TRANSFORMING HUMAN NATURE
with GEORGE LEONARD
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is human transformation, and we're going to be asking the key question, is humanity really capable of transforming this planet, our civilization, into a more joyful society capable of supporting greater self actualization? Given that the history of our civilization has been marked by continual war, pollution, and human oppression, there are some who doubt that transformation is possible. With me in the studio today is an optimist, George Leonard, the author of numerous books, including Education and Ecstasy, The Ultimate Athlete, The Silent Pulse, and The Transformation. George is the former vice president of the Esalen Institute, a former senior editor of Look magazine, and also an Aikido instructor. Welcome, George.
GEORGE LEONARD: It's great to be here, Jeff.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. You know, people do make this argument that the more things change, the more they stay the same -- that if you look throughout civilization, we've always had armies, we've always had warfare, we've always had oppressed people. You, I think, suggest that we should take a deeper, broader vision, and look beyond recorded history, and in that view of things one can see that human beings have made fundamental changes.
LEONARD: Exactly. People always say, "Man was born a builder; he'll keep on building until the whole country is paved over and every river runs in concrete channels. Man was born a fighter; he will have war and conflict and cynicism for all of time." Look at history and you will see that's very true. But as you suggest, we have to look beyond history. Let's open our canvas a little bit; let's look at a longer wave. And certainly what we call civilization, the beginning of the nation-state, didn't go back any further than 7000 years ago, probably not that long.
MISHLOVE: Whereas human beings have been around maybe a million.
LEONARD: Hominids, or certainly homo sapiens, have been around probably a million years. It keeps getting longer and longer, you know. With every new discovery, every archaeological find, it gets longer. But 5000 years is a wink in time. Human nature evolved biologically. Our endocrine system, our nervous system, our skeletal system, muscular, everything, developed when human beings were living for about a million years as hunters and gatherers. And as far as we can tell from the archaeological record and from the surviving primitive hunting-and-gathering tribes and bands, in these bands there was no permanent leadership; there was no war as we know it. There were no standing armies, no territorial war certainly. There was no bureaucracy, no lawyers. We've got plenty of lawyers now. There were no lawyers when human beings evolved; lawyers were something that was layered on after biological evolution took place. The human animal was not really made, not created biologically, for what we call civilization.
MISHLOVE: Wasn't it in the eighteenth or nineteenth century that Rousseau came up with this image we call the noble savage?
LEONARD: I'm kind of sorry he did, because he overdid it so much that now when you say the noble savage, this becomes a symbol of naivete -- anyone who thinks of a savage as noble is naive. And that's probably true. Things are always complicated. We should not romanticize the primitive peoples. But in any case we can see that they really lived in what we would call a different human condition and manifested a different "human nature" -- I'll put quotes around that.
MISHLOVE: So in a sense, what you seem to be saying is that when people talk about let's get back to good old-fashioned values, you might say yes, shamanism.
LEONARD: Yes, shamanism. The part-time shaman was the first specialist known. There was no specialization in a hunting-and-gathering tribe. So many things that we consider an absolute part of human life and human nature didn't even exist. And then a transformation did occur. Now, evolution -- we've got to get straight about this. A good scientist will say we're being a little careless about it, but evolution doesn't necessarily mean progress; it goes in both directions. Nevertheless we have seen, over these millennia, increasing complexity evolve. We have seen the emergence of conditions -- we're talking about social organization now -- which probably could not have been predicted from what came before. The first great transformation I'm speaking of in this time scale was the transformation between the hunting-and-gathering band and the tribal farmer. That was what we might call the agricultural revolution -- when people began planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall.
MISHLOVE: A great deal of social organization was necessary for that.
LEONARD: To bridge that gap. As Professor Skinner would say, that was the beginning of delayed reinforcement. That was kind of a harsh thing for the human being to take, because previously, in hunting-and-gathering bands, individuals had lived in constant equilibrium and harmony with nature. They were part of nature.
MISHLOVE: You got to eat your food the day you killed it.
LEONARD: That's right. Incidentally, in hunting-and-gathering bands, as far as we know, they split it with geometric precision. There was no selfishness. Everything was divided up with precision, and in fact the hunter, the one who made the kill, was the last to eat. So the tribal farmer was a bit different. To bridge the gap between planting and harvesting, there were religious rites -- that's perhaps the birth of really serious religion as being apart from the rest of life.
MISHLOVE: The great religions of ancient Egypt and Babylonia and Sumeria.
