Author Archives: Damon Isherwood

About Damon Isherwood

My obsession is science that sheds light on why we are the way we are. I realise that covers a pretty broad spectrum, but in particular it means I like to stay abreast of psychology, anthropology, genetics, neurobiology - even primatology - and see what they are saying about the human condition.

human soul

Science at Last Explains Our Soul

The Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith has provided the long awaited, first principal, biological explanation of the human condition, our capacity for so called ‘good and evil’. With the clarifying, biological explanation for why we humans became competitive, selfish and aggressive, it is now possible to look into and explain the rather elusive concept we refer to as our ‘soul’— our species’ instinctive memory of a time when our distant ancestors lived in a cooperative, selfless, loving, innocent state, or, as it is referred to metaphorically in the religious context of the Christian Bible, humanity’s time in the ‘Garden of Eden’.

human soulNot all scientists are necessarily adverse to grappling with religious concepts. Recently two quantum scientists have claimed that they can prove the existence of the soul, a quantum entity that acts as the program for the computer of our brain, and exists independently of the physical body after death. One psychologist says that the concept of soul is merely an extrapolation we make based on the duality that we experience between body and consciousness.

Neurobiologists and evolutionary psychologists hold that the soul, or at least a belief in it, evolved as an adaptation to bestow on the individual either an equanimity, or social trustworthiness that ultimately represented a competitive advantage.

Jungian psycho-analysts relate the concept of soul to the concept of the collective unconscious. Carl Jung himself described the collective unconscious as a “psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited.”

The Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith goes further and suggests that not only is our collective unconscious inherited, but it is in fact a genuinely altruistic instinctive orientation. This, he says, is the source of our moral guidance, the voice of which is our conscience, and which we have learnt to call our ‘soul’.

Griffith says that having a selfless instinctive orientation is a truth that humanity could not admit to until we could first explain the crux problem on Earth of the human condition, the dilemma of our capacity for so called ‘good and evil’. This dilemma has troubled the human mind since we first became fully conscious, thinking beings: are humans essentially ‘good’ and, if so, what is the cause of our ‘evil’, destructive, insensitive and cruel side? Until this could be explained, and humans defended, admitting to a selfless instinctive heritage has simply been too confronting of our present selfish and destructive state.

Griffith has at last explained the human condition; and it turns out the explanation is simple: our brains are made up of two different ‘learning systems’; one is a gene-based system, our instincts, a learning system we share with all other animal species, while the other is a nerve-based system—our conscious intellect which is unique to us humans. When our intellect began to develop and challenge our already well-established instincts for control of our minds, a terrible battle broke out between these two learning systems, the effect of which was the extremely competitive, selfish and aggressive state that we call the human condition.

With the defence of our aggressive, selfish state established, Griffith says that it is now safe to admit that we have selfless instincts; and to explain that they were instilled in our primate ancestors through a process he calls ‘love-indoctrination’. Our ape ancestors lived in conditions conducive to extending the period that their offspring spent in infancy, and there was an opportunity for selection for greater and more intense levels of maternalism (where a mother protects her offspring in order to ensure the survival of her own genes). This combination of an extended, nurturing infancy and more maternal mothers then resulted in dependant infants in-effect being ‘trained’ in selfless behaviour, because to an observer such as a child, the mother’s maternalism appears to be selfless behaviour, she appears to be giving her offspring food, warmth, shelter, support and protection for apparently nothing in return. From her infant’s perspective, this is real, unconditional love and the infant’s brain is being indoctrinated in that behavior. Griffith says that if you apply this training across all the members of the group, the result is an unconditionally selflessly behaved, cooperative, fully integrated society. And then, with this training in unconditional selflessness occurring over many generations, the unconditionally selfless behaviour will become instinctive–a moral soul will be established and our genes will inevitably follow and reinforce that development process.

