blind fish have eyes, for example, then at some point in the past their eyes must have served a purpose. I have never found an example of a feature which couldn’t be hypothetically understood in this way. And I believe that nature’s tolerance of vestigial biology carries over into human psychology as well. In the grab bag of vestigial psychology I would include our capacity for war, murder and criminal activity in general. These capabilities must have been useful in earlier times in circumstances which today are extraordinary, yet these capabilities are taking a long time to become extinct. And we clearly have an unquenchable nostalgia for those heroic days of yore, which is why our most popular movies celebrate stealing secrets from evil empires, blasting bad men to bits, and the glory of intergalactic war.
But while most of us do not exercise our capacity for murder and mayhem, many humanistic psychologists have pointed out the fact that modern man still seems more “armored” than a civilized society really requires. We are, according to this critique, riddled with “defense mechanisms” which, although they don’t prevent us earning a living and reproducing our kind, nevertheless constitute stumbling blocks to the building of the kind of open trusting society we are only now beginning to believe that we might someday be capable of. If anything like a utopia were ever to come about, it would have to be based on more trust than we are currently capable of, and that in turn would ask each of us to attain a level of trustworthiness we can’t currently imagine. Something like fifty percent of our economy is wasted on accounting and other self-imposed speed bumps that do nothing but cut down on the monkeyshines we haven’t yet programmed out of our system.
All of the above goes to explain why attending a talk group sponsored by the Ninth Street Center is like entering the proverbial Wild West saloon and leaving your gun at the door. We try to set a tone where defensiveness is frowned upon. We don’t tell people how to live, but we ask them not to be their own worst enemies by armoring themselves in self-defeating ways — at least not when we’re hosting the party.
Everybody likes the idea of learning and growing, of becoming a better human being, of making the world a better place for everyone. But none of us — not me, not you, not Paul Rosenfels — likes the feeling of denuding ourselves of instincts which have served to protect and defend us in situations where the potential for some kind of interpersonal abuse was in the air. It feels like jumping into a cold shower, or falling in love. We feel vulnerable in ways so new that they bring their own heightened levels of anxiety to the fore. Ironically, we usually don’t realize how defensive we are until some who cares about us gets in our face and says, “Stop it already?” In our society we are as unaware of our vestigial psychological defenses as we are unaware of bracing our shoulders when we squeeze into a crowded subway car.
It’s not that there aren’t good reasons for getting into the habit of defending ourselves, of course. The problem is two-fold: 1) life is approached at various levels, and 2) some people grow more than others. Life is composed not only of sadistic school teachers and cruel bosses, but sensitive offspring and loving mates — all of us tacitly adjust our defenses to suit the context. More importantly, some of us develop a more civilized approach to life over many years, partly by selecting more civilized people to be in our lives. As we develop a circle of friends worthy of deep trust, our defenses can bar entrance to realms of intimacy that are life-giving and delightful. We become our own worst enemies.
In the early days of the Center’s existence, when new people would sit in on our discussion groups and be shocked by our openness and candor and warmth, some of them would suddenly feel aghast at how inept their own performance was. Some of these decided they weren’t worthy of taking part and never came back. We heard about them from their friends or, years later, when they would overcome their self-loathing and decide to give themselves another chance, to risk being part of a bigger world once again.
Today, the first thing we tell people is to not be so hard on themselves. We live in an ignorant and immoral world, and it’s only natural if a lot of that ignorance and immorality seeps right into our bones. We ask them to be proud of being a member of a species that is capable of using its intellect to chose selectively which instincts, drives and other psychological resources to take seriously and which ones to leave on the shelf as a remnant of the primeval swamp.
We can never be dinosaurs again. The grandeur of mankind is not about our incredible arsenal of survival mechanisms, but our ability to find in ourselves the strength and wisdom to pick and choose from among the tools at hand — to not only plow with old weapons, but actually beat them into plowshares.