LEONARD: Well, that's a little later, the beginning of civilization. The tribal farmer would be more like the Zuni Indians, the Pueblos. The Zuni Indians spent up to fifty percent of their waking hours in specifically religious ceremonies. The hunters and gatherers had religious ceremonies, but they were part of life.
MISHLOVE: Everybody was a shaman, so to speak.
LEONARD: That's right.
MISHLOVE: A shaman being a person who interacted with spirits, who was in touch with the psychological world of nature, the world of dreams.
LEONARD: Right. The dreamers of the aborigines in Australia, that lived a different life. But it was all integrated.
MISHLOVE: It was the natural condition of humanity, one might say.
LEONARD: Exactly. With the tribal farmer, they split religion apart from the rest of life. It became specific and separate. Leadership was more by charisma than by heredity, and the society was organized around these fraternities -- age-grade societies of men or of women. Now, strangely enough, or interestingly enough, the tribal-farmer type of society was often matriarchal and matrilineal. The line went down from the woman rather than the man. Then we had this huge event which was the birth of civilization, which a lot of people think was the only way it ever was. According to the best way that we can figure it, when an agricultural surplus developed, and more specifically, a surplus of cereal crops -- the grains of the Middle East, the rice of the Far East, or 1800 years later, the maize of Mesoamerica -- when you got a surplus of crops that you could store, what do you do with this surplus? You've got a problem now.
MISHLOVE: Now you really need social organization.
LEONARD: Now you need heavy-duty social organization, and wherever and whenever in the world the surplus arrived, you found the following developments: the development of huge and impressive ceremonial centers -- great temples, great pyramids and so forth, the earliest WPA projects.
MISHLOVE: I suppose they needed language and counting.
LEONARD: You know, writing. The first writing was used to keep records in the granaries, where the grain was. You had lawyers, marketplaces, the beginning of abstract money. You had slavery, territorial war, standing armies. All of these developments, which we consider part of life --
MISHLOVE: And which we still have today.
LEONARD: Which we still have in a different form. Caste and classes -- how do you deal with a surplus? You create a very small upper class that really has access to all of the surplus, and meter out, parcel out, in a rather scarcity model, the rest of it to the other castes and the other classes. The development of caste and classes really came because of a surplus of cereal crops. And, I would like to say, the development of the human being as a component of a social machine that is specialized. A component of a machine has to be standardized, specialized, reliable, and predictable. This did a tremendous hardship on the human individual. We are still that. Now I think we're beginning to emerge from that.
MISHLOVE: And at this point, with the great civilizations, pretty much the tribal, the shamanistic ethic -- of being connected and integral and part of nature, sharing things equally -- broke down somehow.
LEONARD: Absolutely. In fact, one of the real hallmarks of civilization is to be able to demonstrate your separateness from nature. On one of Caesar's main campaigns, he had to build a bridge, and his troops said, "No, we can't cut down these trees to build a bridge, because they're sacred. They have spirits in them." Caesar himself took his ax and cut down the first tree. The others followed; they built the bridge, and we've been doing that ever since. Today we have bulldozers go to the top of beautiful hills in Marin County, level them out, put that dirt down to fill up the Bay, and we never stop to think what we're doing to nature. Now, for a hunter and gatherer to do such a thing, he couldn't do it. It would be like whipping his mother.
MISHLOVE: Freud wrote a book, Civilization and Its Discontents, in which he points out that in order to have a stable civilization it's necessary to repress aspects of the human mind, and thus was born the unconscious mind, in Freudian theory. Are there fundamental ways in which we can change that situation? Maybe our human nature isn't the way we've lived for the last 5000 years, but what are the limits to which we can get back to our true nature?
LEONARD: Well, you see, we're talking about a pretty big thing. I would say that the Freudian neurosis structure -- I wouldn't totally agree with it, but certainly with the beginning of the nation-states came the beginning of neurosis -- better, dis-ease, a constant dis-ease. Separating ourselves from the present moment; separating ourselves from nature; feeling constantly uneasy within our own skins. And the only remedy for this is hard work, going out and killing a few hundred Indians -- you know, the only good Indian is a dead Indian, that kind of thing. OK, can we change? Can human beings change? Now, you introduced me as an optimist. I'd rather be a possibilist. I will say that it is possible. And it's not just that we would like to; I would like to say that we must. The basic organizing principles of Civilization with a capital C, which emerged in the pyramid age, first of all was a constant growth in the consumption and production of energy. If you had to draw one curve which would be paradigmatic of civilized life, it would be this exponential curve. It goes up, up, up.
