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Inequality Makes You Sick

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Reviews by Peter G. Prontzos

The Telomere Effect:
A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer
By Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel
Grand Central Publishing, January 2017

The Broken Ladder:
How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die
By Keith Payne, Viking, May 2017

In our hyper-individualistic and competitive culture, the dominant ideology claims each person is, overall, the master of their fate. As one Republican candidate for the 2012 U.S. presidency put it, if you are poor, “Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks…. blame yourself.”

Such views are not only heartless, they are demonstrably unscientific. As Dennis Raphael, a professor of health policy and equity at York University, explained (CCPA Monitor, November 2008): the “[s]ocial determinants of health are the primary determinants of whether individuals stay healthy or become ill.” They also decide “the extent to which a person possesses the physical, social, and personal resources to identify and achieve personal aspirations, satisfy needs, and cope with the environment.”

One of the most dramatic breakthroughs in health psychology and development is the discovery of the importance of telomeres, “repeating segments of non-coding DNA that live at the ends of your chromosomes”. Elizabeth Blackburn, who shared a Nobel Prize in 2009 for her research into telomeres, describes the fascinating process in her new book, co-authored by her colleague at the University of California (San Francisco), health psychologist Elissa Epel. In The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach To Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, Blackburn and Epel explain that, “aging is a dynamic process that can be accelerated or slowed, and in some aspects even reversed.” One key to aging is our telomeres, which normally get shorter each time a cell divides. However, under the right circumstances, our telomeres may actually get longer—and that can markedly improve a person’s health.

In the first part of the book we get a guide to the basics of aging, telomeres, and telomerase – an enzyme that can replenish telomeres. The second part describes how factors like stress, types of thinking and negative feelings can all affect the heath of your telomeres (and your genes). The authors provide a way for the reader to assess their own personal situation, and offer some “stress-reducing techniques shown to boost telomere maintenance.” Exercise, diet and metabolism are covered in more detail in part three, along with other methods for self-improvement. But it is in part four that the societal implications of this research become frighteningly clear.

In one chapter in this section, “Outside In: The Social World Shapes Your Telomeres,” the authors outline how social factors determine health outcomes, for better or worse. “People in neighborhoods with low social cohesion and who live in fear of crime have greater cellular aging,” while those who have the opportunity to spend more time in nature have lower levels of stress and the stress hormone cortisol.
Not surprisingly, higher exposure to toxic gases like carbon monoxide, and to pesticides, air pollution and dangerous chemicals at work, increases the risk to a person’s telomeres, with the negative consequences this can have for their chances to develop cancer and other deadly illnesses.

Cellular aging can even begin in the womb, linked to nutrient consumption and stress levels, and not just on the mother’s side. “[B]oth parents’ telomeres—at whatever length they are at the time of conception in the egg and sperm—are passed on to the developing baby (a form of epigenetics).”

The consequences of these findings are profound. Notably, we can now say the unhealthy effects of poverty, stress, inequality and similar social problems can be biologically embedded in our cells and passed on to our children, and even our grandchildren, so that “it is possible for the effects of social disadvantage to accumulated over the generations.” Adverse childhood events are not only psychologically damaging, they may play a part in shortening one’s telomeres, especially if the traumas are severe and/or continuous.

Hope lies partly in our body’s ability to heal itself. “Our genes are like computer hardware: we cannot change them. Our epigenome, of which telomeres are a part, is like software,” say Blackburn and Epel. We may be able to rewrite the program.

We know enough about the causes of both mental and physical illness to go beyond healing, to prevent most damage from happening in the first place. In their Telomere Manifesto, Blackburn and Epel list the steps we could take, today, to protect everyone: improve prenatal care, protect children from violence and other traumas, reduce inequality, eliminate toxins, and make sure everyone has access to fresh and healthy food.


In 2016, Oxfam made an almost unbelievable announcement: the richest 62 people in the world had as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population. But relatively speaking, those were good days for inequality. Oxfam’s follow-up report, released earlier this year, found that today just eight people are worth as much as the planet’s poorest 3.6 billion.

It’s not easy to put this wealth gap into perspective—the numbers are so enormous. But consider that you could easily fit those eight rich people into one of their (perhaps numerous) private jets, while there are about a billion people living across North, Central and South America. Yes, eight people own more wealth than three times the population of the entire Western Hemisphere.

Never has there been such inequality in the world. And as Keith Payne shows in his important new book, The Broken Ladder, it is deeply affecting how we live with each other and think about our fellow humans.

Payne, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, begins his book by showing how we (and our primate cousins) are hard-wired to react to perceptions of relative status and inequality. At the same time, we are prone to “fundamental attribution errors,” notably the assumption that another person’s successes and failures are mostly their own doing.

In 2012, note Payne, the average CEO in the U.S. “earned” about 350 times the average workers’ income. Attempts to justify such disparities are usually based on the claim that these executives add more value to their corporations than regular workers—another “fundamental attribution error” if I’ve ever seen one. Do these CEOs work 350 times harder than the average employee? Are 350 times smarter? Apparently not. “In one comprehensive analysis of thousands of corporations over nearly two decades…only about 5 per cent of the performance differences…could be attributed to the CEO,” writes Payne.

“The college graduate is smart. The drug addict is weak willed. The person shopping with food stamps is lazy,” writes Payne, listing some of those assumptions, which are frequently expressed openly in conservative dialogue but can linger in even the most progressive minds. “One reason it is so prevalent is that it is simply easier to think about people than situations.”

