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February 27, 2012

Losing Our Demons, Finding Our Peace – the Promise of Cultural Maturity

A world at peace is much more achievable than we might imagine—at least a world free from the cataclysmic sort of conflict we most fear. It is essential that this be so. The weapons-of-mass-destruction genie is out of the bottle. And better defenses will only spawn even more dangerous weaponry. Any hope for the future must come from something deeper than putting in place more effective military counter measures. It lies in lessening the forces that have led to war in the past.

Understanding how to do this requires a new and greater sophistication in how we think and act—a fundamental kind of “growing up” as a species. I call this Cultural Maturity and see it as the defining task of our time. Stepping beyond the mechanism that in the past has produced the larger part of human conflict is a pivotal ingredient in Cultural Maturity changes and follows from them.

As human societies grew in scale and complexity, there was a tendency to distinguish self – the “chosen” – from others – the “barbarians.” Since civilization’s earliest beginnings, demonizing others has played a key role in establishing social identity and creating the close bonds needed for social order.

The theme is so embedded in our collective psyche, it is natural to assume it is part of our genetic heritage, something whose influence we cannot escape. The perspective of Cultural Maturity is that this is developmental—a necessary step, but not the endpoint, of our cultural evolution. In fact, two events in the last couple of decades point to hopeful progress.

the_fall_of_the_berlin_wall_1989The fall of the Berlin Wall provides the most striking illustration. Few anticipated it—certainly not the suddenness of its collapse. While many leaders tried to take credit for it, political initiatives in fact had little to do with the collapse of communism. In effect, the world community had grown beyond the absolute dogma and knee-jerk polar animosities the wall represented.

As momentous as those events of 1989 were, it is what has happened—or not happened—since that is truly significant. With the end of the Cold War, “evil empire” animosities between the United States and the former Soviet Union transformed with unprecedented quickness to a relationship of mutual, if begrudging, respect. Though the two countries still have many policy differences, there has not been a return to the deep rooted polarization of the past since the wall came down.

attack on twin towers 9-11A second major event, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks provided every reason for us to make terrorism the new communism, a response that would have undermined any possibility of effectively addressing terrorism’s threat. Worse yet, in response we could have made the whole of the Islamic East the new “evil empire,” and turned new uncertainties into a clash of civilizations. But while some leaders have played the “demon card” in response to terrorist activities, to a surprising degree most citizens have not fallen for the bait. Viewed from an historical vantage, this outcome is remarkable. It offers hope that we are up to the rigors of a new Cultural Maturity.

If we can recognize—and find significance in— our differences, we can leave cultural demonizing in the past, and find our way to a more peaceful world.

February 21, 2012

Is There a Moral Gene?

neuronsFor many years now, the quest for the evolutionary basis of our moral behavior has been quietly underway.  Science is beginning to explore territory once reserved for philosophers and priests.  Tantalizing evidence is accumulating from research studies in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and, more recently, genetics that humankind is inherently moral.

The basic thinking goes something like this.  Social caring emerged during the evolution of mammals as a way to care for their young and ensure their survival.  A combination of brain circuitry and hormones drive this caring behavior.  Renowned geneticist and author, Richard Dawkins, proposes that this combination of social survival mixed with a physically based empathy, provides the foundation for our human morality.

Richard Dawkins – On Morality

In her new book, Braintrust, neurophilosophy pioneer Patricia Churchland (of UC San Diego and the Salk Institute) describes the “neurobiological platform of bonding” that, modified by evolutionary pressures and cultural values, has led to human styles of moral behavior. The result is a genealogy of morals that asks us to reevaluate the priority given to religion, absolute rules, and pure reason in accounting for the basis of morality.

Patricia Churchland

Patricia Churchland

Moral values, she argues, are rooted in a behavior common to all mammals–the caring for offspring. The evolved structure, processes, and chemistry of the brain incline humans to strive not only for self-preservation but for the well-being of allied selves–first offspring, then mates, kin, and so on, in wider and wider “caring circles.” Separation and exclusion cause pain, and the company of loved ones causes pleasure; responding to feelings of social pain and pleasure, brains adjust their circuitry to local customs. In this way, caring is provided, conscience shaped, and moral intuitions strengthened. A key part of the story is oxytocin, an ancient body-and-brain molecule that, by decreasing the stress response, allows humans to develop the trust in one another necessary for the development of close-knit ties, social institutions, and morality.