Griffith sites religious texts and classical and modern literature to support his theory. Most scientists attempt to disenfranchise arts and religion as legitimate sources of insight into the human condition. For example in his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth, E.O. Wilson says that, “The intricate distortions of the mind may be transmitted by the arts in fine detail, but they are constructed as though human nature never had an evolutionary history. Their powerful metaphors have brought us no closer to solving the riddle than did the dramas and literature of ancient Greece.”

With regard to religion, Wilson says bluntly: “Religion can never solve the riddle. The creation myth is a Darwinian device for survival.”

However Griffith says it makes sense that the works of art, philosophy and religion that have resonated down through the ages have done so, not because they were survival tools, but because they contained profound truth about our condition. For example, Griffith says the following lines from Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, corroborates that humans have altruistic instincts (which Wordsworth equates with a ‘heavenly’ state), which are then later buried by our consciousness:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Griffith also finds corroboration in the metaphor of the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve taking the fruit of the tree of knowledge, a story central to the Abrahamic traditions, arguing that it contains the same truths as those expressed by Wordsworth – that we have a selfless instinctive heritage, and that an emerging consciousness later came into conflict with our instinctive state.

With the scientific explanation of the human condition now found, these texts are revealed to be profound, which is not surprising, because we have always been intuitively aware of our condition.

[image source]

What are the 8 Stages of Life?

Self-awareness is surely the key to a life lived in full, which is why the ancient’s great challenge to themselves was, ‘Man, know thyself!’ With the emergence of the work of the biologist Jeremy Griffith, we are now in a position to at last, ‘know ourselves’!
Some of history’s greatest thinkers have attempted to step back from the minutia of their own lives in order to better see what it is that they share with all humans. With a knowledge of what it is that is universal in all our lives, they then tried to create a ‘chart of life’ that we could all refer to to help us better navigate the reefs and shoals of the human condition.

Hippocrates (he of Hippocratic Oath fame) was one of the first to attempt such a chart, but did not get beyond dividing the ages of man into Infant, Child, Boy, Youth, Man, Elderly and Old. Shakespeare went further when he wrote his famous “all the worlds a stage” speech, listing what have become known as the Seven Stages of Man. They start with the infant, 
“Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms” and end, rather bleakly, with old age, which Shakespeare describes as, “second childishness and mere oblivion,
 Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Freud of course, thought it was all about sex, and put forward five psychosexual stages, which charted our libido as we grew into sexual maturity.
The developmental psychologist Eric Erickson thought that the human lifespan was best characterised by eight stages of the ego’s development in wisdom. Lawrence Kohlberg thought that moral development was the best way to chart a life’s passage.

The definitive chart of life’s stages is produced by the biologist Jeremy Griffith. Griffith explains that understanding the development of consciousness is the key to understanding each stage of our lives. Moreover, each stage of the individual’s life is a reflection of the stages of development that humanity as a whole has progressed through over millions of years. He explains, “This parallel occurs because the stages that we, as conscious individuals, progress through are the same stages our human ancestors progressed through—‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’: our individual consciousness necessarily charts the same course that our species’ consciousness has taken as a whole. Wherever consciousness emerges it will first become self-aware, then it will start to experiment with its power to effectively understand and thus manage change, then it will seek to understand the meaning behind all change, and from there it will obviously try to comply with that meaning. In the case of consciousness developing in us individually and in our ancestors, that journey was disrupted by our necessary search for the understanding of why we did not comply with the integrative, cooperative meaning of existence.” (Freedom Book 1: The Biology). Key to Griffith’s exposition is that the reason that humanity has not been able to ‘comply with the integrative, cooperative meaning of existence’ is because the emerging conscious mind unavoidably came into conflict with our already established instincts and as a result we became increasingly ‘upset’ both as a species, and as individuals. Griffith describes having to live in a state of guilt as a result of not being able to explain our non-ideal behaviour, not being able to explain the human condition.

You may feel confronted by the honesty of Griffith’s descriptions, but, read in the broad context that Griffith presents them, that humans have been breathtakingly heroic in persevering with the task of mastering consciousness, despite the criticism it has attracted from our instinctive self, they are ‘enlightening’—through Griffith’s biological understanding of these stages we can, individually and as a species, now mature from ‘insecure adolescence to secure adulthood’.