This social problem was dramatically revealed in Philip Zimbardo’s (in)famous “Stanford Prison Experiment”, in which college students were randomly assigned to be either “guards” or “inmates” in a pretend jail. The experiment had to be ended early because normal young people were so negatively affected by their roles: “guards” became brutal and even sadistic, “prisoners” were traumatized.

As Payne underlines, most attitudes and actions are, most of the time, “shaped by particular situations” rather than by individual disposition. Moreover – most of the time – we not only have very little control of situations, but almost no control over our thoughts and feelings, 99% of which are unconscious to begin with.

“Emotion can be even more powerful than thoughts,” writes Payne, while documenting how the constant psychological stress of poverty, racism and inequality can cause one’s body to get stuck in fight-or-flight mode, sometimes “for weeks, months, or years.” And that very unhealthy state can lead to inflammation, heart attacks and many other dangerous medical conditions.

The influential Whitehall study of British civil servants exposed a dramatic case of this phenomenon in action. There is a very clear hierarchy of power in the U.K. civil service, writes Payne, such that “even the difference between the highest-status government officials and those just one rung below was linked to increased mortality,” among other medical problems. These differences exist even though all of the subjects “have decent government jobs and the salaries, health insurance, pensions, and other benefits that are associated with them.”

“The workplace is where most people experience inequality most directly on a daily basis,” adds Payne, an observation that would not have surprised Karl Marx.

The unhealthy consequences of inequality hold true around the world. For example, citing research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, from their ground-breaking book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone, Payne points out that the most economically equal developed countries (Japan, Sweden and Norway) have fewer health and social problems than those countries with the greatest inequality. At the top (or bottom) of the scale is the United States, which has both the most inequality and is also the most unhealthy of all developed countries.

“For at least 40 years, research evidence has been accumulating that societies with larger income differences between rich and poor tend to have worse health and higher homicide rates,” write Wilkinson and Pickett in a study updating “The Spirit Level” that was just published in The Lancet. “More recently, this has been contextualized by findings that more unequal societies not only have higher rates of poor health and violence, but also of other outcomes that tend to be worse lower down the social ladder, including teenage births, lower math and literacy scores, obesity, and imprisonment.”

To sum up: inequality is not only harmful to almost everyone, but there is no justification for allowing it to continue.

As Social Ecologist Murray Bookchin pointed out decades ago—confirmed again and again by Oxfam’s stunning inequality reports—we have more than enough wealth and knowledge to provide everyone with a healthy social and natural environment. If, that is, we make this goal a political imperative.


Written by Peter

June 19th, 2017 at 2:02 am

Book review – Just Cool It! The Climate Crisis and What We Can Do

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By Peter G. Prontzos

The following is a review of Just cool it! The climate crisis and what we can do by David Suzuki and Ian Hanington, published by Greystone Books/David Suzuki Institute.

Two passages in the introduction to this book encapsulate the situation that confronts us as the effects of global warming become more serious every day. The first describes a scene right out of a horror movie: flying to Smithers a few years ago, David Suzuki looked out the window to see that the once-green forest beneath him “had turned bright red. Pine trees were dying because of an explosion of mountain pine beetles…no longer controlled by cold winter temperatures. Immense clouds of beetles attacked billions of dollars worth of pine trees…”

The second passage correctly states that the crisis is also a tremendous opportunity to “create a healthier and more just world for everyone.”

This dualistic approach is why the book is, ultimately, hopeful, even though it chronicles both the destruction that climate change is already causing to our environment and the much more severe devastation that awaits us—unless we act swiftly and decisively to address the causes. One problem is that we should have acted years—even decades—ago, to start moving towards a post-carbon world. The failure to do so means that the damage will continue to increase even if we ended all fossil fuel use today.

The book is, ultimately, hopeful, even though it chronicles both the destruction that climate change is already causing to our environment and the much more severe devastation that awaits us.

The book provides a clear synopsis of both the history of global warming as well as the rock-solid science behind it. In other words, climate change is not a hoax invented by China, as the current resident of the White House ignorantly claimed. (Nor is the fact that 2016 was the hottest year on record just “fake news”).

Suzuki and Hanington chronicle lesser-known sources of danger, such as the rise in emissions of methane, “a gas many times more potent than CO2” that increases as Arctic ice melts. (In December, a new study warned that “global warming triggered by the massive release of methane…may be apocalyptic.”)

Moreover, we almost never hear about the human costs of air pollution caused by such carbon sources as factories, automobiles, and the tar sands. The authors point out that just breathing our polluted air resulted in “21,000 premature deaths in Canada…as well as 620,000 doctor visits, 92,000 emergency room visits…and an annual economic impact of over $8 billion”—in 2008 alone.
Globally, air pollution kill 1.7 million children every year.

The authors point to the connection between human-caused climate change and other problems around the world, such as the growing numbers of refugees. For example, “drought and increasing water scarcity…along with an influx of Iraqi war refugees…caused Syria’s urban population to increase from 8.9 million…to 13.8 million.”

They also chronicle the efforts of the fossil fuel industry to try to pretend that global warming is not a problem and there is no need to restrict their harmful, and very profitable, practices. In arguing, for instance, that British Columbia should approve the plan to triple the shipping capacity of pipelines from the Alberta tar sands to Burnaby, Kinder Morgan explains that “spill response and cleanup creates business and employment opportunities for affected communities…” Indeed.