Does this research mean that religion is irrelevant when it  comes to our moral development?  Actually, it points to the source of our religious instinct.  Religion and spirituality fill the powerful human need for meaning, even if our morality is ultimately rooted in our physical being.  It is a tremendously hopeful prospect to be able to fully understand our empathetic nature and know that we are moral creatures at our core–and expressing it is our most naturally human act.

February 12, 2012

End of the Inside Track – Congressional Insider Trading Derailed

CongressThose in Congress occupy a unique niche in American society.  They are gatekeepers for the creation of the laws we are bound by as citizens.  In that role, the temptation for gaming the system for financial advantage is great and often the oversight is weak.  Over the last several decades, Congress has often demonstrated an unapologetic propensity to live above the laws they make for the rest of us.

A case in point – insider trading.  American citizens are constrained by the provisions of the 1934 Securities and Exchange Act from trading the stocks of companies about which they may have important, non-public information.  However, members of Congress have no such constraint under this Act thanks to the very lucrative exemption they created for themselves.  Members of both parties were happy to exploit this convenient exemption, ignoring the ethical lapse it represents, until the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes brought the matter into full public view.


Peter Schweizer

The research underlying the 60 Minutes report was developed by Peter Schweizer, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, for his new book Throw Them All Out.  The uncomfortable exposure brought a sudden rush to support the STOCK Act,  legislation to curtail insider trading of securities by lawmakers and officials in the executive branch.  The bill had languished for years with only 2 sponsors.  On February 9, the House of Representatives passed the bill overwhelmingly by a vote of 417 to 2, with over a hundred sponsors.

This initial test of support for the STOCK Act, complete with the ethical posturing by members who had only months before been happy to profit on non-public information, was impressive.  But the real test will come as the final bill gets worked out in conference committee meetings.  One of the key issues is how to deal with the purveyors of political intelligence – often former members of Congress in the employ of hedge funds or other groups that can profit from inside knowledge of Congressional activities and intentions.

The Founding Fathers designed the government to operate within a system of institutional checks and balances.  But when it comes to curbing the “legal graft” practiced by those with the power to make laws, the most powerful check has turned out be the transparency brought by our ubiquitous, instant and always on media.

Perhaps the STOCK Act will go some way toward improving the very low esteem in which Congress is held these days – with job approval ratings now at 11 percent.  It is critical for us as a society that we not lose trust in our governing bodies. As Meg McCardle noted in her recent article “Capitol Gains” for The Atlantic magazine:

“In the end, the problem with congressional insider trading isn’t that it undermines confidence in the market—Congress frequently does that openly. The problem with congressional insider trading is that it erodes confidence in our political institutions. We can’t really afford to deplete that pitiful stock much further.”


February 8, 2012

The Long Shadow of Childhood Trauma

We hear a lot about the healthcare crisis – generally framed in economic terms.  But often lost in the haggling over cost figures and acrimonious debate about whether healthcare is the province of the government or the free market is a much more important and frightening reality – the poor state of health among our nation’s children.

Scared-Sick book coverIn a recently published book Scared Sick, Robin Kaar-Morse and Meredith Wiley provide sobering statistics about the state of children’s health in the US.  Their research, compiled from government and private studies, paints a grim picture.  For example:

  • Among the seven largest industrialized nations in the world, the US ranks last on infant mortality rates and longevity.
  • The overall well-being of American children ranks twentieth among twenty-one wealth democracies, behind Hungary, Greece and Poland.
  • One in three children born five years ago will develop diabetes in their lifetime.
  • Child abuse death rates are far higher in the US than in all of the seven largest developed countries; three times higher than Canada and eleven times higher than Italy.
  • Five children die every day as the result of child abuse; three out of four of these are under the age of four.
  • 15.5 percent of all babies born in the US are low birth weight and / or preterm at delivery.
  • Just over 20 percent of children either currently or at some point have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder.
  • An estimated 26 percent of all children in the US will witness a violent or traumatic event prior to age four.
  • One in one hundred infants is born with fetal alcohol syndrome, the leading preventable cause of mental retardation, birth defects and learning disabilities in the Western world.
  • Of children ages three to seventeen, 4.7 million have a learning disability.

(Page xv, Scared Sick, 2011.)