MISHLOVE: And it would apply to many things, not just energy -- communication, transportation.
LEONARD: And the other thing was a push/push-back mode of human relations -- you push me, I'll push you back. Conflict is inevitable, it's necessary, it's a part of life. Not necessarily. Now, can we make the transition? My question is, must we not make the transition?
MISHLOVE: Can we afford not to at this point? And I suppose that the fact that we're here speaking about it, and we're not the only ones, indicates that our civilization, our society, is self aware enough to realize that the time is coming when we'll either change or possibly face catastrophes beyond which we couldn't recover.
LEONARD: That's right. Or, I've often thought, in my book The Transformation, which was published in 1972 -- it was one of the first books that brought forward this thesis that we must change -- we could have a catastrophe which would wake us up to the necessity of change. In the book I said perhaps when we have the first ten thousand people die because of some kind of toxic waste or pollution or air pollution, that the masters of our present civilization will simply say that science can work up better toxic control methods. It will probably take a death of about a hundred thousand.
MISHLOVE: We've already had ten thousand.
LEONARD: That's right. This is very pessimistic, but we've had Chernobyl -- there will have to be a disaster which will kill maybe a million people. And then maybe we'll wake up to the fact that the mode of organization, which was to keep developing the material world and the production and consumption of energy in an exponential way, simply reaches certain limits. Dr. Jonas Salk wrote a book called The Survival of the Wisest. It was a very small book. It came out in 1973, one year after The Transformation. From an entirely different point of view, biological, he came up with exactly the same conclusions as my book, The Transformation; in fact, we shared a podium one time. He points out that every time in nature you see an exponential curve, like the growth of a population of fruit flies or bees or any form of life, of wolves, or whatever -- whenever you see this, watch out. It's either going to curve off and moderate, or crash out.
MISHLOVE: You just can't sustain exponential growth.
LEONARD: The civilized life system, the social system, is running up against a larger constraint, which is the carrying capacity of the biosphere.
MISHLOVE: We're running out of room to grow and expand.
LEONARD: Another basic organizing principle of civilized life, the nation-state, is constant expansion -- whether it's through colonization, through conquest of people nearby. But you see, Jeffrey, we are running out of people to conquer.
MISHLOVE: Are we capable of making the necessary adjustments?
LEONARD: Certainly, biologically, we are. The human brain-body-mind-spirit system has such tremendous potential. We are mostly unused potential, and there's nobody that can deny that. Some people have posited that the brain itself is improperly organized. I don't think that's true. The brain is mostly unused potential. Both the glory and the damnation of the human individual is its tremendous plasticity.
MISHLOVE: You know, there's a sense in Shakespearean tragedy, some of the greatest literature on the planet, that when confronted with an ultimately tragic situation, even a hopeless situation, the nobility of man is brought out -- that we reach inside of ourselves and come up with the very best that's within us. Perhaps if we're faced with a potentially tragic situation today, we can rise to that challenge. Maybe we'll fail; but maybe we'll really find within us what it takes.
LEONARD: Right. So many times we are conflict-oriented. I think a lot of people kind of hope that UFOs will come down on us. If we could really prove the existence of UFOs, then there would be an other -- something that could be --
MISHLOVE: We could rally against the invaders from Mars.
LEONARD: That's right. And you know, there is a possibility that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. could become allies. That is not out of the question. It's a lot less out of the question than it was in World War II to think that we would be allies with Japan and Germany. I mean, that was insane; anybody who said that in World War II would have been taken away, certifiably mad. So these things are possible. Human nature can change. I think the Sixties, with all their insanity and shortsightedness and excesses and everything else, was kind of a pitiful and glorious attempt to make some kind of transformation. Take the hippie movement, which was a rejection of materialism. It was done by a lot of young people. That's one very important thing about transformation -- we need people of all age groups. Just old people can't do it; just kids can't do it. You've got to get the wisdom of age and the conservatism of age, with the dash and the impetus and so forth of youth.
MISHLOVE: Well, I think a lot of people are pessimistic today because they got excited during the Sixties, and then they felt, "Gee, nothing's happened; in fact, we've gone backwards. The country has become right-wing oriented; social change is not a possibility. We might as well just accept our fate and try and accumulate as much as we can for ourselves in the meanwhile." But I gather that you feel that we can't look at the Sixties that way, or the ensuing decades.
