HomeArticleOn Biology, Brains, And Human Suffering

On Biology, Brains, And Human Suffering

Once upon a time, the first microorganisms appeared in our planet’s water, and then eventually got around to evolving into complex life forms. Those life forms ate each other and had sex with each other in a frenzied orgy of chaos, eventually schlepping their way out of the ocean and onto land so they could eat each other and have sex with each other on dry dirt.

The organisms became more and more complex as they figured out better and better ways to eat each other and have sex with each other in the frenzied cacophony. Some of them said “screw this” and schlepped their way back into the ocean, and they got really big and evolved blowholes on the tops of their heads. Others evolved opposable thumbs for climbing up trees and, eventually, brains so large that they needed to be born while still completely helpless due to the massive size of their heads. Those brains are the most complex objects in the known universe to this day.

That frantic explosion of biting and swallowing and ejaculating and birthing is where homo sapiens arrived on the scene. Running away from sharp teeth, trying to use those massive brains to figure out how to not get devoured by bigger, stronger organisms, sharpening sticks to poke at toothy monsters that tried to make food out of them, then poking each other with the sticks to try and steal each other’s food when times were lean, running, stabbing, biting, chewing, ejaculating, birthing, running stabbing biting chewing ejaculating birthing running stabbing biting chewing ejaculating birthing running stabbing biting chewing ejaculating birthing running stabbing biting chewing ejaculating birthing running stabbing biting chewing ejaculating birthing runningstabbingbitingchewingejaculatingbirthing, and then all of a sudden here we are in houses with cars trying to figure out why we can’t relax and enjoy the weekend.

We are not surrounded by sharp-toothed mouths anymore. The hungry monsters who once hunted us are all dead or in zoos now. Nothing is trying to eat us. But we’re still running the same primal fear programs we had going when our evolutionary ancestors took those first cautious, perilous steps out of the trees.

And why wouldn’t we be? We literally just stumbled out of the mad chaos of runningstabbingbitingchewingejaculatingbirthing. Scaled against the context of the greater history of life on this planet, it was just a blink of an eye ago that that was happening. Our bodies and brains are still biologically the same as they were back before nature was beaten into submission, back when we could still be eaten by giant toothy beasts at any moment.

So we’re still doing what always used to work for us: trying to use these massive brains to find ways to minimize threats and find security. But the “threats” we target with this deeply ingrained survival habit are not saber-toothed cats and giant prehistoric bears, nor even an inability to find and obtain food; they’re abstract concepts like potential loss of social status, disapproval or disrespect from fellow humans, ideas about inadequacy and not living up to our potential, perseverating on memories about the past and fretting over imaginings about the future.

Nearly all stress experienced by humans living in industrialized societies is a response to imaginary abstract concepts, not actual existential threats to their biology. The existential threats we do perceive are almost entirely illusory fabrications placed in our minds by the plutocrat-owned media in order to manipulate our thinking, buying, voting and behavior, like the notion that terrorists or Russians or Republicans/Democrats are going to destroy us any minute now.

So here we are, living in a world wherein we are surrounded not by threats with sharp teeth and claws, but imaginary threats made entirely of abstract concepts. And what do we do to find safety in that sea of imaginary abstract conceptual threats? We try to use thinking to protect ourselves, which is kind of like trying to dry off using a fire hose while immersed underwater.

In this new world–this new world in which we are no longer a part of the food chain and can easily survive on entirely plant-based diets if we want to, this new world to which we have not yet really adapted–thought is usually the wrong tool for nullifying threats and finding peace and safety. It was an extremely useful tool for figuring out how to sharpen sticks to a point and fend off toothy monsters, for learning how to send sticks tipped with pointy stones flying through the air to impale prey, for learning how to grow edible plants in the soil, right up to the really fancy tricks like discovering how antibiotics can prevent pathogens from killing us. We evolved these brains to enable us to out-survive and out-thrive other competing organisms, in exactly the same way that porcupines evolved quills and chameleons evolved camouflage, and for the purpose of out-surviving and out-thriving other competing organisms our capacity for abstract thought has been extremely useful.

But, as far as practical matters are concerned, that is all it has ever been useful for. It has not been useful for finding a way to relax and be at peace with our own existence in this universe. Hell, a common house cat, with a brain far less evolved and complex than our own, is able to abide in far more tranquility than we are with our full arsenal of language, history, culture and scientific know-how. The house cat doesn’t sit around worrying if it’s adequate. It doesn’t harbor seething resentment for years if someone doesn’t show it the right kind of attention at the right time. It doesn’t sit around perseverating on a cutting quip it could have said to someone at the right time if it had just been a little quicker on the comeback. It just is.