So to very briefly summarise the eight stages that characterise our individual lives and the development of our species:

1. Infancy. The species: our early ape ancestors, including Sehalanthropus, Orrorin and Ardipithecus—12 to 4 million years ago; the individual—0 to 3 years old
Infancy is when humans become sufficiently conscious, sufficiently aware of cause and effect to realize that ‘I exist’—that we as individuals are at the center of constantly changing experiences.

2. Childhood. The species: Australopithecus—4 to 1.3 million years ago; the individual—4 to 11 years old
Childhood follows as our emerging consciousness begins to experiment in self-adjustment and manage events to its own chosen ends. From the time when the intellect becomes sufficiently able to understand the relationship between cause and effect to begin actively experimenting–‘playing’–with the conscious power to self-manage and self-adjust; to when the intellect becomes demonstrative of the power of free will and experiences its first encounter with the frustrations of a conflict with the instincts, which is the human condition. Mistakes are made by a mind trying to reason how to behave, a degree of ‘nastiness’ creeps into the conscious self’s behavior, mild anger and egocentricity starts to appear in retaliation to the criticism emanating from the instincts. Reassurance is sought in this confusing and turbulent time and a resistance to the inevitable process of ‘growing up’ is present.

3. Early Adolescence. The species: the first half of Homo habilis’ reign—2 to 1.5 million years ago; the individual—12 and 13 years old.
The early stages of adolescence encompass the time when we encounter, in earnest, the sobering imperfections of life under the duress of the human condition. We realize that lashing out in exasperation at the ‘injustice of the world’ doesn’t change anything and that the only possible way is to find answers for our frustrations. “The child matures from a frustrated, extroverted protestor into a sobered, deeply thoughtful, introverted adolescent.” (Freedom Book 1: The Biology)

4. Late Adolescence. The species: the second half of Homo habilis’ reign—2 to 1.5 million years ago. The individual—14 to 21 years old.
Through this time adolescents struggle with the depression that engaging the issue of the human condition, both ‘without’ and ‘within’ causes . Eventually, finding no answers, we have no choice other than to resign to living in denial of the issue and to blocking out any thinking that brought that issue into focus, a process Griffith terms ‘Resignation’. Having finally adjusted ourselves to the reality of life, young adults then ‘get on with’ getting on in life.

5. Our 20s. The species: Homo erectus—1.5 to 0.5 million years ago; The individual—21 to 30 year old.
Initially naïve to all that life encompasses our enthusiasm for daring to take on adventure is infectious and that adventure becomes one of two positives that the 20 year old can find sustenance in (the other being romance). Hence the significance of the long-held tradition in Western societies to hold a so-called ‘coming of age’ party for offspring when they reached this milestone, at which they were typically given a ‘key’ symbolizing that they were at last ready to leave home and ‘face the world’, and so with a big kiss from Mum and a slap on the back from Dad the young adult sets off to see what life holds for them. By now deeply committed to the task of proving ourselves in the world, our 20s is a time of exploration and discovery, all the while learning more about the corruption in the world and the corruption within ourselves. Our 20s show a rapid decline in innocence and naïvety as the realities of life under the duress of the human condition become realized and the innocence of childhood a distant memory.

6. Our 30s. The species: Homo sapiens—0.5 million (500,000) to 0.05 million (50,000) years ago. The individual: 30 to 40 years old.
The more we search for knowledge the more angry, egocentric and alienated (what Griffith refers to as the ‘upset’ in humans), we become and by the time we reach 30 our frustration arising from our inability to prove our self worth is countered by a layer of self-restraint, or what we call ‘civility’. We are forced to accept that the corrupting life of seeking power, fame, fortune and glory was not going to be a genuinely meaningful and thus satisfying way of living. We now had to learn to restrain our upset and develop a “calm, controlled, even compassionate and considerate exterior” (Freedom Book 1: The Biology).