Such costs, both human and economic, are known as “externalities.” In other words, they are passed on from industry to the public, which is forced to pay the real price—both in dollars and disease—of these profitable corporate activities.

More importantly, Suzuki and Hanington provide a number of realistic ways that Canada could be a world leader in limiting the damage to our biosphere and transition to a truly sustainable future. (We are the second largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the world). They find hope in the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, even though the deal itself “will only get us halfway to the emission cuts” that are required to avoid catastrophe.

For real progress, the public must demand that all levels of government take seriously their highest duty—to protect the health and well-being of their citizens.

Lowering the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will not only reduce the damage to people and our environment, but it is also economically beneficial. In addition to reducing the costs of global warming, Canadians could create a host of new “green” industries—and hundreds of thousands of jobs—if we take the lead in the transition to the economy of the future. Employment would boom in such fields as renewable energy (e.g. wind, tidal, hydro, solar, geothermal), retrofitting homes with insulation, re-forestation, and providing adequate and inexpensive public transportation to give drivers a viable alternative when commuting.British Columbians could get the same amount of energy from geothermal sources as from the Site C dam, but “for about half the construction costs”, while also creating “more jobs throughout the province.”

[Note: since this review was written, a UBC study has concluded that the “Site C dam project has become ‘uneconomic’ and should be suspended” and that “..power from the hydroelectric station will likely be exported at losses of up to $1 billion.”]

As former (Republican!) California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger noted, his state is “40% more energy efficient than the rest of the country,” with an economy that is “growing faster than the US economy as a whole.”

For real progress, the public must demand that all levels of government take seriously their highest duty—to protect the health and well-being of their citizens. While personal solutions are crucial to reducing our unsustainable ecological footprints, BC ecologist William Rees correctly points out that “there are no individual solutions.” People must act at the political level to make real progress.

When faced with the threat of fascism in 1939, our governments did not hesitate to take charge of the economy in order to insure our survival. And even if there is only a 50% risk that unchecked global warming will be a disaster, consider this: would you board an airplane that had “only” a 50% risk of crashing?

This book is vital for anyone who wishes to both understand the danger and act to prevent the unthinkable.

– See more at:


Written by Peter

May 31st, 2017 at 12:38 am

Review: THE NEUROSCIENCE OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS. By Louis Cozolino (W.W. Norton & Co.)

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Review by Peter G. Prontzos

Although Buddha never claimed to be a neuroscientist, some insights which have been attributed to him resonate strongly with the findings of modern researchers. One of the most profound of these understandings is the idea that our deepest “self” is not a “thing”; rather, it is an on-going natural process, one which continues to evolve throughout one’s life.
In fact, it seems that a baby doesn’t have a substantial self when it is born. As Louis Cozolino explains in his remarkable book, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: “The awareness of being a separate and autonomous self appears to emerge gradually over the first decade of life…from how our brains construct our experience of others”.
He emphasizes how the quality of our relationships with our parents (and the other significant people in our lives) affects us more than we know. A primary reason that we are unaware of these most basic feelings about ourselves and the world is that they are formed when we are so young that they usually become unconscious “givens”. Nevertheless, they influence and guide “our moment-to-moment experiences” throughout our lives.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the survival and healthy development of infants and children depends, “on the abilities of their caretakers to detect the needs and intentions” of those who depend on them.
Cozolino, who is a clinical psychologist as well as a Professor at Pepperdine University, outlines how these early experiences also guide the construction of our brain and central nervous system. Our thoughts and feelings don’t just float around somewhere in our consciousness; rather, they are biologically embedded in the very structures and functions of our brain as it adapts to its environment – healthy or otherwise.
Hence his profoundly important point: “The brain is a social organ of adaptation built through interactions with others” [emphasis in original]. Nurturing connections create healthier brains in which the various areas are harmoniously integrated, while hormones, neurotransmitters, and other neurochemicals are present in the appropriate amounts. “This experience-dependent sculpting is accomplished through attunement and information exchange with the right hemispheres of the parents.”
This focus is based on the relatively new field of, “Interpersonal Neurobiology” (IPNB), in which the “social construction of the brain and the role of attachment relationships are particularly important…” The ramifications of this insight for our understanding of human nature in general, and the “self” in particular, are revolutionary; and they apply to adults as well as to children.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact of our early environment on the health of our growing brain. Indeed, that is one advantage to being born at a stage of development that is immature compared to other primates: it allows human infants more flexibility when it comes to adapting to their specific family situations.
This openness to our social environment means that the kind of person that we eventually become is, to a very significant extent, the result of the quality of our relationships in the early years. “The most important aspect of early attachment relationships”, Cozolino notes, “is the establishment of a sense of safety”.
A baby (or child) will obviously feel safer to the extent that more of its needs are met: to be held, to be fed when hungry, to experience warm interactions with its parents, and so on. Providing for these needs is a concrete demonstration of love, and a baby will thrive in such a nurturing social environment.
Healthy relationships create secure attachments between infants and caregivers, which also helps children to learn emotional self-regulation, reducing the tendency to overreact to negative situations.
Findings such as these, which show how much we are shaped by our experiences, undermine the simplistic form of genetic determinism which claims that our fate is overwhelmingly decided by our DNA. The more complex reality is that, as Cozolino elegantly explains, “Our brains are built in the enigmatic interface between experience and genetics, where nature and nurture become one”.
The author also points out the vital but often overlooked corollary that: “there are no single human brains – brains only exist within networks of other brains.” More specifically, the self develops as reflection of the interactions of three factors: our brain, our body, and our relationships with other people – along with the rest of the natural world.
That’s why it is impossible to understand a person outside of the social contexts in which they matured: their family, community, culture, and nation. (Einstein held the same view. In his essay, “Why Socialism?” he wrote that: “It is ‘society’ which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought”).
Cozolino employs the metaphor of our, “social synapse” in conveying his view of the nature of our personal interrelations. Just as each individual brain cell communicates with others via the spaces between them and no neuron could survive by itself, people build families and communities across social spaces in order to communicate, survive, and flourish.
Our high level of openness and sensitivity towards other people is the reason that we are both the most social, and the most adaptive, of all species. Cozolino suggests that, “our social brains emerged during natural selection because being social enhances survival.”
On the other hand, “the radical individualism of the West is one reason why we experience a higher incidence of psychological distress, drug addiction, and violence”. Social pain (isolation, rejection, and so on) is far from a trivial matter. Like physical pain, it is a sign that something is wrong and that we may be in danger. Pain demands that we pay attention to a threat. It is extremely significant that both physical and emotional pain are processed by the same neuroanatomical systems. In other words, social pain can be so powerful precisely because toxic relationships and/or social isolation are also serious dangers to our physical health.
That’s why, as Daniel Kahneman has argued, avoiding (both kinds of) pain is a stronger motivation than the attraction to pleasure. Cozolino puts it this way: “Based on the way our brains operate, evolution appears to have been far more interested in keeping us alive than making us happy.”
The book also discusses such critical issues as epigenetics, mirror neurons, stress, interpersonal trauma, social phobia, autism, healing relationships, and – of course – love:
“There is no doubt that evolution has shaped us to love one another…Loving relationships help our brains to develop, integrate, and remain flexible….And when the drive to love is thwarted – when we are frightened, abused, or neglected – our mental health is compromised.”
He also provides a number of moving stories about some of his patients to illustrate how real people develop – and often resolve – old hurts.
There is a fair amount of sometimes technical neuroscience in the book, and while the reader may choose to skip some of the more detailed accounts, even the relatively simpler ones can deepen and enrich one’s understanding of both the brain and of our shared humanity.
In Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, “No Exit”, one of the characters declares that, “hell is other people.” No doubt that is often all-too-true. Cozolino not only provides valuable insights for treating old wounds, but, much more importantly, he describes the kind of nurturing social environments that can prevent such the damage in the first place.