And that’s really what we all want, deep down. We want to just be, the way every single other animal on this earth is able to just be. That’s all we’re ever seeking when we get sucked up into various kinds of addictions, when we fixate on the pursuit of fame or fortune, when we strive to win the approval of our fellow humans, when we scheme to get ahead, when we throw all that away in desperation and devote our lives to religion or spirituality. We’re ultimately just trying to get to some point where we can feel okay in these hairless ape bodies and relax and enjoy this breathtakingly beautiful planet of ours instead of being tormented by compulsive mental machinations. We’re just trying to be.

So we set up these conceptual worlds for ourselves full of labels and descriptions and goals and problems in order to try and get to that point. We label the human organism “me” and build an entire conceptual framework full of strategies for funneling peace and contentment into that “me” character, on the unquestioned premise that we’ll have the same success with those strategies that our prehistoric ancestors had when they used abstract concepts to figure out how to sharpen sticks to protect themselves and learn which fruits are safe to eat. If I can just get to the point where I’m good enough and correct enough, if I believe the right thoughts and do the right things and accomplish the right accomplishments, then I’ll finally be okay. Then I can just be.

That’s all we’re ever doing with the mental perseverations which cause us stress and suffering. But how crazy is that? How crazy is it to sit around frantically arranging abstract concepts in our minds, hoping to find the right arrangement someday that allows us to just be? Aren’t we being already? How could any amount of thinking and strategizing and scheming and arranging ever take us any closer to what’s already happening? Isn’t it weird to think that we can spend our entire lives working our butts off in the hope that one day we will have secured enough resources/ideas/approval/whatever to finally convince our brains that we are safe enough to enjoy a few moments of being before we die?

This is why our species acts so nutty all the time. That’s why wars are fought when they don’t need to be and why we’re killing the very ecosystemic context we evolved in which we depend upon for survival instead of collaborating with each other and our environment to everyone’s benefit. We’ve thought up all kinds of convoluted explanations for why we act so crazy; it’s because people don’t agree with our political faction. It’s because of original sin. It’s because we’re just generally awful. It’s because of this or that minority group. But really the source of all our madness, when you boil it right down, is that we’re all trying to use mental strategies made of abstract concepts in order to feel okay, and it will never, ever work. We have an unexamined, ineffective coping strategy for dealing with our new, much safer world, and it keeps us in a state of stress and fear. This stress and fear is then used by clever humans to manipulate us into supporting political policies and behaviors which do not serve us.

We’re in a clunky, awkward transition phase, like the evolutionary ancestors of whales probably were before they got that whole blowhole thing down, where we’re in a new safe world totally unlike the frantic runningstabbingbitingchewingejaculatingbirthing world of our ancestors, but we haven’t yet adapted to it. The clever humans are able to seize upon our confusion and manipulate us solely because we have not yet figured out that it’s safe to just be.

Well, check it out my friend. That safety you seek is right here, right now. Look around you. Do you see any man-eating sharks? Is there a truck bearing down on you right now? Is there anything in your immediate vicinity that you need to run away from?

No? Well then you are safe. Wahoo! You made it. You are free to just be. You have total permission. It’s okay, I promise. You can totally do this for the next few minutes and the world will not miss you.

Feel how you are gently secured to the planet’s surface by gravity. Feel how solid the ground is underneath you. Wriggle your bum deeper into your chair and take a big yawn in to your lungs. Move your body around and feel the delicious stretch in your muscles. Here we are, safe and sound. Think to yourself “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

The organism through whose eyes you are currently peering is already fully present. Being is happening currently. You have been searching for something you already possess, like a woman searching the entire house hunting for the hand bag she’s wearing over her shoulder. It is safe to settle into the amazing feat of evolutionary engineering that is your body and let being simply be.

The old mental habits will keep churning for a while like the blades of a ceiling fan that has been switched off, but if you keep returning to the simple beingness of your own cells those habits will fall away, and you’ll be able to sit in your own presence like all the other organisms in the animal kingdom can. And the sooner we all do that, the sooner human thought can take on its rightful place as a useful tool that can be picked up when it’s useful and set down when it isn’t, and the sooner we can get along with the rest of the life here on this amazing blue planet.