7. Our 40s. The species: Homo sapiens sapiens—0.05 million (50,000) years ago to the present day; The individual—40 to 50 years old.
Having become extremely upset and disenchanted with our efforts to ‘conquer the world’, we enter our 40s and the ‘mid-life crisis’–this crisis of confidence resulted in a decision to take up support of some form of ‘idealism’ in order to make ourselves feel better about our corrupted state. Griffith says that this relieving, ‘born-again’, ‘feel good’, ‘warm inner glow’, ‘blissed out’ positive of having restrained our upset and behaved in a ‘good’ or ideal or cooperative way became the entire focus of our existence.

8. Our 50s and beyond. The species: Homo sapiens sapiens’—0.05 million (50,000) years ago to the present day; The individual—50 plus years old.
Our 50s see us become so disillusioned with the extreme dishonesty of our 40s born-again state that we return to our old ways of seeking fame, fortune and glory, but by now extremely cynical and angry. This is sobering indeed, BUT it must be remembered that Griffith presents these descriptions in the context that it has been heroic for humans to endure self-corruption in order to champion our emerging consciousness and in fact solve the crux question facing our species of the human condition; of ‘are we worthwhile beings or blights on the planet?’, allowing us to finally reach mature adulthood where we no longer have to endure these torturous stages under the duress of the human condition. Looked at from this macro perspective each stage is a celebration of humanity’s courage in the face of extreme odds to bring clarity and understanding to the core of who we really are, thus bringing about a transformation of the human race.

To read the full account of these stages by Jeremy Griffith, and understand just why humans’ had to endure self-corruption in order to champion consciousness, visit:

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Bono’s thoughts on outer space lead to thoughts on inner space

Bono of U2 recently let it be known that he was a student of astrophysics (yes, truly!). Upon meeting the 2012 Nobel Prize winner for physics Brian Schmidt, Bono demonstrated a thorough understanding of Schmidt’s work on the evidence for an accelerating universe.

More and more over the last 100 years, scientists have been theorising about the very beginning of the universe – most of us have heard of the Big Bang – and also theorising about how it will end. These theories relate to lengths of time, and concepts that are so removed from the battles of our day to day ordinary lives that there is a kind of disconnect, and as a result we find it hard to understand how these theories could possibly be relevant to our lives. It was the late Douglas Adams’ genius to be able to identify this gulf and turn it into comedy gold, which he did in his famous ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ books.


photo via

photo via

For example, thinking that the end of the universe would really be something to see, Adam’s imagination promptly put a restaurant there, right on the edge of the universe’s end, thinking that diner’s would be drawn to the spectacle. He called the restaurant Milliway’s, and patrons from all over the universe came to come to enjoy the view (while they enjoyed a pleasant meal at a reasonable price!).

However, to astrophysicists imagining how the universe must end is a matter of great importance. Brian Schmidt, Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess’s recent Nobel prizes were awarded for work that showed the universe is not only expanding but that it is expanding at an accelerating rate. Up until recently it was thought that the rate of expansion of the universe must be slowing – which would seem a reasonable assumption given that gravity from the denser, middle part of the universe should be pulling on the matter out toward the edges, and having a braking effect. 

However Schmidt and co’s calculations show that instead of contracting, the universe is actually expanding at an ever increasing rate. If they are right the implication is that the universe will eventually be so spread out it will be a very lonely place indeed: “Human beings will look to an empty universe in 100 billion years, as all the galaxies will fade away except the Milky Way we live in,” said Schmidt. It should be noted that such an outcome would not bode well for Milliway’s.

The reason for this acceleration remains shrouded in mystery. Scientists employ the concept of ‘dark matter’ to explain it, although it turns out that what dark matter actually is is shrouded in mystery.

Schmidt said, “We don’t know how dark energy is generated. It seems to be a part of the fabric of space itself. So dark energy makes more space, and more space makes more dark energy, which then makes more space. The universe runs away because of the stuff.” It is not too much of a stretch to describe dark energy as a construction of convenience – something to fill the gaps in our understanding, just as it theoretically fills the gaps in the universe.

