Saturday, October 23, 2010

Richard Poynder and Silke Helfrich Discuss "The Commons" as an Emerging Paradigm

This conversation comes from The Commons Blog - which appears to mostly be in German, but this article/interview is in English. It seems that Europe is much farther along in the idea of a Commons than is the US, but then we are about individualism and private ownership. We can do the Commons in digital culture, but unlike Europe, we are not likely to move into a material manifestation any time soon. And it remains to be seen how well they will do it.

From where I sit, it seems we will have to move into and through Social Democracy in the US before the groundwork for a Commons can be established here in any serious material sense - and I don't see that happening any time soon. So we need to work to build a digital commons as much as we can with the hope that digital culture will continue to overtake material culture in relevance (at least for some of us).

Where it matters most to me is in open access publishing of research - government funded research and knowledge should not be restricted to those with the most money to buy access. The next most important area for me is open practice, where individuals share their meditation, fitness, personal growth, or integral practices - openly and honestly.

Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation and Wiki, is one of the organizers of the International Commons Conference, for which this interview is a bit of promotion. For the best info around on the Commons and P2P, check out Bauwens' site.

The Commons – a paradigm gaining political relevance


As more and more of the world’s population has gained access to the Internet so a growing number of free and open movements have appeared — including the free and open source software movements, free culture, creative commons, open access and open data.

Once these movements became widely visible — and successful — people were keen to understand their significance, and establish what, if anything, they have in common. Today many observers maintain that they share very similar goals and aspirations, and that they represent a renaissance of “the commons”.

There is also an emerging consensus that, contrary to what was initially assumed, this renaissance is not confined to the Internet, and digital phenomena, but can also be observed in the way that some physical products are now manufactured (e.g. by advocates of the open source hardware movement) and in the way that many are now recommending the natural world be managed.

For instance, argue self-styled “commoners”, when local farmers establish seed banks in order to preserve regional plant diversity, and to prevent large biotechnology companies from foisting patent-protected GMO crops on them, their objectives are essentially the same as those of free software developers when they release their software under the General Public Licence: Both are attempting to prevent things that rightfully belong in common ownership from being privatised — usually by multinational companies who, in their restless pursuit of profits, are happy to appropriate for their own ends resources that rightfully belong to everyone.

Once understood in this broader context, commoners add, it becomes evident that the free and open movements have the potential to catalyse radical social, cultural and political change; change that, in the light of the now evident failures of state capitalism (demonstrated, for instance, by the global financial crisis) are urgently required.

Larger movement

In order to facilitate this change, however, commoners argue that the free and open movements have to be viewed as component parts of the larger commons movement. In addition, it is necessary to embrace and encompass the other major political and civil society groups focused on challenging the dominance of what could loosely be termed the post-Cold War settlement — including environmentalism, Green politics, and the many organisations and initiatives trying to address both developing world issues and climate change

But to create this larger movement, says Jena-based commons activist Silke Helfrich, it will first be necessary to convince advocates of the different movements that they share mutual objectives. As they are currently fragmented, their common goals are not immediately obvious, and so it will be necessary to make this transparent. Achieving this is important, adds Helfrich, since only by co-operating can the different movements hope to become politically effective.

To this end Helfrich is currently organising an International Commons Conference that will bring together over 170 practitioners and observers of the commons from 34 different countries.

To be held at the beginning of November, the conference will be hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin.

The aim of the conference, says Helfrich, is to spark “a breakthrough in the international political debate on the commons, and the convergence of the scholars studying the commons and the commoners defending them in the field.” Helfrich hopes this will lead to agreement on a “commons-based policy platform”.

What is the end game? Nothing less, it would appear, than a new social and political order. That is, a world “beyond market and state” — where communities are able to wrest back control of their lives, from faceless, distant government, and from rootless, heartless corporations.

As Helfrich puts it, “the essential ideals of state capitalism — top-down government enforcement and the so called ‘invisible hand’ of the market — have to be marginalised by co-governance principles and self-organised co-production of the commons by people in localities across the world.”

The interview begins …

RP Why did you become interested in the commons?

SH: I was born in East Germany, and when the wall came down in 1989 I was 22 and had just finished my studies. Then I lived for more than eight years in El Salvador and Mexico, both of which are extremely polarised countries so far as the distribution of wealth is concerned.

So I’ve experienced two very different types of society: one in which the state is the arbiter of social conditions, and the way in which citizens can participate in their society and, after 1989, one in which access to money determines one’s ability to participate in society.

It has also always been my belief that democracy should involve much more than simply having free elections and then delegating all responsibility to professional politicians. We need to radically democratise the political, social and economic sphere — and we need a framework for doing so which is beyond both the market and the state. That, in my view, is precisely what the commons is all about.

RP: Can you expand on your definition of the commons, and the potential?

SH: The commons is not a thing or a resource. It’s not just land or water, a forest or the atmosphere. For me, the commons is first and foremost constant social innovation. It implies a self-determined decision making process (within a great variety of contexts, rules and legal settings) that allows all of us to use and reproduce our collective resources.

The commons approach assumes that the right way to use water, forests, knowledge, code, seeds, information, and much more, is to ensure that my use of those resources does not harm anybody else’s use of them, or deplete the resources themselves. And that implies fair-use of everything that does not belong to only one person.

It’s about respect for the principle „one person — one share“, especially when we talk about the global commons. To achieve this we need to build trust, and strengthen social relationships, within communities.

Our premise is that we are not simply „homo economicus“ pursuing only our own selfish interests. The core belief underlying the commons movement is: I need the others and the others need me.

There is no alternative today.