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June 28th, 2014 at 4:23 pm

The Trouble with Billionaires

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The Trouble with Billionaires

by Linda McQuaig & Neil Brooks

Viking Canada   $34.00


How much is a billion dollars?

For most of us, that number is more than we can imagine, so Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks have made it simple.  If you were given a dollar every second, it would take almost 32 YEARS to become a billionaire.

And if you are Bill Gates counting your fortune of $53 billion, you would be finished by now if you started counting in the year AD 330 – when Constantine was the emperor of Roman.

McQuaig and Brooks have put together a compelling picture of the real cost of the growing global inequality that has produced a record crop of billionaires – 1,011 at last count.

What the authors demonstrate is that, while the effects of the increasing gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else is deleterious to the economy as a whole, to the environment, and even to our health, “the issue of inequality and its consequences has largely disappeared from the public debate.”

They begin by providing examples of the absurdity of the situation.  For instance, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch defended giving $4 billion in executive bonuses in 2009 as necessary to retain the “best” advisors.  This was done “right after these same over-achievers had steered the company to a staggering net loss of $27 billion and in the process helped trigger the global economic meltdown.”

All in all, Wall Street bankers paid themselves a record $140 billion in 2009.

To put this into perspective, the twenty-five top hedge fund managers in 2009 “earned” an average of more than a billion dollars each – “more than 24,000 times that of the average American.”

But not to worry – these high-rollers are entitled to their fortunes because, in the words of Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, they are just “doing God’s work.”

McQuaig and Brooks explain why the existence of such extreme wealth is far from benign.  One problem is the extent to which such disparities are anti-democratic.  Concentrations of economic power translate into concentrations of political power.  The ways in which the wealthy few can undermine a democracy are legion, such as its control of the mass media, and by contributions (bribes) to political parties that support their interests (such as McDonalds donating to parties who oppose raising the minimum wage).

Then there’s the billionaire Koch brothers, whose oil wealth has been a principle support of the “Tea Party” in the U.S.  Not only do they advocate even lower taxes on the rich, but they oppose legislation to reduce global warming in their pursuit of higher profits.

One of the worst aspects of inequality is its negative effect on the health of those who are not well-off.  McQuaig and Brooks point out that “height is a good indicator of how well a society is creating conditions that allow its citizens to develop and thrive.”  By this measure, almost every nationality in the developed world, “French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Greek, Canadian, Singaporean, Swiss, Brazilian” is healthier than the average American.

(A recent study of life expectancy supports this conclusion, showing that the United States has dropped to 45th place in terms of life expectancy).

The authors demolish the arguments that are put forward to attempt to justify the fortunes paid to the elites, and they make a very powerful case that progressives need to focus their attention on inequality in general, rather than poverty in particular.

Their recommendations for a progressive tax system should be heeded by all who believe in fairness.  And democracy.


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March 17th, 2013 at 2:58 am


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Giving Peace A Chance

THE END OF WAR.  By John Horgan

McSweeney’s Books  224 pages, $25.50


All of us owe our lives to one man: Stanislav Petrov.