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Latest comments

  • Theory of Mind (TOM) and denial – start here https://un-denial.com/denial-2/darwin-vs-varki/.

  • Caitlin, you have explained the origin of the human race and its journey to where we living examples are today very well, very imaginatively. Congratulations.
    I’m going to as gently as possible disagree with some of what you say. I wish that I could do so privately, but AFAICT, that is impossible, so here I go.
    “We evolved these brains to enable us to out-survive and out-thrive other competing organisms, in exactly the same way that porcupines evolved quills and chameleons evolved camouflage, and for the purpose of out-surviving and out-thriving other competing organisms our capacity for abstract thought has been extremely useful.
    But, as far as practical matters are concerned, that is all it has ever been useful for. IT HAS NOT BEEN USEFUL FOR FINDING A WAY TO RELAX AND BE AT PEACE WITH OUR OWN EXISTENCE IN THIS UNIVERSE.”
    I absolutely agree with the first paragraph I’ve quoted above. Again, congratulations for it and everything before it. However, IMO, the sentence that I’ve capitalized is simply not true, unless you mean that every single human being on the planet is constantly NOT relaxed and NOT “at peace”, which I don’t think you meant. But if you did, my wife and I are relaxed (sometimes to the point of semi-consciousness under a hot sun), and we are as “at peace” with each other and everybody else we know as far as I think is humanly possible.
    If you meant that humanity in general is not currently relaxed and at peace, I would say that collective abstract thought (I would call it “the human imagination”) has not as of this moment resulted in humanity being able to relax and be at peace solely because our eons-old, in-born ABILITY to “do” abstract thought does NOT determine what any individual or groups of individuals will actually think. It is the Matrix – the Matrix of 10,000 ago or the Matrix of today – that for the most part determines what will be thought (or said, or done). But the near-omnipotent power/control of the Matrix does not mean that abstract thought or imagination is not useful; it only means that it is severely constrained in the vast majority of individuals. Some individuals such as Galileo, Newton, Skinner, Hawking, etc. were born into a rare Matrix in which they had the time, the opportunity, the money, the help of great teachers, etc. which resulted in them thinking important, future-altering thoughts that had never been thought before (or at least never been written down before). In other words, these individuals were not raised in a dark closet that had a locked door which was only opened when food was occaisonally tossed inside. Quite to opposite.
    In our very real Matrix, abstract thought or imagination is the one and the only hope for humanity to save itself from its own fatally-flawed, deeply-inculcated, deeply-inculcated, deeply-inculcated BEHAVIORAL PATTERNS – repeated patterns that have predictably, REPEATEDLY resulted in large-scale “financial crises”, wars and an exploding human population – the latter two of which, if they continue, are going to INEVITABLY result in human extinction. Mother Earth already, ALREADY, ALREADY! CAN NOT support 7.6 billion people, let alone more, and she can not protect stone-age-clone, nuclear-armed human beings from themselves.
    The shocking reality that human beings for some reason CAN NOT COLLECTIVELY FACE is that humanity, or the small number of Elite that control the bewildered herd of humanity, can no longer “make believe” that it is living in 1850 – a time when Mother Earth supported “only” 1.2 billion people and the greatest weapons human beings wielded were thousands of black-powder cannons and millions of rifles.
    The near-omnipotence of our Matrix over abstract thinking becomes perfectly obvious when the individuals living in it — us, we –attempt to discuss/decide if the human population should be reduced, let alone how; and how to finally stop making war on each other. Those topics make present day, highly evolved, higly intelligent humans either instantly revert back to one or all three of the monkeys who “say no evil; see no evil; hear no evil”, or inexplicably start experiencing what Neo’s mouth did in the Agents’ interrogation room. All of this inevitably-futile discussion starts and finishes with resorts to human emotions, attitudes, instincts, beliefs, etc., and virtually none of it involves what IMO are the fatal flaws OF the Matrix itself – again, the virtually omnipotent force that controls day to day human behavior INCLUDING what human beings think.
    The perhaps insurmountable paradox that present-day human descendants must somehow overcome is that human beings –parents, teachers, “authorities” — are THE most important part OF The Matrix that we are born into. Caitlin described this perfectly in her recent article about what parents and teachers teach their children. Therefore, at least SOME of what the Matrix is TEACHING, TEACHING, TEACHING its new-born is resulting in those individuals collectively making way too many babies as well as war on each other. So just exactly what is that “SOME” that is being taught to humans from Day 1 that ends up causing these individual humans to either make, OR FORCE OTHER HUMAN BEINGS TO MAKE, the inevitably-human-species-killing “decision” to make too many babies; and to make the fatally-flawed “decision” to make war on other human beings — human beings that they likely have never met and live perhaps half way round mother earth? Are human beings COLLECTIVELY intelligent enough to figure out what that “SOME” is? So far, it’s not looking good.
    The species of Mother Earth’s animals called “human beings” is right now, TODAY!, at the very precipice of extinction. There is a fatal flaw in the structure of the Matrix that we all just happened to be born into that is causing humanity to collectively make too many babies and war. The Matrix must be “corrected” so that human beings living in it produce far fewer children and no longer make war on each other. We have to determine just exactly WHAT that fatal flaw is TODAY and correct it TODAY, not tomorrow, not in 10 years, not “by 2040”.
    You’re a far, far better….er……writer than I, Gunga Johnstone. Please transform my sow’s ear into a silk purse.