Whatever dark matter actually is, its influence isn’t confined to galaxies – it has also influenced previous theories that once held favour, which have now been consigned to the wastebasket because of it. The Big Crunch is one notable casualty.

The Big Crunch was where the outward momentum from the Big Bang was finally arrested by gravity’s influence, and things then started to contract. Slowly at first, then faster and faster until, well…there is a big crunch.

It is a pity that the Big Crunch looks unlikely, because others had speculated that the Big Crunch might very well lead to another Big Bang. Adherents of this theory know it as the Big Bounce – a name that Adams would have been hard pressed to improve on.

Biology would appear to be a long way from astrophysics, but there is a new breed of biologists who posit that the law of physics known as negative entropy is a process that governs not only the development of galaxies but is behind the phenomenon of life as well (the physicist Erwin Schrödingerintroduced the concept of negentropy in his 1944 book What is Life?).

Negative entropy is where open systems progress toward ever greater order by using energy from outside their system. Thinkers as disparate as Teilhard de ChardinIlya PrigoginePaul Davies and Jeremy Griffith see its influence operating at both ends of the spectrum: from the formation of galaxies, to the stirrings of life.

However the biologist that stands out from this group is the Australian Jeremy Griffith. While Griffith agrees that negative entropy is fundamental to understanding what life is, he is the only one to draw attention to the obvious disparity between this progression toward order in open systems, and the behaviour of humanity, namely humanity’s propensity to destructiveness, or less order. Indeed Griffith says “the real frontier for the human race–and most particularly for its designated vehicle for enquiry, science.” The real frontier, he says “was never outer space but inner space, the search for understanding of the human condition.”  He also suggests that understanding the ‘human condition’, our historical state of insecurity at being unable to reconcile the so-called good and evil within, is a necessary first step in allowing us to think effectively about all manner of things, saying that “finding understanding of our less-than-ideally-behaved, troubled condition is the crucial insight we need… [which will] enable us to safely entertain deeper thoughts on life, in particular thoughts such as what is life all about, [and] what is the meaning of life.”.

So while outer space certainly has some romance and excitement about it, and the thought of sitting in Milliway’s looking out over the edge of the abyss, with galaxies whirling to their death in the background, sure does give a tingle down the spine, it is in fact an avoidance of the real issue which is our own less-than-ideal behaviour. Beneath the humour of Douglas Adams was an acute awareness of the truth of what Griffith says, that without understanding ourselves first, everything else is folly.

A cave painting in Jebel Acacus, modern day Lybia. Along with many other, this painting is 12 000 years and is among some of the best works found anywhere else in the world. source

The Nature of War – We Are Not Programmed to Violence

Controversy surrounds biologist E.O. Wilson’s latest publication ‘The Social Conquest of Earth’. Most of it centres on his repudiation of kin selection and the question of whether or not its replacement, group selection, actually works. What most of the debate overlooks is Wilson’s contention that humans have evolved violent instincts from a past of warfare that he describes as “universal and eternal”.

This assumption that our evolutionary history is warlike is not unique to Wilson – it is implicit in most evolutionary pyschology. In turn these theories rely upon primatology and anthropology to connect supposed current instincts with those of ‘violent’ ape ancestors. Raymond Dart was the first to put forward such a link, when in the 1950s he put forward his killer ape theory that argued for the “predatory transition from ape to man”. Later Robert Ardrey wrote that “man has emerged from the anthropoid background for one reason only: because he was a killer.”

Recently, the anthropologist and primatologist Richard W. Wrangham has sought to provide a more sophisticated mechanism that connects human behaviour with that of our primate ancestors. In his paper ‘Evolution of Coalitionary Killing’ Wrangham puts forward the chimpanzee violence hypothesis, which says that “selection has favoured a tendency among adult males to assess the costs and benefits of violence, and to attack rivals when the probable net benefits are sufficiently high.” This instinct he says, is behind much of our current warfare.

Countering theories, such as Jeremy Griffith’s theory of the human condition, which holds that humans evolved genuinely cooperative instincts, and that our current violent state has a psychological basis, are extremely rare.