It was 1983, the height of Reagan’s “new” Cold War, and tensions between Washington and Moscow were unusually high.  Petrov was just starting his shift at the Soviet command and control centre, monitoring the early-warning satellite system, when the alarms went off: five U.S. missiles were apparently heading toward the Soviet Union.

Petrov was ordered by his superiors to fire a retaliatory nuclear strike on the United States – an act which would have led to total nuclear annihilation.  However, instead of mindlessly obeying his orders, Petrov made up his own mind.  He reasoned that nobody would launch a nuclear war with just five missiles and he refused to push “the button”.  Instead, Petrov declared that the radar alert to be a false alarm – which is exactly what it was.

Now, it would be comforting to believe that the nuclear threat ended with the Cold War, but that is not the case.  The unpleasant truth is that there are still some 20,000 nuclear warheads in the hands of at least nine countries.  They are more than enough to devastate life on Earth if they are ever used.

And then there is the potential danger of bio-terrorism, among other new forms of killing.

In other words, even if we do not live in active combat zones, such as the Congo, Syria, or Colombia, we still live in the shadow of war.

The good news is that the intensity of warfare has been decreasing for decades, and there are solid grounds to expect that this trend will continue.  This is the optimistic conclusion in John Horgan’s, “The End of War”.

He stresses that, “war has no single cause” and, not surprisingly, that war does not have a single solution.

Nevertheless, Horgan believes that, “the end of war is possible, and even imminent.”  He admits that most people are doubtful about this prospect, and he sets out to examine the supposed causes of war: “whether genetic, ecological, economic, political, or cultural.”  The result is a wide-ranging examination which is thorough, nuanced, and enlightening.

For instance, Horgan emphatically states that, “we are not hard-wired for war.”  He points out that the earliest evidence of organized group violence does not date back millions of years ago to our hominid ancestors, but emerged only around 13,000 years ago.  In other words, our species has been mostly peaceful for the greater part of our existence.

And even with the rise of civilization, most societies have been at peace most of the time.  Indeed, even in combat, soldiers are reluctant to kill.  A study of U.S. troops in the Second World War, for instance, found that roughly 80% of them refused to fire at the “enemy”.  Even though they were trained to kill, and were actually in combat, the majority either didn’t fire their weapons or aimed over the heads of their foes.

So much for the myth of alleged “innate” male aggression.

Horgan states that when armed conflict has erupted, it was a result of such factors as resource scarcity, power-hungry leaders, extreme nationalism, racism – and often a combination of such factors.

However, the author sometimes underestimates the role of economic factors as sources of conflict.  For instance, a strong case could be made that the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in large part due to the immense oil wealth in that part of the world, along with the hundreds of billions of dollars that flowed to what President Eisenhower called, “the military-industrial complex.”

In spite of this slaughter, which has killed up to a million people, (mostly innocent civilians), Horgan notes that there has been a “decline in war over the past half century”.  He attributes a significant part of this reduction to “the worldwide surge of democracy.”

Exactly.  The great majority of people overwhelmingly favour peaceful resolutions of disputes.  The more weight that public opinion carries, the lower the chances that those in power will be able to get away with starting wars (or, in the case of Canada, dragging us into Bush’s invasion of Iraq, as Stephen Harper wanted to do).

Social psychologists like Phillip Zimbardo have convincingly demonstrated (in “The Lucifer Effect”, for instance), that the most critical factor shaping human behaviour, including genocide and war crimes, is the environment in which people find themselves.  For the most part, these situations are constructed by those who control the “systems of power” in that society.

As Horgan observes, “some people – chiefs, pharaohs, kings, emperors, autocrats, presidents, and warlords” have been able to create situations which led to war.  Hence, as power becomes de-centralized in a democracy, one can expect that number of senseless wars should decrease.

Indeed, the author writes that, around the world, “people are choosing peace over war”, and urges his readers to become active in the process of, “slashing our bloated military, abolishing arms sales to other countries, and getting rid of our nuclear arsenal.”

During the Cold War, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell issued a similar call, and concluded that, above all, we should, “remember our humanity.”

That lesson is just as important today, as we cannot count on another Stanislav Petrov to save us the next time.  It’s up to us.



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March 17th, 2013 at 2:54 am

How Good People Turn Evil

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The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil
Philip Zimbardo
New York: Random House, 2007
576 pp, $27.95 (hbk)

Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide & Mass Killing (2nd ed.)
James Waller
New York: Oxford University Press, 2007
384 pp, $24.99 (pbk)

Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide
Barbara Coloroso
Toronto: Viking Canada, 2007
248 pp, C $30.00