  • Caitlin, what a wonderful piece to wake up to this morning. I’ve been trying to convince the world for years to move away from our current system of production and distribution (the economy). Time to let the robots slave, work a 20 hour week, sit back, enjoy the sun, and shoot the breeze.

  • And when the broken hearted people
    Living in the world agree,
    There will be an answer, let it be.
    For though they may be parted there is
    Still a chance that they will see

    There will be an answer, let it be.

    “Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”

  • Quote from the Buddha, “All suffering is of the mind”

    Evolutionary biology: All organisms evolve their specialized facilities to be successful, until they over-evolve, and their specialized facilities then become their disadvantages. Thus, like the dinosaurs evolved to the point where their size became their disadvantage, we have evolved to the point where our over-evolved brain has become our disadvantage. Meditation is the attempt to quiet the mind, and overcome this disadvantage.

  • Brilliant article that sums up so many important points. As a shamanic dancer and somatic practitioner, I am always amazed at how unconscious people are about their bodies and all the body is communicating to them, and how central the body is to human experience. Come back to our bodies, come back to moment-by-moment experience, and humans will understand what life is about.

  • I ask Caitlyn if she’s interacted–talked with or read the writings of–fellow Aussie Rex Morrison, who wrote Spirit in the Gene, which is a very thought provoking, controversial book, since her essay somewhat echoes his point.

  • Your essay, Caitlin, brings to mind the aperçu of Nick Vujicick: “It’s not the pursuit of happiness; it’s the happiness of pursuits.”

  • Caitlin, are you suggesting that the Left needs to stop being fearful of finding straight White males under their beds every night?

  • That calls for another donation.

  • You’re one of the best thinkers for our age.

  • Why you Buddhist,you.All snark aside,you have delivered value and,for this,thank you. and all blessings all over you.

  • Dogs aren’t like cats. Many are smart and engaging. Sometimes they have a sense of humor, ever seen one smile? Ever seen one play keep-away with a sock or the remote? And most love to be petted and will encourage you to comply, maybe even bark at you.

    I sat next to a female body-builder-chatter -box at work. She was going on about something, but I was focused on a situation on my screen, so I just let her go on. She slugged my arm and said, you aren’t paying enough attention to me.

  • Nice one Caitlin. It works!
    Only, cat brains – they manage even though their brains are only marginally less complicated than ours. Complicated social lives at times, but the contented cat asleep on the doorstep means your town is OK

  • Has this piece been written by the same person who two weeks ago was expressing a neurosis over someone not reacting the right was to her seeing an ejaculation thingy . BOy !!!

  • “[A common house cat] doesn’t harbor seething resentment for years if someone doesn’t show it the right kind of attention at the right time.” You’ve never met my cat.

  • Well I am now 76. For the last 50 odd years I have been struggling (between children and a business to run) to articulate a pivotal insight that I had at university. I called it “imagination” –that which allows us to say one thing is better than another. What is is and anything else is imaginary. I have gone so far as to say that the way consciousness is described is wrong. Thinking is not consciousness it is just unrealness. Consciousness is what we share with the rest of the cosmos. Our apparent uniqueness is this chatter that seems to fill our head day and night. And yes I think that I found the opposite to “imagination”__it is acceptance.
    Which is my way of saying to you Caitlin Thank you. You are so insightful and articulate. Well done.

  • Aw, Caitlin, you write essays which I wish I had written! Keep up the good work, I say while I have another lesson from my cat on living in the now.

  • Brilliant! As always.

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