What then is the evidence?

We know through archeological discoveries, as well as pictorial records, that the Holocene Epoch (from the present to approximately 12,000 years ago) was characterised by warfare; however similar finds from the Paleolithic are almost non-existent.

A cave painting in Jebel Acacus, modern day Lybia. Along with many other, this painting is 12 000 years and is among some of the best works found anywhere else in the world. source

A cave painting in Jebel Acacus, modern day Lybia. Along with many other, this painting is 12 000 years-old and is among some of the best works found anywhere else in the world.  Source

The Paleolithic (covering a lot of what is colloquially known as the stone age) is that period of time that stretches back from the start of the Holocene to some 2.5 million years ago. If violence and the propensity to war are instincts inherited from our ape ancestors, we would expect to find a continuation of evidence leading all the way back to those ancestors. Indeed, if our instincts were formed by “universal and eternal” warfare as Wilson claims, then the Palaeolithic should abound with evidence of interpersonal violence, just as the Holocene does.

In looking for evidence of violence, there are three main sources that scientists rely upon. I. J. N. Thorpe describes them as: “the existence of weapons, depictions of warfare, and skeletal remains demonstrating conflict”.

Of these, the most incontrovertible are skeletal remains demonstrating conflict  because they have weapons or artefacts lodged in them, or injuries that could only have been incurred from early human weapons–this is gold standard evidence if you like.

While it is not exhaustive, nor entirely ‘gold standard’, the following lists most of the accepted archaeological finds from Palaeolithic times that might indicate interpersonal violence:

250 k.a. BP. Sima de los Huesos, Spain. At least 32 skeletons. Several skulls have healed impact fractures. It remains unclear whether this find is evidence of warfare.

90 k.a. BP. Kasies River, South Africa. A healed skull fracture is argued to be from an attack.

50 k.a. – 12 k.a. BP. There are a number of multiple burial sites e.g. at Predmosti in Moravia where 20 individuals were buried. There is argument whether this was due to lethal conflict or disease or starvation.

13 k.a. BP. San Teodoro cave in Sicily. Woman with a flint point in her iliac crest.

13 k.a. BP. Grotta de Canciulli France. Child with a flint in its Thoracic vertebra.

12 k.a. BP Jebel Sahaba Nile where. 59 burials or which 24 skeletons had flint points embedded in the bones or found within the grave fill. The excavator of the site suggests that environmental pressure and vanishing resources were the cause of the violence.

I.J.N. Thorpe argues that if a bioligical theory of violence such as Wrangham’s chimpanzee violence hypothesis did hold, then even taking into account the vagauries of archeological research, there should be common and uniform evidence of violence across cultures and time. Thorpe says: “The biological theories imply a constant level of violence, not supported by the archeological evidence, which demonstrates significant variations in evidence for conflict from virtually none to apparent massacres.

However beyond the skeletal evidence, the artistic evidence (or lack thereof) is perhaps even more compelling. During the Holocene, war dominated all artistic records, both pictorial and mythic. This domination makes the lack of any such pictorial record during the Paleolithic even more notable. This is an extraordinary distinction. The palaeobiologist R. Dale Guthrie, arguably the world’s leading authority of Palaeolithic art, comes to this conclusion: “This shortcut to stored bounty by raiding the wealth of others became a universal tribal phenomenon: warring conflicts constitute most of recorded and mythic Holocene history. But Palaeolithic art shows no drawing of group conflict, and there is virtually no indication from late Palaeolithic skeletons of murderous violence.” (underlining mine)

In summary, biological theories of violence and aggression, such as that put forward by E.O. Wilson in support of group selection, presuppose uniform and consistent levels of violence; however the evidence does not support this. On the contrary, the evidence is that while some violence exists in extant chimpanzees, the behavioural history of hominins was almost entirely violent-free before 12,000 years ago. The conclusion that is hard to escape is that our propensity for violence is not instinctive, and that we need to look elsewhere for its cause.