RP: Would it be accurate to say that the commons encompasses components of a number of different movements that have emerged in recent years, including free and open source software (FOSS), Creative Commons, Green politics, and all the initiatives focused on helping the developing world etc.?

SH: That’s right.

RP: Has it been a natural process of convergence?

SH: From a commoner’s perspective it is a natural process, but it is not immediately obvious that the different movements and their concerns have a lot in common.

RP: How do you mean?

SH: Let me give you an example: When we started to work on the commons in Latin America about six years ago we were working mainly with the eco- and social movements, who were critical of the impact that globalisation and the free trade paradigm were having. A colleague suggested that we should invite people from the free software movement to take part in our discussions.

While we did invite them, our first thought was: What does proprietary software have in common with genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? Or, to put it the other way round, what does the free software movement stand for, and what could it possibly have in common with organisations fighting for GMO free regions? Likewise, what could it have in common with community supported agriculture (CSA), and with movements devoted to defending access to water and social control over their biotic resources?

But we quickly realised that they are all doing the same thing: defending their commons! So since then we have become committed to (and advocate for) the „convergence of movements“.

RP: For those who have been following the development of the Internet much of the debate about the commons has emerged from the way in which people — particularly large multinational companies — have sought to enforce intellectual property rights in the digital environment. In parallel there has been a huge debate about the impact of patents on the developing world — patents on life-saving drugs, for instance, and patents on food crops. But seen from a historical perspective these debates are far from new — they have been repeated throughout history, and the commons as a concept goes back even before the infamous enclosures that took place in England in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

SH: That’s right. So to some extent we are talking about the renaissance of the commons.

And the reason why free software developers are engaged in the same struggle as, say, small farmers, is simple: when people defend the free use of digital code, as the free software movement does, they are defending our entitlement to control our communication tools. (Which is essential when you are talking about democracy).

And when people organise local seed-banks to preserve and share the enormous seed variety in their region, they too are simply defending their entitlement to use and reproduce the commons.

In doing so, by the way, they are making use of a cornucopia — because in the commons there is abundance.

RP: Nowadays we are usually told to think of the natural world in terms of scarcity rather abundance.

SH: Well, even natural resources are not scarce in themselves. They are finite, but that is not the same thing as scarce. The point is that if we are not able to use natural collective resources (our common pool resources) sustainably, then they are made scarce. By us!

The commons, I insist, is above all a rich and diverse resource pool that has been developed collectively. What is important is the community, or the people’s control of that resource pool, rather than top-down control. Herein lies the future!

That is precisely what awarding the Nobel Prize in Economics to Elinor Ostrom in 2009 was all about [On awarding the Prize, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences commented: “Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatised”].

It is also what the Right Livelihood Award [the so-called Alternative Nobel Prize] — is all about.

RP: Ok, so we are saying that a lot of different movements have emerged with similar goals, but those similarities are not immediately obvious?

SH: Correct. So it is important to make them transparent. The global movement of commoners today is eclectic and growing, but fragmented.

For instance, we can see a number of flourishing transnational commons movements (e.g. free software, Wikipedia, open access to scholarly journals etc.) — all of whom are from the cultural and digital realm, and all of whom are based on community collaboration and sharing.

Many other commons projects, however, are modest in size, locally based, and focused on natural resources. There are thousands of them, and they provide solutions that confirm the point ETC’s Pat Mooney frequently makes: “the solution comes from the edges”.

Right now these different groups barely know each other, but what they all have in common is that they are struggling to take control of their own lives.

Taken together all these movements are actually part of a big civic movement that is about to discover its own identity, just as the environmental movement did some 30 or 40 years ago.
Co-operation is the best way for them to grow and become politically relevant. So the goal should be to persuade the various advocates that they have much to gain from working together.

RP: Would you agree that the Internet has played an important role in the emergence of these movements?

SH: I would. The Internet has been key in the development of global commons projects like free software and Wikipedia, and it greatly facilitates the sharing of ideas — which is key for becoming politically effective.

So the Internet allows us to cooperate beyond the traditional boundaries; and it allows us to take one of the most productive resources of our age — „knowledge and information management“ — into our own hands.

Look at the AVAAZ – campaigns for instance. The number of people they are able to connect to and mobilise is amazing. [In 3 years, Avaaz has grown to 5.5 million members from every country on earth, becoming the largest global web movement in history].

One problem, however, is that many communities who are heavily reliant on web-based technologies are not really attuned to the fact that the more we access these kinds of technologies the more we tend to overuse our natural common pool resources. So I think we need to understand that „openness“ in the digital realm and „sustainability“ in the natural realm need to be addressed together.

RP: Can you expand on that?

SH: We need more than just free software and free hardware. We need free software and free hardware designed to make us independent of the need to acquire a constant stream of ever more resource-devouring gadgets.

So instead of going out every three years to buy a new laptop packed with software that requires paying large license fees to corporations, who then have control over our communication, we should aim to have just one open-hardware-modular-recyclable-computer that runs community-based free software and can last a lifetime.

This is quite a challenge, and it is one of the many challenges we will be discussing at the International Commons Conference. One of the key questions here is this: Is the idea of openness really compatible with the boundaries of (natural) common-pool resources?

RP: What is the overall objective of the International Commons Conference?

SH: To put it modestly (SMILE), the aim is to achieve a breakthrough in the international political debate on the commons, and a convergence of the scholars who are studying the commons and the commoners who are defending them in the field.

We believe that the conference will foster the planning and development of commons-based organisations and policy, as well as their networking capacity. And we hope that by the end of the conference a set of principles and long-term goals will have emerged.