LEONARD: First, it's not true. Now, politically and in education, we've retrogressed since the Sixties, and perhaps in some other things. But if you would take the race situation in 1960, a fourth of the nation lived in apartheid. People of another race could not even drink water without perhaps losing their life. Everything was segregated. Look what's going on now. I mean, it's not perfect, there are some bad situations, but who would have thought of a black mayor of Atlanta, Georgia; or Miss Mississippi in the Miss U.S.A. contest being a black woman?
MISHLOVE: So we can say we've made gains in civil rights.
LEONARD: We've made fantastic gains. As late as 1967 there was no woman's movement. There were no rape crisis centers; there was no equal-opportunity employment; there was no affirmative action whatever; there were no battered wives' centers. There was really no women's movement to speak of. It really began about 1969. Now yes, we didn't get the ERA; we have a long way to go. But we are infinitely advanced from where we were in the glorious Summer of Love in 1967 that was supposed to be so revolutionary. Ecology -- the word didn't exist. In 1967 that word didn't exist. The environmental movement --
MISHLOVE: There weren't any ecological extremists then.
LEONARD: No, there was a conservation movement. And they were just trying to conserve natural areas.
MISHLOVE: Izaak Walton clubs.
LEONARD: Right, Izaak Walton clubs. The Sierra Club's membership in 1960 was 16,000; it's now 408,000. In almost every aspect of our life, we have progressed far beyond the Sixties, and we're still dissatisfied. When the extraordinary becomes realized, it becomes commonplace.
MISHLOVE: And that's perhaps what has happened for us. We take these things for granted today.
LEONARD: We take things for granted, and we say, "Oh, but this is not very good." What you've got to do is at least celebrate and at least acknowledge the gains that we've made since 1960.
MISHLOVE: At that time people struggled and worked very hard and made a lot of noise to create certain change. Today it seems as if the people who are involved in transformation are very often quietly going about their business.
LEONARD: The radical and religious right, they're the ones who are making all the noise. They're the flamboyant ones today. And it's just as well to keep it that way for a while, because there's a tremendous amount -- look at the antiwar movement. It's become pro-peace. Look at the citizens' diplomacy movement, which was pioneered by Esalen. Now you don't have to march, you just buy a ticket to Moscow. You can do your own diplomacy. Marvelous things are happening that are not being heralded, and I would really like to see those put up in front of us, as a banner at least, so we can have some courage to go ahead in the future, because the Nineties are going to be a very important decade indeed.
MISHLOVE: What do you think will be the leading edge of transformation in the coming decade?
LEONARD: Well, I think first of all the environmental movement, and the ecology movement -- first the environmental movement, the whole way we live: can we coexist with this planet? That is sort of the stick; the carrot's the other side of it. The human potential movement -- let's not call it a movement anymore; let's just say the full development of human resources. It is tremendously underdeveloped. We are running out of material resources to develop. We're getting more and more pollution, toxic waste, associated with the development of physical resources. Human resources are undeveloped, almost infinite. We could start a program on the development of human potential that would create adventures that would make the winning of the West seem pale indeed.
MISHLOVE: You know, my sense is honestly that we have no idea what the real limit of the human being is -- that if we truly were to experience our full nature, it would be something that would be very surprising to us.
LEONARD: It would scare the hell out of us. I think that's one reason -- it's homeostasis, naturally -- society might fly apart if all the human beings started really manifesting all their human potential. Therefore there has to be a certain conservative element there. But we can certainly manifest a lot more than we are now. So I would say that is a great development. Also, we are going to be, in the United States certainly, beset with a new kind of equal-opportunity challenge -- not as much with blacks as with Hispanics and the Asian people, Pacific Rim people. We're going to have to see what equal opportunity really means. If you look at the polls now, the polls are really what you would call in old terms very, very liberal. Have you seen the recent Time poll, or the Harris Poll? First of all, they show over ninety percent of people want more money spent by the federal government on environmental control, things like that. Most people are still in favor of abortion -- in other words, just to take some of the famous liberal issues. There was a huge poll that polled six million college freshmen; it does it about every four to six years. It turned out this last one, which was last year, showed that our college freshmen, even though they professed to be conservative, and even though they are indeed more interested in money than the people of the Sixties, on all the other social issues they are as liberal, if not more liberal, than the students of the Sixties. So I think we're going to see something quite interesting in the 1990s.