To prevent future genocides, we must understand the conditions and the forces that produced such unimaginable horrors. Unless and until we see past the myths about the causes of such slaughters, which have claimed the lives of fifty to sixty million people in the last century, they are certain to be repeated – especially given the numerous dangers which are now threatening to undermine social and political stability around the globe.
Three recent books have attempted just this task, with varying degrees of success: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo; Becoming Evil, by James Waller; and Barbara Coloroso’s Extraordinary Evil. While there is a fair amount of agreement among these authors, each approaches the subject of atrocity and its root causes from different angles.
The most powerful and insightful effort is by Zimbardo, who is, of course, the pioneering social psychologist most noted for his (in)famous “Stanford Prison Experiment” in 1971, in which male students were randomly assigned to take on the roles of either prisoners or guards in a study originally planned to last for two weeks. The experiment had to be terminated less than halfway through, because of the deleterious and dangerous changes that affected both groups of subjects. The power that the guards were given created a strong tendency for them to act brutally and sadistically towards their fellow classmates. Those assigned to the role of prisoner, on the other hand, became by and large passive, fearful, and subservient. In fact, half of them had to be released even before the “prison” was closed early.
About a third of Zimbardo’s book consists of his detailed analysis of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which is the starting point for his investigation of the forces that compel otherwise ordinary people to commits acts of extraordinary horror and brutality. He offers three fundamental explanations for human behavior. The first and most common approach he labels dispositional. This view focuses primarily on the level of the individual and his or her personality, experiences, genetic inheritance, abilities, and beliefs. It holds that, most of the time, the locus of control over actions is internal. By this psychological explanation, individuals are held to be usually, indeed almost completely, responsible for their actions – regardless of any other external explanations or forces. Nelson Mandela, for example, is a hero primarily because of the type of person that he is (compassionate, intelligent, and principled), while Saddam Hussein was a villain because of his personal vices (sadism, a hunger for power, vanity).
The problem with this focus is that most of the people who commit atrocities are not psychopaths, and individual variables alone can account for only a relatively small part of their actions. Indeed, after carrying out their crimes, most return to their “normal” lives and never again exhibit such pathological behaviour.  Zimbardo therefore offers a second level of explanation, based on situational variables outside of individuals that usually provide more robust and comprehensive answers about the sources of inhuman behavior. At this level of analysis, factors such as ideology, deindividuation, domination, socialization, and dehumanization contribute to producing irrational and cruel actions. This focus on social dynamics does not deny the role of personal qualities, but it assumes that on most occasions, there is an interaction between individual and their environment in which the latter is most salient for most people in most circumstances.
For all three authors considered here, this view is the most essential: that given the right “situational variables,” practically anyone will do terrible things to other human beings.  Zimbardo stresses the insight, also made by Waller and Coloroso, that mass slaughters can be committed by “normal” people because human behavior is extremely malleable, allowing contradictory behaviors to be manifested by the same person in different situations. He writes:  “Perhaps we are born with a full range of capacities, each of which is activated and developed depending on the social and cultural circumstances that govern our lives. I will argue that the potential for perversion is inherent in the very processes that make human beings do all the wonderful things that we do” (p. 229). In other words, the simplistic dualism of believing that “an unbridgeable chasm separates good people from bad people” ignores the reality that human behaviour is characterized by its variability, so that evil is “something of which we are all capable, depending on circumstances” (ibid).
The problems begin when socialization accentuates the negative potential present in us all. A telling example is the almost automatic tendency to divide people into categories of “us” and “them” – a function which can easily be exaggerated, so that those defined as the “Other” appear both threatening and less than human. In one telling study, subjects who “accidentally” overheard a remark that students in a test were “animals” gave them higher levels of electric shocks than subjects who did not hear the “animal” comment. Moreover, subjects who overheard a reference to the students as “nice guys” gave the mildest shocks of all (p. 308-9).
Another natural tendency that can be twisted is the need for community and for connections with nature (or “first nature” and “second nature,” as Murray Bookchin called it).  Frans de Waal, one of the world’s leading researchers on primate behaviour, writes: “There was never a point at which we became social: descended from highly social ancestors – a long line of monkeys and apes – we have been group-living forever … life in groups is not an option, but a survival strategy.” As a result of this evolutionary heritage, de Waal explains, “sociality has become ever more deeply ingrained in primate biology and psychology.” In fact, the main reason for the large cortex in human brains is our need to associate in complex social groups.

One problem, however, is that the fear of feeling isolated and alone, if combined with the mental categories of “us and them,” may be twisted into an unhealthy form of nationalism and arrogance, while dehumanizing the Other, whose life counts for little.
This polarization is much more likely to occur when people are fearful, a problem that is clearly illustrated by the changing relationship between Serbs and Croatians over the last sixty years. For centuries, the history of these two peoples was drenched in blood, and mutual hostility was part of their cultural legacy. After the Second World War, however, the new Yugoslav government under Tito designed political and social arrangements which stressed peaceful cooperation and unity among all peoples of Yugoslavia. The economic situation of the ordinary Yugoslav improved dramatically, and over a relatively short period of time the ancient hostility eased. Serbs and Croatians began to live together, work together, and even marry one another. Human nature did not change in these few decades, but the social environment did, and that made all the difference. Anger and hatred were replaced by empathy, friendship, and in some cases, love.
When economic and political conditions began to deteriorate in the 1980s, however, many people experienced insecurity and fear. Those feelings played a large part in nationalist appeals that led to the rebirth of communal violence, producing horrible atrocities and the genocide of “ethnic cleansing.” In some cases, the very same people who had been neighbours and friends just a few years earlier now turned on each other, committing violent and inhuman acts. Clearly, when people believe their very lives are at stake, they are more likely to do what they are told – including, if “necessary,” slaughtering other people.
The Yugoslav example points to a larger problem regarding the so-called “realist” view that human beings are innately aggressive and that war is in our genes. Zimbardo’s research leads him to inquire about the nature and origin of those situations that foster war and violence in general, and genocide in particular. He explains situational variables by reference to an even more fundamental factor, that of “systems of power” (p. 10) which create diverse situations and manipulate people in ways that benefit those in control – the “power elite,” to cite the concept advanced by the sociologist C. Wright Mills.