The whole endeavour (or should I say adventure? SMILE) will surely contribute to what my colleague Michel Bauwens — co-organiser of the conference — calls “A Grand Coalition of the Commons”.

RP: I note that there is no dedicated web site or pre-publicity for the conference. And it is by invitation only. Is that because there is not yet a fully articulated consensus on the commons and its potential?

SH: No, we have a much better reason: There has been no need for pre-publicity for the conference. On the contrary, as I frequently find myself having to explain to people, the response to our first „save-the-date-call“ for the conference was so overwhelmingly positive that we quickly realised we would be fully booked without any publicity. And in fact we are now more than fully booked.

The conference is by invitation only because we designed the conference programme for those who are already very familiar with the commons, be it through analysing the commons or through producing the commons. Consequently all our participants are specialists. Indeed each one of them would be qualified to address a keynote to the conference.

In other words, what we have designed is a networking conference for commoners from all over the world — and over 170 people from 34 countries have registered. That is quite an achievement, and has only been limited by the availability of space and resources.

I hope, however, that we’ll have a real World Commons Forum within a year or so (SMILE).

Window of opportunity

RP: Do you think the current global financial crisis has opened a window of opportunity for „commoners“, as they refer to themselves?

SH: I think so. The current crisis (which is not just a financial crisis, by the way, but multiple crises) graphically demonstrates that we cannot leave policy issues to the politicians, money-related issues to the bankers, or our commons to the market or the state. It’s ours!

It also showed quite clearly that the game is over. What is required is not simply a few new rules to allow a further round of the same old game, but a totally new framework; one that forges a new relationship between commons, state and market.

RP: What would this new relationship look like? Is the commons in competition with the state and the market, or do you see it working alongside these two key power brokers?

SH: For me the phrase "a commons beyond market and state" does not necessarily mean without market and state: Commons conceived of as complex systems of resources, communities and rules need very different governance structures. Indeed, some of them will be so complex that a certain governmental institutional structure will be needed — what one might call a Partner State.

One thing, however, is key: the people who depend on these commons for their livelihood and well-being have to have the major stake in all decisions taken about their commons.

Clearly, corporations, companies and co-ops will always meddle with the commons. And whatever they produce they will need our common pool resources as raw material. So the question we need to ask is: what do these players give back to the commons? We cannot allow them to just draw from the commons. The basic principle should be: Whoever takes from the commons has to add to them as well.

In other words, these external agents must not be able to do whatever they want with collective resources. Exclusive, exclusionary private property rights in the commons cannot exist — as outlined in the Commons Manifesto published on the Heinrich Böll Foundation web site.

RP: Would it be accurate to say that the commons is not just a new political and social movement, but a new intellectual framework for understanding the world, and perhaps a catalyst for a new post-industrial social order?

SH: We are not necessarily talking about a post-industrial order, but it is my conviction that a commons paradigm has to be based on the vision of a post-fossil fuel order.

Nor is it even new — as we agreed earlier. I would say it is an old intellectual framework, but one that has to be constantly re-appropriated from below and “modernised”.

But yes, it’s a framework for understanding the world. And it opens minds for finding creative, collective, practical, and institutional solutions to two pressing problems at the same time. That is, the environmental challenge we face and the social problems we face.

RP: There is a school of thought that says the environmental challenge can be solved by the market.

SH: Yes, but I don’t agree. For example, we cannot simply resolve the ecological crisis by charging more and more for energy (i.e. introducing a market-based incentive in order to lower consumption) — because that is not a solution for the poor.

This reminds us that the essential ideals of state capitalism — top-down government enforcement and the so called „invisible hand“ of the market — have to be marginalised by co-governance principles and self-organised co-production of the commons by people in localities across the world.


The Commons Manifesto in English, and in German

A German language news website on the commons

A German-language downloadable copy of To Whom Does the World Belong?

A review of To Whom Does the World Belong? By Alain Lipietz

The commons as a common paradigm for social movements and beyond (English)

Web of life (English)

Commons: The network of life and creativity (English)

Interview in taz: Gebrauch Ja, Missbrauch Nein (German)
Wovon wir alle leben (German)

Report with Rainer Kuhlen, Wolfgang Sachs and Christian Siefkes Gemeingüter Wohlstand durch Teilen (German)

Harry's Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life: The Dalai Lama

It's almost as good as being there .

Harry's Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life: The Dalai Lama

October 14, 2010 - His Holiness the Dalai Lama presents the 2010 Rathbun Lecture, sharing his reflections on how to lead a fulfilling life of purpose and moral values. He focuses on how one can be a valuable member of society and life a live filled with compassion even in the modern world.

The Rathbun Lecture was part of the Dalai Lama's 2010 trip to Stanford. In addition to the Rathbun lecture, His Holiness gave two other public speeches to members of the Stanford community. The Dalai Lama is the head of state and the spiritual leader of Tibet as well as being a global icon.

Stanford University:

The Dalai Lama at Stanford

Neuroanthropology - An Interview with Mark Changizi: Culture Harnessing the Brain

Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology, recently interviewed Mark Changizi, the noted cognitive scientist and author of the forthcoming book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man. Here is the introduction to the interview - interesting stuff.

I firmly believe culture shapes our brains and minds as much as our brains create our culture.

An Interview with Mark Changizi: Culture Harnessing the Brain

I’m delighted today to present an interview with Mark Changizi, the noted cognitive scientist and author. Changizi has a forthcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, where he examines how culture can have such an impact on people.

This book represents a broadening of his previous research, which has focused on vision, cognition, and brain complexity.