MISHLOVE: What are the forces that have held back transformation? Why is there this intransigence at a time of need? Why didn't things move even faster, when they seemed like they were about to?
LEONARD: Every self-regulating system -- whether it's a tadpole, a frog, an individual, a family, or a nation -- has a built-in homeostasis. Any change is threatening. And that's true, you know. If your blood temperature changed by ten percent, you'd be in big trouble. If your blood salinity changed ten percent, you'd be in big trouble. So whenever any self-regulating system -- let's say now a nation, a society -- recognizes any real essential change -- and this can be done subconsciously, kind of a national subconscious -- it will resist that change and fight against it, whether the change is for what we would call the good, or for the bad.
MISHLOVE: In other words, even if a change is absolutely essential, there will be a force of homeostasis working against that change.
LEONARD: Exactly. I do this with my lecture audiences. I say, "How many of you have made a New Year's resolution, or some other kind of resolution? It's a good resolution; it's something that will make you feel better. In fact, you do feel better; and then you backslide." Everybody holds their hands up. Why, why, why? It's a natural tendency of every self-regulating organism to remain in the same state. You have to work in increments. So, Jeffrey, you can say this: if an idea comes along, and after a while it's resisted severely, it could be for two reasons. One is because it's a lousy idea, and another is because it's a damn good idea. In other words, a really good idea will create the most resistance. Some of the ideas of the Sixties really scared people tremendously. What they said was, this will make real changes in how we are -- first of all, as a man versus being a woman. You know, before the Sixties there was a tremendous separation between man and woman.
MISHLOVE: Men were men and women were women.
LEONARD: When we see the two coming together, and women doing what men are doing and vice versa, and you could hardly tell the difference on the street, this is a very frightening idea. Now, it's probably a pretty good idea, to meet the challenges of the future -- the integration of life, the joining of all life, rather than the separation and splitting off of life into separate contingents.
MISHLOVE: And yet, even when change is truly joyful --
LEONARD: Oh, that's very threatening. How many times have you gone through four really joyful days, and near the end of it you got to thinking, "Uh-oh. What's going on? Lightning's going to strike me. The plane's going to crash." Again, that's homeostasis. We've got to learn how to deal with homeostasis on an individual basis and on a national level. You've got to negotiate with change; you've got to be aware that even good changes will be resisted. You've got to have support systems for it. You've got to have standard good practices to hold you while you're making the change. You can't go running off like the hippies did. They had no support system. No wonder they crashed. The hippies also said, "Man, just change your head and everything will be all right." They changed their head. You've got to change the whole body. You've got to change your support system and your society. How do you make money? You've got to work on all of those things. Then you can make change.
MISHLOVE: Well, the people who were in their early twenties back in the 1960s are now moving into their forties.
LEONARD: Mid-life crisis, right? When they reevaluate things. You know, the thirties and early forties are a time of accumulation, materialism, nesting, getting everything together. Now they're getting this reflective period: "OK, we've got this Porsche; we've got this BMW. But I don't feel so good. Maybe it wasn't worth it. Let's reevaluate." The Nineties are going to be a time when that huge baby-boom cohort begins reevaluating the purpose of life. It's going to be a very thoughtful time. I don't think it's going to be a flamboyant time, because first of all the Sixties were a time of tremendous financial affluence. In other words, we had enough extra money to make mistakes. We're not going to in the Nineties. It's going to be very spare, very disciplined, have more of a Zen quality to it. It's going to be less noisy. But I think it's going to be a very significant time of transformation and change.
MISHLOVE: It's as if this new generation is beginning to absorb the lessons. I say a new generation -- a generation that is really now coming into power, coming into a position where effective change can be made.
LEONARD: That's right. I think we will take another look at this tremendous materialism, and we'll say, "Hey, wasn't that ridiculous?" Let's go to the old truisms. Money does not buy happiness. And I guess they had to find out. BMWs do not buy happiness.
MISHLOVE: Well, it's very interesting to be able to reflect with you, George, over this period of time, and I think there are many of us amongst our viewers, and hopefully younger people who are watching too, who can get this sense of people who have been involved in transformation for decades, as you have been -- that there's a time for enthusiastic, impulsive efforts towards change, and a time to reflect on that, still keeping that intention towards transformation alive.
LEONARD: Right. I really feel that there is no greater human enterprise.
MISHLOVE: George Leonard, thank you very much for being with me. It's been a real pleasure.
LEONARD: As usual, with you too.
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