For Zimbardo, the “military-corporate-religious complex is the ultimate megasystem controlling much of the resources and quality of life of many Americans today.” (ibid.) To his credit, he is not afraid to name names. After examining the lies that spawned the illegal invasion of Iraq and the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo concludes that the blame rests with “the very top of the long chain of command – all the way up to Vice President Dick Cheney (‘the Vice President of Torture’) and President George W. Bush” (p. 432, quoting the Washington Post, October 26 2005).
In the second edition of his incisive work, Becoming Evil, James Waller takes a somewhat more general approach than Zimbardo. He makes a similar point, namely that it is mostly “ordinary people committing extraordinary evil,” and adds that it is not simply a matter of a person having a “pathological or faulty personality.” Among the evidence he adduces is the finding by half a dozen psychologists that the Nazi génocidaire Adolf Eichmann was normal, rather than diabolical. Throughout the book, Waller emphasizes the unsettling thought that, “given the right confluence of contributing factors, we are all capable of some terrible deeds” (p. 161).
Along the same lines, Waller effectively deconstructs the view that a given society must be pathological if it carries out mass murder and genocide. He accomplishes this by reviewing Daniel Goldhagen’s influential book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, the main thesis of which is that the Nazi Holocaust resulted from an especially virulent strain of antisemitism in German culture. On the contrary, Waller not only shows that “there is little evidence that the antisemitism of Germans was eliminationist” before the rise of Hitler, but also demonstrates that Goldhagen’s belief “that eliminationist anti-Semitism was the central motive of the Holocaust fares no better. The fixation on one over-arching explanation – rather than many overlapping, reinforcing, perhaps partially competing explanations – is too simplistic” (p. 52).
The heart of Waller’s study are the chapters devoted to examining the conditions that contribute to mass violence. At the cultural level, he considers such models as “authority orientation” and “social dominance,” which may help to construct ideologies that in turn serve to legitimize mass violence. Waller then studies the psychological factors that make it possible to dehumanize people as Others without rights – even the right to exist. Indeed, it helps psychologically to consider such Others as a threat to one’s own values. Finally, Waller examines the “social construction of cruelty,” in an analysis that, like Zimbardo’s, dissects the situational variables that allow people to commit atrocities, including deindividuation and peer pressure.
Finally, although Waller argues that “social conflict is ubiquitous” throughout human history (p. xiv), he is not referring to Marx’s view that history “is the history of class struggle.” Indeed, class plays almost no role in Waller’s explanation of mass killing and genocide. One wonders, though, if it is entirely irrelevant that the capitalist classes in Germany offered Hitler “their full support and cooperation” as the Nazis crushed the trade union movement and established an extremely profitable “military-industrial complex” as a preparation for war? Or that “The Fuehrer personally stressed time and again during talks with … industrial leaders … that he considered free enterprise and competition as absolutely necessary”? ii

Closer to home, is the lack of action by the United States, Canada, and other G-8 nations in Rwanda and Darfur connected to the lack of economic interest on the part of the business classes in those countries? In his postscript, Waller admits that “the UN and the United States have been very slow” to take any serious actions to halt the genocide in Darfur (p. 302). But there is little attempt to explain that inaction.
The relationship between bullying and genocide is the central metaphor in Barbara Coloroso’s, Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide. Coloroso argues that “the concept of genocide in general, and the Rwandan genocide in particular, are macrocosms of the drama known as bullying” (p. xx). She does a reasonable job of pointing out similarities between these phenomena, such as the social origins of much cruel behavior. But the metaphor is stretched thin at times.  Coloroso is at her best in describing some of the psychological aspects of violence, and especially the other side of the coin – when “ordinary” people perform extraordinary feats of bravery to help victims of mass violence. One famous example of mass heroism occurred in Denmark under Nazi occupation:

When the Nazis invaded Denmark in 1940, citizens of all ages united to form a strong resistance movement. Refusing to cooperate with the planned deportation of Jews, the Danes began spiriting their neighbors and relatives across the channel to Sweden in small fishing vessels. Scientists and fishermen worked together to come up with ways to numb the noses of dogs used by the Nazis to search the vessel for stowaways. The small boats, with their undetected human cargo, met up with larger Swedish ships in the channel. In all, 7,200 of the 7,800 Danish Jews and 700 or their non-Jewish relatives were smuggled safely out of Denmark (pp. 125-26).

On the other hand, there is a surprising void when it comes to considering the inaction of the United States, and President Clinton in particular, during the genocide in Rwanda. While Coloroso notes that Clinton eventually apologized to the survivors, she passes over the question of his guilt in silence. She does quote Canadian scholar Gerald Caplan, who argues that nothing “can substitute for political will among the powers-that-can” (p. 20). But there is no indication that Caplan has also pointed to “Five Culprits of Genocide” in Rwanda, including the UN, France, the Catholic Church, Belgium, and the United States. In fact, Caplan is the author of “Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide”, a report of the international panel of eminent persons that investigated the 1994 slaughter. He later wrote:
During the genocide, it was the U.S.’s turn to betray Rwanda…the craven Clinton administration, under pressure from the Republicans, ensured that the UN Security Council would do nothing…Thanks entirely to contrived American stalling tactics…not a single reinforcement of man or machine from abroad had reached Rwanda. iii
In spite of the long litany of depressing and horrific stories of violence and cruelty, all these authors agree that things can be done to reduce mass violence. At the core of these prescriptions is the need for critical thought, compassion, and action. Ultimately, systems of power need to be democratized and every human being needs to be treated with respect.
There is another question that all three authors tackle, and on which all three are found wanting – the question of personal responsibility. For instance, while Zimbardo challenges “the rigid Fundamental Attribution Error that locates the inner qualities of people as the main source of their actions,” he adds that this position does not “negate the responsibility”of individuals, “nor their guilt” (p. 445).