His research aims to grasp the ultimate foundations underlying why we think, feel and see as we do. Focusing on “why” questions, he has made important discoveries on why we see in color, why we see illusions, why we have forward-facing eyes, why letters are shaped as they are, why the brain is organized as it is, why animals have as many limbs and fingers as they do, and why the dictionary is organized as it is.

Changizi is currently Director of Human Cognition at 2AI Labs, “Researching the mind, what it does, and where it’s headed.” Changizi’s book The Vision Revolution was named one of New Scientist’s Top Science Books of 2009. He provides an excellent (and delightfully succinct) description of it in his post on How to Write a Popular Science Book:

It’s not merely that [these authors] write well, but that they’re making a scientific case for their viewpoint. …and you and I get to watch.

And so that’s what I did in The Vision Revolution, take the reader along as I lay out the case for a radical re-thinking of how we see. Color vision evolved for seeing skin and the underlying emotions, not for finding fruit. Forward-facing eyes evolved for seeing better in forests, not for seeing in depth. Illusions are due to our brain’s attempt to correct for the neural eye-to-brain delay, so as to “perceive the present.” And our ability to read is due to writing having culturally evolved to make written words look like natural objects, just what our illiterate visual system is competent at processing.

Changizi has his own blog, where his last post took on color perception: Is Your Red and My Red the Same? His guest post for PLoS Blogs, I’m Not Only the Red Club President, I’m a Client, extends the red theme, providing a humorous take on research showing that wearing red might increase your attractiveness.

Not enough? Changizi also has a Psychology Today blog, Nature, Brain and Culture. His recent piece Why Humans Are So Smart… And Groovy was what prompted me to get in touch with him, as I wanted to hear more about his ideas about how culture is shaped to the brain:

How, then, is it that we are doing so many strange non-ape-ish things? We carry out all sorts of behaviors you shouldn’t see apes doing not because we apes have been reshaped, but because culture has gone out of its way to shape itself to fit our groovy human self. In particular, culture has shaped itself to be “like nature,” thereby best harnessing our ancient inflexible brains for doing something they weren’t designed for, like successfully ordering coffee.

We conducted this interview over the last few days by email.

Go read the interview.

Dalai Lama - Compassion comes through developing Loving-Kindness

DZOGCHEN: The Heart Essence
of the Great Perfection,
Dzogchen Teachings Given in the West

by His Holiness the Dalai Lama,
translated by Geshe Thupten Jinpa and
Richard Barron (Chokyi Nyima),
edited by Patrick Gaffney


Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

The question then is "How do we cultivate and develop this bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment?" The key, and the root, is great compassion. Compassion here refers to a state of mind that makes it utterly unbearable for us to see the suffering of other sentient beings. The way to develop this is through understanding how we feel about our own suffering. When we become conscious of our own suffering, we have a spontaneous wish to be free from it. If we are able to extend that feeling to all other beings, through realizing the common instinctive desire we all have to avoid and overcome suffering, then that state of mind is called 'great compassion'.

All of us have the potential to develop that kind of compassion, because whenever we see people who are suffering, especially those close to us, we immediately feel empathy towards them, and witness a spontaneous response within our minds. So all we have to do is to bring that potential out, and then to develop it to become so impartial that it can include all sentient beings within its embrace, whether friend or foe.

To cultivate this great compassion within ourselves, first of all we need to develop what is called loving-kindness, a feeling of connectedness or closeness with all living creatures. This closeness and intimacy should not be confused with the kind of feeling we normally have toward our loved ones, which is tainted by attachment...ego and selfishness. On the contrary, we are seeking to develop a feeling of closeness towards other sentient beings, and affection for them, by reflecting on the fact that suffering is inherent in their very nature, on the helplessness of their situation, and on the instinctive desire they all have to overcome suffering.

The greater the force of our loving kindness towards other beings, the greater the force of our compassion. And the greater the force of our compassion, the easier it will be for us to develop a sense of responsibility for taking upon ourselves the task of working for others. The greater that sense of responsibility, the more successful we will be in generating bodhicitta, the genuine altruistic aspiration to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all.

--from Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, translated by Thupten Jinpa and Richard Barron, Foreword by Sogyal Rinpoche, edited by Patrick Gaffney, published by Snow Lion Publications

Dzogchen • 5O% off • for this week only
(Good through October 29th).

Friday, October 22, 2010

Frans de Waal - Morals Without God?

I'm a big fan of Frans de Waal's The Age of Empathy and, in general, his work on empathy in primates, both wild and human. In this piece for The Stone, the New York Times' philosophy blog, he looks at the bottom-up morality of evolution and empathy.

To liberally paraphrase de Waal: If all that stands between being peaceful and loving or raping your neighbor's wife is your belief in a punitive god, we're all fuckt.

Morals Without God?

The Stone

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

I was born in Den Bosch, the city after which Hieronymus Bosch named himself. [1] This obviously does not make me an expert on the Dutch painter, but having grown up with his statue on the market square, I have always been fond of his imagery, his symbolism, and how it relates to humanity’s place in the universe. This remains relevant today since Bosch depicts a society under a waning influence of God.

His famous triptych with naked figures frolicking around — “The Garden of Earthly Delights” — seems a tribute to paradisiacal innocence. The tableau is far too happy and relaxed to fit the interpretation of depravity and sin advanced by puritan experts. It represents humanity free from guilt and shame either before the Fall or without any Fall at all. For a primatologist, like myself, the nudity, references to sex and fertility, the plentiful birds and fruits and the moving about in groups are thoroughly familiar and hardly require a religious or moral interpretation. Bosch seems to have depicted humanity in its natural state, while reserving his moralistic outlook for the right-hand panel of the triptych in which he punishes — not the frolickers from the middle panel — but monks, nuns, gluttons, gamblers, warriors, and drunkards.

