October 23, 2018

Science is an Underutilized Tool for Progressive Change



Photo via MonoImages, Creative Commons


Genes are not unchangeable packets of information that control the host organism, but are instead themselves controlled by other elements.


By Dr. Michael Nagler / 04.14.2018
Professor Emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature
University of California Berkeley



#BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #Enough: These manifestations of resistance are starting to give hope to dark times, especially as activists, particularly the young, learn that large demonstrations and protests — what nonviolence scholars have called the “effervescence of the crowd” — need to be developed into long-term, sustained campaigns. At times like these, it’s only natural to try to “stop the worst of the damage” — as environmental activist Joanna Macy would say — and neglect the big picture, where we need to go long-term. Yet, it’s the long term where nonviolence really shines.

As Gandhi noted, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were “able to show the immediate effectiveness of violence … But the efforts of Buddha’s nonviolent action persist and are likely to grow with age.” And he reassures us that, despite appearances, nonviolence is actually the fastest way to bring about lasting changes — changes that sometimes appear miraculous. Some call them miracles, but as Gandhi explained, “All miracles are due to the silent and effective working of invisible force. Nonviolence is the most invisible and the most effective.”

It’s time, then, to step back and look at the big picture. For some decades now, we have been going through a “spiritual crisis,” as I argued elsewhere, and that crisis can be seen as a struggle for the core narrative of our culture. The real “culture war” is between the “old story” that tells us we live in a random universe made of physical particles and an emerging story. This story is, in part, being recovered from a long (and often forgotten) tradition of human wisdom that says, “No! We live in a meaningful universe pervaded by consciousness. We are deeply interconnected with one another and the planet on which we live.”

Activists today should be aware of this underlying struggle, for it underlies virtually every issue we’re facing. The shift to a new story, which people have been working out for many years, would resolve most of those issues almost automatically. People who are aware that they are deeply connected with others will know that violence is intolerable and totally unnecessary. The fact that American servicemen and women are committing suicide at the rate of 20 a day shows that a dim awareness is growing: Inflicting suffering on others inflicts oneself with Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS), or more familiarly, “moral injury.” People who are aware of their inner resources, aware that their deepest needs are to seek relationships of mutual aid and service, will themselves shrink from damaging the environment.

Perhaps the most serious fiction of the old story is that we are helpless, determined by our genes, hormones, inherited “instincts” and outside forces — all of which science is rapidly debunking, giving us back agency. When we read Gandhi saying, “we are the makers of our common destiny,” we can know that he is no longer a voice in the intellectual wilderness. Quantum physicist Henry Stapp, for example, wrote in a 1989 paper, “Quantum Physics and Human Values,” that “man (or woman) can no longer be seen as a deterministically controlled cog in a machine.” He then goes on to say, “The quantum conception of man resembles, in certain limited respects, the image set forth in various religious systems. Hence it may be able to tap the powerful resonances evoked in humans by such beliefs … The assimilation of this quantum conception of man into the cultural environment of the 21st century must inevitably produce a shift in values conducive to human survival.” More recently, he added, “Perceiving oneself to an integral part of the mental whole tends to elicit a feeling of connectivity, community and compassion, with fellow sentient beings, whereas the materialist message of survival of the fittest tends to lead to selfish, and even hateful, actions.”

Ever since cell biologist Barbara McClintock began showing in the 1950s that genes are not unchangeable packets of information that control the host organism, but are instead themselves controlled by other elements, scientists have steadily liberated us from the limitations of our biological inheritance. Biologists can now trace the exact pathways by which our beliefs and attitudes affect the expression and even the life span of our cells (see this not uncontroversial talk by Bruce Lipton).

At the Metta Center, we have been excited about the cultural, and therefore the political, potential of “new science,” as it’s called, to facilitate the paradigm shift we need to bring about the conversion of modern societies to peace and justice. We would like to now offer, in a beta version, a resource to help activists familiarize themselves with the most helpful findings. And we welcome your feedback!

To be clear, we are not recommending that activists should drop their other activities on whatever issue. Nor are we of the belief that promoting science — or the science and wisdom tradition parallels — will bring about the great shift by itself. People are far too invested in the status quo today to be moved by mere arguments and evidence. As Gandhi famously said, “Things of fundamental importance to the people must be purchased with their suffering. You must be able to appeal not only to reason, but to the heart also.” Which is exactly what nonviolence does. But you must have a vision of the world you want — we all really want — to get people inspired to seek it.

In addition to being a sine qua non for desired change, knowing and promoting the new story has two strategic advantages. First, it can be non-confrontational, what I call a “stealth” strategy: Tell people to give up their guns or stop making war and you get violent resistance; tell them they’re not separate fragments in a meaningless universe and they’re likely to believe you, little realizing at first that they’re on track to give up guns and war of their own accord. Second, it can pull us together, without having to abandon the particular projects (no longer “silos”) we’re working on. Like Gandhi’s charkha(spinning wheel), it’s something everyone can do, symbolizing the essential unity of our efforts.

The old story of a random, material universe was demoralizing and dead wrong, but it was internally consistent. It built up from a physics of material particles to the competitive evolution of the early Darwin (never mind that he repudiated it later) and the dismal, alienated self-image that is today retarding human progress. This appearance of consistency made it look all the more plausible and has helped it hold sway to the present day — even though it violates our deepest intuitions of who we are and what we want to become. And that may be its worst effect. “Contemplate your true nature,” warned the great Bengali mystic Anandamayi Ma, “or else there will be want, wrong action, helplessness, distress and death.”

The emerging, or “new” story is just as consistent. It builds up from a physics of unity and consciousness to the biology of cooperation and the psychology and neuroscience of the empathic human being as a meaningful part of a great unity, capable of crafting her or his own destiny and capable of offering nonviolence and responding to it when offered. I entirely agree with Joanna Macy that we have to “stop the worst of the damage,” but has there been anything more damaging than the demoralizing image of ourselves held up by the old story? And, after all, quite apart from its political usefulness, the new story is a powerful way to overcome our own demoralization and burnout, as you’ll see from the talking points we’ve offered here. Knowing it should be part of our toolkit and sharing it with whoever will listen should be a critical complement to our activism.



Originally published by Waging Nonviolence under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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