For his part, Waller rightly warns of the danger of dealing with evil “from the heights of moral condemnation rather than the depths of human understanding,” but then declares that, nevertheless, “we are all responsible for our deeds – evil or otherwise” (pp. 18-19). In her insightful chapter, “Restoring Community,” Coloroso explores important ideas about necessity of forgiveness, restitution, and reconciliation, but insists that those “who have committed crimes against humanity” must “take full responsibility for their actions” (p. 208).
There are at least four major problems with the notion of individual moral responsibility and guilt. The first is that all three authors have done a very convincing job of showing how a multitude of forces beyond individual control – social, economic, cultural, situational, psychological, and so on – can combine to elicit very uncharacteristic behaviour from a person, behaviour they would never exhibit in less extreme circumstances. Therefore, is it logical or fair to assign “full responsibility” from “the heights of moral condemnation” to those hapless individuals? Is this not making the same “Fundamental Attribution Error”?
In addition, according to cognitive scientist George Lakoff, research has discovered that there is “a vast landscape of unconscious thought – the 98 percent of thinking your brain does that you’re not aware of.” iv Does it make sense, therefore, to condemn someone who – like all of us – is aware of only two percent of the thoughts and feelings that drive their actions?
Third, I believe it is arrogant to pretend to godlike omniscience and claim to fully understand the contributions of all of the above-cited variables to an individual’s actions. Human understanding is limited. Moreover, as the authors remind us many times, any one of us might do horrible things in the “wrong” situation.
Last, not only does a focus on individuals at the bottom of the chain of command obscure the responsibility of those at the top, but more importantly it diverts attention from the ultimate cause of most mass inhumanity – the systems of Power which Zimbardo emphasizes.
Perhaps the most desirable road is to focus more on the prevention of mass killing than to waste time in futile debates about “guilt.” As Coloroso wisely points out, forgiveness is a “gift” that victims can give to themselves, as part of the process of healing.
All three writers stress that there are always some people who are able to resist the inhumanity that takes place around them, and the authors provide many examples of such heroes – people who may have led “ordinary” lives until they found themselves in a situation that brought out the best in them. As critical as those actions may be, Zimbardo is right when he says that “disobedience by the individuals must get translated into systemic disobedience” if it is going to have a significant impact (p. 459). Such widespread disobedience on the part of US citizens – and within the armed forces – was one of the main reasons that Washington was forced to end its attack on Vietnam, and why Nixon could not carry out his threats to attack the Vietnamese with nuclear weapons.
Of all the stories of the heroic resistance to the Vietnam War, perhaps the most moving is that of the late Hugh Thompson, who was a US helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1968, when he came across the My Lai massacre while it was in progress. As Zimbardo relates the tale:

An estimated 504 Vietnamese civilians were rounded up and killed … the soldiers gathered up all the inhabitants of the village – elderly men, women, children, and babies – and machine gunned them to death (some they burned alive, raped, and scalped).
While the massacre was unfolding, a helicopter piloted by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr. set down to help a group of Vietnamese civilians … They saw Captain [Ernest] Medina and other soldiers running over to shoot the wounded. Thompson flew his helicopter back over My Lai village … ordered the massacre to stop and threatened to open fire with the helicopter’s heavy machine gun on any American soldier or officer who refused his order… He then ordered two other helicopters to fly in for medical evacuation of the eleven wounded Vietnamese. His plane returned to rescue a baby he had spotted still clinging to its dead mother (pp 475-75).

Thompson and his crew embodied the appeal made over a decade earlier by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, when they called on the people of the world to “Above all, remember your humanity.” v
Most acts of resistance to the evils demanded by systems of Power and the situations that they create will not be as heroic as that Hugh Thompson. But the most hopeful aspects of these studies are the examples they supply of individuals who in the most terrible situations, from Auschwitz to Abu Ghraib, remembered their own humanity, as well as that of the people around them.

Notes and references:
i (de Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. 2006, p. 4).
ii (Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. 1960, p. 201).
iii (Caplan, “A Ridiculously Brief History of Rwanda” in The Walrus, October 2004).
iv (Lakoff, The Political Mind. 2008, p.3).
v (Russell and Einstein, The Russell-Einstein Manifesto. 9 July 1955


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March 17th, 2013 at 2:21 am

Review of “Life Before Birth” by Arthur Janov

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by Peter Prontzos

This a modified review that first appeared in the Vancouver Sun:

“A paradigm shift is happening” in the way that we understand the importance of our life in the womb. That was the assessment of Dr. Marti Glenn at a recent Congress of The Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology & Health (APPPAH).

She pointed out that, “researchers are beginning to discover…that the events and environment surrounding pre-conception, pregnancy, birth, and early infancy set the template out of which we live our lives.”

While this paradigm shift is new to most people, it is a view that was put forth decades ago by Dr. Arthur Janov, whose new book, Life Before Birth, explains just how fragile we are while in our first home. He believes that many – perhaps most – children have been damaged at a much earlier age than has been traditionally acknowledged.

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