Garden of Earthly Delights Park

Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” depicts hundreds of erotic naked figures carrying or eating fruits, but is also full of references to alchemy, the forerunner of chemistry. The figures on the right are embedded in glass tubes typical of a bain-marie, while the two birds supposedly symbolize vapors.

Five centuries later, we remain embroiled in debates about the role of religion in society. As in Bosch’s days, the central theme is morality. Can we envision a world without God? Would this world be good? Don’t think for one moment that the current battle lines between biology and fundamentalist Christianity turn around evidence. One has to be pretty immune to data to doubt evolution, which is why books and documentaries aimed at convincing the skeptics are a waste of effort. They are helpful for those prepared to listen, but fail to reach their target audience. The debate is less about the truth than about how to handle it. For those who believe that morality comes straight from God the creator, acceptance of evolution would open a moral abyss.

Our Vaunted Frontal Lobe

Echoing this view, Reverend Al Sharpton opined in a recent videotaped debate: “If there is no order to the universe, and therefore some being, some force that ordered it, then who determines what is right or wrong? There is nothing immoral if there’s nothing in charge.” Similarly, I have heard people echo Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that “If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!”

Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago. Not that religion is irrelevant — I will get to this — but it is an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality.

Deep down, creationists realize they will never win factual arguments with science. This is why they have construed their own science-like universe, known as Intelligent Design, and eagerly jump on every tidbit of information that seems to go their way. The most recent opportunity arose with the Hauser affair. A Harvard colleague, Marc Hauser, has been accused of eight counts of scientific misconduct, including making up his own data. Since Hauser studied primate behavior and wrote about morality, Christian Web sites were eager to claim that “all that people like Hauser are left with are unsubstantiated propositions that are contradicted by millennia of human experience” (Chuck Colson, Sept. 8, 2010). A major newspaper asked “Would it be such a bad thing if Hausergate resulted in some intellectual humility among the new scientists of morality?” (Eric Felten, Aug. 27, 2010). Even a linguist could not resist this occasion to reaffirm the gap between human and animal by warning against “naive evolutionary presuppositions.”

These are rearguard battles, however. Whether creationists jump on this scientific scandal or linguists and psychologists keep selling human exceptionalism does not really matter. Fraud has occurred in many fields of science, from epidemiology to physics, all of which are still around. In the field of cognition, the march towards continuity between human and animal has been inexorable — one misconduct case won’t make a difference. True, humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it is a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade. This is why we don’t hear anymore that only humans make tools, imitate, think ahead, have culture, are self-aware, or adopt another’s point of view.

If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts. Even our vaunted prefrontal cortex turns out to be of typical size: recent neuron-counting techniques classify the human brain as a linearly scaled-up monkey brain.[2] No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary.

The Pleasure of Giving

Charles Darwin was interested in how morality fits the human-animal continuum, proposing in “The Descent of Man”: “Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts … would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed … as in man.”

Unfortunately, modern popularizers have strayed from these insights. Like Robert Wright in “The Moral Animal,” they argue that true moral tendencies cannot exist — not in humans and even less in other animals — since nature is one hundred percent selfish. Morality is just a thin veneer over a cauldron of nasty tendencies. Dubbing this position “Veneer Theory” (similar to Peter Railton’s “moral camouflage”), I have fought it ever since my 1996 book “Good Natured.” Instead of blaming atrocious behavior on our biology (“we’re acting like animals!”), while claiming our noble traits for ourselves, why not view the entire package as a product of evolution? Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of the Darwinian view that morality grew out of the social instincts. Psychologists stress the intuitive way we arrive at moral judgments while activating emotional brain areas, and economists and anthropologists have shown humanity to be far more cooperative, altruistic, and fair than predicted by self-interest models. Similarly, the latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there’s nothing in it for themselves.


Maintaining a peaceful society is one of the tendencies underlying human morality that we share with other primates, such as chimpanzees. After a fight between two adult males, one offers an open hand to his adversary. When the other accepts the invitation, both kiss and embrace.

Chimpanzees and bonobos will voluntarily open a door to offer a companion access to food, even if they lose part of it in the process. And capuchin monkeys are prepared to seek rewards for others, such as when we place two of them side by side, while one of them barters with us with differently colored tokens. One token is “selfish,” and the other “prosocial.” If the bartering monkey selects the selfish token, it receives a small piece of apple for returning it, but its partner gets nothing. The prosocial token, on the other hand, rewards both monkeys. Most monkeys develop an overwhelming preference for the prosocial token, which preference is not due to fear of repercussions, because dominant monkeys (who have least to fear) are the most generous.

Even though altruistic behavior evolved for the advantages it confers, this does not make it selfishly motivated. Future benefits rarely figure in the minds of animals. For example, animals engage in sex without knowing its reproductive consequences, and even humans had to develop the morning-after pill. This is because sexual motivation is unconcerned with the reason why sex exists. The same is true for the altruistic impulse, which is unconcerned with evolutionary consequences. It is this disconnect between evolution and motivation that befuddled the Veneer Theorists, and made them reduce everything to selfishness. The most quoted line of their bleak literature says it all: “Scratch an ‘altruist,’ and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed.”[3]

It is not only humans who are capable of genuine altruism; other animals are, too. I see it every day. An old female, Peony, spends her days outdoors with other chimpanzees at the Yerkes Primate Center’s Field Station. On bad days, when her arthritis is flaring up, she has trouble walking and climbing, but other females help her out. For example, Peony is huffing and puffing to get up into the climbing frame in which several apes have gathered for a grooming session. An unrelated younger female moves behind her, placing both hands on her ample behind and pushes her up with quite a bit of effort, until Peony has joined the rest.

