I delivered a lecture at the University of Konstanz in Germany two weeks ago, as a part of the celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Heidelberg Akademie. This is one of 7 scientific academies in Germany. Because Germany was created as an amalgamation of powerful states in the 19th Century, its scientific academies originate with and are still identified with those entities — in the case of the Heidelberg Academy, with the state of Baden-Wuerttemburg.
Because I was appealing to a wider scientific audience than usual, my subject was a consideration of the societal consequences of ‘the brain plasticity revolution’. Contemporary neuroscience is revealing, for the first time in our history, our true human natures. It is defining the true rules of human behavior, as brain process rules. Moreover, in what I call “The Theory of Personal Evolution”, neuroscience has generated a lucid mechanistic explanation of how our individual ‘Personhood’ is created by the brain plasticity processes in our brains, in each of our lifetimes.
Human wisepersons and societies have had great fun pondering about the mysteries of the origins of the ‘self’ — that unique, often, conscious embodied ‘person’ that is you, or me (or her or him). Philosophers and psychologists and anthropologists and shamans and gurus and priests and sages and physicians numbering in in the thousands or millions in every generation of our species for nearly a hundred thousand years have struggled to understand the fundamental nature of we humans: the origin of that embodied ‘self’; an understanding of the bases of origin of our behaviors; the sources of variability that contribute to small or great achievement, or to behavioral failure or ‘abberation’; the forces that underlie the genesis of, and that drive and shape the progressive evolution of our emergent ‘culture’; among other great questions.
We now have first-level scientific answers to these questions. We now understand the basic processes that underlie the genesis of the ‘self’; we understand the forces that bind us together as members of a family and tribe, or that drive us into conflict with feared members of another social cluster comprised of persons just like us; we understand the neurological basis of the skill repertoire that defines us, operationally; we have a deep and rapidly growing understanding of the origins of the positive and negative extremes of behavior; and we now understand the main forces that drive cultural change. There is something very new and special about this understanding. For the first time in our history, IT (this modern science) DEFINES US. I liken this understanding to the crystalized appreciation, in astronomy, that the planets evolve around the sun, to the understanding in physics that the behavior of physical objects are governed by mathematical laws, or to the understanding in biology that the modern biota is the product of roughly 2 billion years of progressive evolution based on the principles of competition impacting survival. Now, for the first time, we have also demonstrated, scientifically, that we — the PERSONS that we are — evolve, following known rules, via brain plasticity processes, within our skulls, within our lifetimes.
That is another way of saying that we can stop arguing about WHAT we are. We know. We can stop arguing about WHY we behave the way that we do. We know the origins of our behaviors. We can stop arguing about WHO we are. We know. We can stop arguing about WHERE cultural evolution is taking us. We know the forces that govern it, because we understand how we carry them within our brains.
From this new understanding should come a reconsideration of the education, organization and positive control of human societies — one based on a true understanding of our nature, with all of its limitations and power. From this new understanding should come a new approach to dealing with the neurological and psychiatric and social vicissitudes and illnesses that plague human societies — now, more than every, challenging our very survival on the planet. And from this new understanding shall come possibilities of still-more-powerful exploitation of our urges and weaknesses that can further negatively distort our human societies — or, in an alternative universe, exalt us humans, making the most out of what we are, in part by understanding our weaknesses and by richly exploiting those things that more consistently contribute to positive personal and societal evolution.
Frankly, I’m rooting for that alternative universe!