The scientific evidence is mounting that conflict and trauma can take a toll on our organs and biological regulatory systems during development and lead to serious health issues as adults. This should be reason enough to re-examine our nation’s healthcare priorities.  But work in a relatively new field of biology should provide an even stronger incentive.

frightened childResearch in the rapidly evolving area of epigenetics is hinting at biological mechanisms that link trauma experienced by one generation with diseases that develop in subsequent generations.  Epigenetics focuses on the way that cells facilitate or inhibit the expression of our genes.  Epigenetic functioning,unlike our genes, is more directly affected by environmental influences.  In some cases, it appears that epigenetic mechanisms damaged by environmental factors in one generation may be passed on to future generations.  This means there could be a generational echo to diseases provoked by conflict or trauma during childhood.  This is in addition to the psychological damage that often results in abused children turning into abusive parents.

As the rhetoric over healthcare in America ratchets up in this election year, we should look at the very real and long-term consequences of neglecting our children’s health.  As Herbert Ward observed, “Childhood abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime.”  And now, we suspect, that shadow may be much longer.


February 7, 2012

Girl Up! – Closing the Gender Gap in Education

girls-in-schoolPicture this: your name is Fatuma, and you are a fourteen year old girl living in Todee, Liberia. Your brother is allowed to go to school and you aren’t, even though you desperately want to go to university and become a doctor. While American girls like me have the same dreams as Fatuma does, she simply does not have the resources to pursue her goals.

Even though Fatuma is a hypothetical example, her situation is very real.  In the world today there are four million fewer girls attending primary school than boys.1 Though the global community has made significant strides to eliminate the gender gap in education, much more progress is needed to achieve educational equality.

According to the World Bank, 35 million girls do not attend primary school.  Most of these girls live in developing countries.¹ Laws that discriminate against women and girls often play a role in the educational gender gap. In many developing countries, laws dictate that a larger portion of the family inheritance go to the male children, giving families like Fatuma’s a clear incentive to educate the boys rather than the girls.2

Additionally, Fatuma’s family is reluctant to spend money on her education, as they know that once she is married, she will live with her husband’s family. Any income that Fatuma’s education generates after her marriage will be enjoyed by her husband’s family.  Thus, Fatuma’s family believes that because their son-in-law’s family will receive the return on their investment in Fatuma’s education, her schooling is not worth the expense.

Girls Without Voices: Invest In Me

Even if Fatuma’s family was willing to send her to school, it could be so costly that they could not afford it. School fees can consume up to 30% of a family’s income and do not include costs for parent-teacher associations and teacher salary supplements. Fatuma’s family also must provide uniforms and transportation to and from school. Lastly, if Fatuma went to school, she would not have enough time to work to help support her family, denying her family a valuable source of income. In many areas, girls and women are expected to perform the majority of domestic tasks so if Fatuma went to school, there would be no one to help cook, clean, and take care of siblings.3

Girl Up logoFortunately for Fatuma and girls like her around the world, many wonderful organizations are striving to provide equal opportunities for education. I am a Teen Advisor for Girl Up, a United Nations Foundation campaign that supports UN programs that benefit girls in developing countries. With the support of Girl Up, girls receive school supplies or scholarships to decrease the economic burden on their families. They are given a second chance to go to school in cases where they were forced to drop out or never attended in the first place. Most importantly, they receive leadership training that teaches them to speak up for themselves and for all girls everywhere. Thanks to Girl Up, girls around the world are given the chance to achieve their dreams. Other organizations making a difference through emphasizing education for girls education include She’s the First, the Girl Effect, CARE, and SHARE.

With the help of these amazing organizations and campaigns, girls are able to not only help themselves, but also their families and communities. Educated girls and women typically make 10-25% more in wages, and they reinvest 90% of that money back into their families. Educated women generally get married later and have fewer children.4 These children will often be healthier and more educated themselves than children of uneducated mothers. By educating girls, we are not only able to solve today’s problems, but we are able to inspire the next generation of leaders who will solve the problems of tomorrow.


  1. Education – Girls’ Education.” The World Bank. The World Bank Group, 18 Aug. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.
  2. Roudi-Fahimi, Farzaneh, and Valentine Moghadam. “Empowering Women, Developing Society
  3. Society: Female Education in the Middle East and North Africa.” Population Reference Bureau. Population Reference Bureau, Nov. 2003. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.
  4. United States. Dept. of State. Educating Girls: What Works. IIP Digital. U.S. Dept. of State, 1 July 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.
  5. Girleffect.org. The Girl Effect. the Girl Effect, n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2012.