We have also seen Peony getting up and slowly move towards the water spigot, which is at quite a distance. Younger females sometimes run ahead of her, take in some water, then return to Peony and give it to her. At first, we had no idea what was going on, since all we saw was one female placing her mouth close to Peony’s, but after a while the pattern became clear: Peony would open her mouth wide, and the younger female would spit a jet of water into it.

calming embrace

A juvenile chimpanzee reacts to a screaming adult male on the right, who has lost a fight, by offering a calming embrace in an apparent expression of empathy.

Such observations fit the emerging field of animal empathy, which deals not only with primates, but also with canines, elephants, even rodents. A typical example is how chimpanzees console distressed parties, hugging and kissing them, which behavior is so predictable that scientists have analyzed thousands of cases. Mammals are sensitive to each other’s emotions, and react to others in need. The whole reason people fill their homes with furry carnivores and not with, say, iguanas and turtles, is because mammals offer something no reptile ever will. They give affection, they want affection, and respond to our emotions the way we do to theirs.

Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good. Nature often equips life’s essentials — sex, eating, nursing — with built-in gratification. One study found that pleasure centers in the human brain light up when we give to charity. This is of course no reason to call such behavior “selfish” as it would make the word totally meaningless. A selfish individual has no trouble walking away from another in need. Someone is drowning: let him drown. Someone cries: let her cry. These are truly selfish reactions, which are quite different from empathic ones. Yes, we experience a “warm glow,” and perhaps some other animals do as well, but since this glow reaches us via the other, and only via the other, the helping is genuinely other-oriented.

Bottom-Up Morality

A few years ago Sarah Brosnan and I demonstrated that primates will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others getting grapes, which taste so much better. The cucumber-eaters become agitated, throw down their measly veggies and go on strike. A perfectly fine food has become unpalatable as a result of seeing a companion with something better.

We called it inequity aversion, a topic since investigated in other animals, including dogs. A dog will repeatedly perform a trick without rewards, but refuse as soon as another dog gets pieces of sausage for the same trick. Recently, Sarah reported an unexpected twist to the inequity issue, however. While testing pairs of chimps, she found that also the one who gets the better deal occasionally refuses. It is as if they are satisfied only if both get the same. We seem to be getting close to a sense of fairness.

Such findings have implications for human morality. According to most philosophers, we reason ourselves towards a moral position. Even if we do not invoke God, it is still a top-down process of us formulating the principles and then imposing those on human conduct. But would it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination to be so? Would it make sense to appeal to fairness and justice in the absence of powerful reactions to their absence? Imagine the cognitive burden if every decision we took needed to be vetted against handed-down principles. Instead, I am a firm believer in the Humean position that reason is the slave of the passions. We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.

At the same time, however, I am reluctant to call a chimpanzee a “moral being.” This is because sentiments do not suffice. We strive for a logically coherent system, and have debates about how the death penalty fits arguments for the sanctity of life, or whether an unchosen sexual orientation can be wrong. These debates are uniquely human. We have no evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not affect themselves. The great pioneer of morality research, the Finn Edward Westermarck, explained what makes the moral emotions special: “Moral emotions are disconnected from one’s immediate situation: they deal with good and bad at a more abstract, disinterested level.” This is what sets human morality apart: a move towards universal standards combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment.

At this point, religion comes in. Think of the narrative support for compassion, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan, or the challenge to fairness, such as the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, with its famous conclusion “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Add to this an almost Skinnerian fondness of reward and punishment — from the virgins to be met in heaven to the hell fire that awaits sinners — and the exploitation of our desire to be “praiseworthy,” as Adam Smith called it. Humans are so sensitive to public opinion that we only need to see a picture of two eyes glued to the wall to respond with good behavior, which explains the image in some religions of an all-seeing eye to symbolize an omniscient God.

The Atheist Dilemma

Over the past few years, we have gotten used to a strident atheism arguing that God is not great (Christopher Hitchens) or a delusion (Richard Dawkins). The new atheists call themselves “brights,” thus hinting that believers are not so bright. They urge trust in science, and want to root ethics in a naturalistic worldview.

While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.

Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.

Bosch struggled with the same issue — not with being an atheist, which was not an option — but science’s place in society. The little figures in his paintings with inverted funnels on their heads or the buildings in the form of flasks, distillation bottles, and furnaces reference chemical equipment.[4] Alchemy was gaining ground yet mixed with the occult and full of charlatans and quacks, which Bosch depicted with great humor in front of gullible audiences. Alchemy turned into science when it liberated itself from these influences and developed self-correcting procedures to deal with flawed or fabricated data. But science’s contribution to a moral society, if any, remains a question mark.

Other primates have of course none of these problems, but even they strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.

Frans de Waal’s essay is the subject of this week’s forum discussion among the humanists and scientists at On the Human, a project of the National Humanities Center.

Also, view an excerpt from a discussion about this post between Frans de Waal and Robert Wright, author of “The Moral Animal.”

Or watch the entire discussion at


[1] Also known as s’Hertogenbosch, this is a 12th-century provincial capital in the Catholic south of the Netherlands. Bosch lived from circa 1450 until 1516.

[2] Herculano-Houzel, Suzana (2009). The human brain in numbers: A linearly scaled-up primate brain. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 3: 1-11.

[3] Ghiselin, Michael (1974). The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[4] Dixon, Laurinda (2003). Bosch. London: Phaidon.

Frans de Waal
Frans B. M. de Waal is a biologist interested in primate behavior. He is C. H. Candler Professor in Psychology, and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, in Atlanta, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. His latest book is “The Age of Empathy.”

Dr. Andrew Holecek - Waking Up Hurts

Transforming Spiritual Hardship
into Joy

by Dr. Andrew Holecek

Dharma Quote of the Week

Understanding the power of the path provides the inspiration that keeps us going forward; exploring its pain provides the understanding of what holds us back. It doesn't take long to discover the power, nor to feel the pain. Waking up hurts. And if we don't understand why, we will run from the pain and abandon the path. There are countless people who have become spiritual dropouts, or who are lost in detours because they have not understood hardship.

When your arm falls asleep, it prickles and burns as it returns to life. Frozen fingers sting when they thaw; we jolt awake when the alarm clock rings. But physical instances of anesthesia are mild compared to the anesthesia born of ignorance, and so is the level of discomfort upon awakening. The longer something has been asleep, the more painful it is to wake it up. If your fingers are merely cold, it is easy to warm them up. But if your fingers are frozen solid, it hurts like hell when they thaw. According to the traditions, unless one is already a buddha, an "awakened one," one has been snoring from beginningless time, and it can really hurt before we completely wake up. Mingyur Rinpoche writes,

"I'd like to say that everything got better once I was safely settled among the other participants in the three-year retreat.... On the contrary, however, my first year in retreat was one of the worst in my life. All the symptoms of anxiety I'd ever experienced--physical tension, tightness in the throat, dizziness, and waves of panic--attacked in full force. In Western terms, I was having a nervous breakdown. In hindsight, I can say that what I was actually going through was what I like to call a 'nervous breakthrough'."

--from The Power and the Pain: Transforming Spiritual Hardship into Joy by Dr. Andrew Holecek, published by Snow Lion Publications

The Power and the Pain • Now at 5O% off
(Good through October 29th).

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The RSA - Them and Us: Why we need a fair society

Cool talk - our current form of Capitalism is heartless and wrong-headed. We need a compassionate approach to economics, whatever that may look like.

Them and Us: Why we need a fair society

07 Oct 2010

Join Will Hutton as he argues that we need a whole-scale revision of
the capitalist system that has fairness firmly at its heart.

Download the video (mp4)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Joseph LeDoux on the Neural Situation of Emotion and Memory

This video was posted at The Situationist - Joseph LeDoux is author of The Synaptic Self, among other books.

Joseph LeDoux on the Neural Situation of Emotion and Memory

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 19, 2010

Joseph LeDoux is a professor and a member of the Center for Neural Science and Department of Psychology at NYU. His work is focused on the brain mechanisms of emotion and memory. In addition to articles in scholarly journals, he is author of “The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life” and “Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are.” He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the New York Academy of Science, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science, and the recipient of the 2005 Fyssen International Prize in Cognitive Science. LeDoux is also a singer and songwriter in the rock band, The Amygdaloids.

Rev. Danny Fisher Interviews Stephen Prothero

Stephen Prothero is the author most recently of God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne, 2010). Prothero was interviewed recently by Buddhist chaplain Danny Fisher for The Buddhist Channel. Prothero is an interesting guy, and Danny conducts a very cool interview with him.

“Only If We Are Not Listening…”

By Danny Fisher, Special to The Buddhist Channel, Oct 17, 2010

An Interview with Stephen Prothero on the Dalai Lama, Religious Pluralism, and What We Must Teach

San Francisco, CA (USA) -- Stephen Prothero is a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University, author of the New York Times bestseller Religious Literacy: What Americans Need to Know (HarperOne, 2007) and the brand new God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne, 2010), and probably the religious studies world’s most widely-recognized public intellectual at this moment.

A regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and USA Today (and a past guest on both The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report), Steve also writes for the newly minted CNN Belief Blog. One of his recent posts regarding statements from His Holiness the Dalai Lama about relating with religious pluralism - the provocatively-titled “The Dalai Lama Is Wrong” - generated considerable response (624 comments and counting, as well as rejoinders elsewhere in the blogosphere).

Now that the smoke has cleared a little bit, I wanted to ask Steve - with whom I enjoy a friendly correspondence - for his response to the response, as well as thoughts on Buddhism and interfaith relations more broadly. We communicated via email this past week.

* * *

Steve, you took heat from some Buddhists over your CNN Belief Blog post "The Dalai Lama Is Wrong". Shambhala Sun Space quoted Wisdom Publications's editor Timothy J. McNeill as saying that the Dalai Lama's teachings are more nuanced than "all religions are different paths up the same mountain." McNeill used quotes from The Good Heart and the new Toward a True Kinship of Faiths to make that point. Any response to this? If you think his approach is more nuanced, do problems still persist with the Dalai Lama's approach in your view?

Let me start by saying that I think the Dalai Lama is right about most things most of the time. He is, however, a human being and, at least from my perspective, not a god. So he is going to be wrong about some things, too. History will judge, for example, whether the choices he has made in confronting China over Tibet have been effective. And scholars of religion will judge whether his comments on the world’s religions are true.

Regarding those comments, I begin by observing that the Dalai Lama is obviously an expert on Vajrayana Buddhism, and on Buddhism more generally. But is he an expert on Judaism or Daoism or Islam? I think not. So in my view it shouldn’t shock anyone to hear that the “Dalai Lama is wrong” when it comes to his “Many Faiths, One Truth” article in The New York Times.

Now that headline was almost certainly not written by the Dalai Lama. And I have heard that the op-ed was not written by him either. But when I wrote my response I was responding to that headline, and to the words in the newsprint. I was not responding to the rest of his books, and certainly not to a book (Toward a True Kinship of Faiths) that I had not yet seen.

Mr. McNeill has found work by the Dalai Lama that is more nuanced on the question of the essential unity of the world’s religions, and he offers up quotations to that effect. However, on his own web site the Dalai Lama says “ethics is the foundation of every religion.” And in a book edited by Paul Griffiths he says that, because “every religion emphasizes human improvement, love, respect for others, sharing other peoples’ suffering,” “every religion [has] more or less the same viewpoint and the same goal.”

I agree with the Dalai Lama the world’s religions converge when it comes to ethics. No religion tells you to trip an old lady as she is trying to cross the street. I disagree, however, that “ethics is the foundation of every religion.” Or, to put it another way, most religious people do not believe this. Christians have historically affirmed that the foundation of their religion is salvation from sin. Jesus did not die on the cross to tell us to follow the Golden Rule. That would have been redundant, since the Golden Rule had been affirmed not only by Jews but also by Confucians and others.

My position on the Dalai Lama and his defenders in this dispute is this. You cannot have it both ways. If the Dalai Lama affirms the essential unity of the world’s religions then you need to admit he is wrong. If his position rejects that unity - if his view is more nuanced than “Many Faiths, One Truth” - then I am happy to admit that he is right.

My overall point remains: we cannot understand the religious conflicts that beset our world, or the unique beauty of each of the world’s religions unless we come to grips with religious differences. And I make this point not out of some Ivory Tower concern with truth but out of a genuine concern for human suffering. The way to move forward into a world in which fewer people are killed on account of religion is not to pretend the world’s religions are all about one thing (compassion or salvation or otherwise). It is to acknowledge that those religions aim at very different things, and then to come to understand and perhaps even respect those differences.

I've heard you speak about individuals and organizations that you feel set good examples for approaching religious pluralism, such as Eboo Patel and the Interfaith Youth Core. I'm curious: are there Buddhist individuals and organizations that you feel set a similarly useful example?

I’m not much of an expert on this, so I don’t know the landscape. I can say that I have met many Buddhists in the interfaith organizations whose work I respect: Mirabai Bush and Sunanda Markus of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society; Alisa Roadcup of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions; and Robert Thurman (my former teacher) of Columbia University. And I think there are great resources inside the Buddhist tradition for what I have called Interfaith 2.0 - the sort of interreligious engagement that eschews “pretend pluralism” for an honest encounter of differences. One of those resources is the practice of not grasping after beliefs (or, for that matter, people) as if they can bring us eternal happiness.

In God Is Not One, you discuss many of the worlds' religions separately in individual chapters in order to underscore their various differences. For the benefit of readers who haven't had a chance to look at your book yet, I'd like you to say something about the unique qualities of the Buddhist path in your view. But I'm wondering if you can take a more personal approach here: As a self-described "confused Christian," how do you understand your spiritual path as fundamentally different from that of a Buddhist?

In each of the chapters in God is Not One, I begin by asking how people inside a given religious tradition analyze the human predicament: what is the problem the tradition seeks to address? In Christianity that problem is sin. In Islam it is pride. In Buddhism it is suffering. And that awareness is in my view unique to Buddhism. So is its single minded effort to eradicate the sources of human suffering. I have in the past described myself as a “confused Christian.” I’m not sure that label still fits, however. (As Buddhists observe, things change, as do people.) I am still plenty confused, but I am not sure I need to continue to honor my parents and grandparents by calling myself a Christian. As for Buddhism and my own yana, I have been attracted to Buddhist teachings such as anatta (no Self/Soul) and anicca (impermanence) from the moment I first learned of them. Christians are fond of saying that the doctrine of sin is empirically verifiable. But so is impermanence. And it seems inescapably true to me that much human suffering arises from our grasping after things that change as if they did not. I should also add that if I had to pick “the greatest story every told,” it would not be the story of the death of Jesus but of the life of the Buddha. I tell that story in almost every class I teach, and I find something new in it every time.

You’ve written, spoken, and blogged about the need for greater religious studies education, and I'm wondering about other practical advice you might have. In particular, what would you say to Buddhist leaders and teachers--whether they're ordained clergy or those in positions of lay leadership--who might look to you and say, "What can we do to be more helpful in this regard?"

Here I would say to Buddhist leaders what I say to Jewish and Protestant and Catholics leaders: figure out ways to teach your people the ways of your tradition. The French sociologist Danielle Hervieu Leger has argued that religion is a “chain of memory.” European-style secularization is rooted in her view not so much in the rejection of religion as in a sort of amnesia about it. Here in America we are a nation of forgetters. So Buddhist leaders would do well simply to help American Buddhists remember what their tradition is all about. This is not easy here, since the machine of America is designed to bend ancient traditions around to its own purposes, not least the buying and selling of things (religions included).

Our interview will probably be read by a lot of people who are Buddhists or who have an interest in Buddhism. By way of a final question, I'm wondering if there's anything you might like to add with that in mind. Is there anything I haven't asked you about that you'd like to share with such an audience?

I’d like to add that my first book - The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott [which will be published in paperback by Indiana University Press next month] - was about the first U.S. convert to Buddhism. He claimed that the world’s religions were all in essence the same, but it was clear to me that he interpreted them all (Buddhism included) through a Protestant lens. Much of my writing on this topic seeks to goad people into seeing how their own parochial assumptions inform their reading of other religions. Compassion may be the foundation of certain forms of Buddhism. But is it the basis on which Daoism and Confucianism and Sikhism are built? Only if we are not listening…