On Politics, Environment, and Human Potential

Stress in health and disease is medically, sociologically, and philosophically the most meaningful subject for humanity that I can think of.
— Hans Selye

The issue of politics keeps arising on the live streams, and rather than clumsily explain myself at a time that I would normally in bed, I thought it would be fun to jot down some thoughts for anyone who is interested in the subject.

The first thing to know is that I'm not "Danny, The [Insert Political Identity]." In other words, I don't have a political ideology that I intend to impose on the reader. In fact, recently I changed my mind and committed it to audio after reading Gavin Morrice's interview with Ray Peat on culture, government, and social class. Moreover, if a person is trying to understand modern left/right politics, I don't think it's possible without understanding where the power elite and CIA come in.

The main question I'm interested in exploring in this article is how to arrange the environment in a way that creates good people. I realize this is more of a philosophical question, and to those who pooh-pooh philosophy, the dictionary defines philosophy as Scientia Scientiarum — the science of all sciences.1

Moreover, I imagine a genetic-determinist might scoff at the idea of 'creating good people,' which is why I think it's important to understand the relationship between stress, energy, and the externalities that occur when an environment is too stressful.

Part I: A Starting Place

 "Stress in health and disease is medically, sociologically, and philosophically the most meaningful subject for humanity that I can think of." Hans Selye

"Stress in health and disease is medically, sociologically, and philosophically the most meaningful subject for humanity that I can think of." Hans Selye

When I lived in San Francisco, every few days I would walk down the main street to the downtown area and pass through the Tenderloin. The Tenderloin, as it's known for, can be a post-apocalyptic nightmare depending on the time of day. And even if you didn't live in the Tenderloin, you still might be subjected to the repercussions of whatever factors that were required to create it. For instance, one time I witnessed a disgruntled man accidentally walk into a bicyclist waiting at a stop light who then proceeded to assault the bicyclist for being in his way.

A good starting place for exploring the intersection between stress, energy, behavior, and the environment is the work of pioneering Hungarian scientist, Hans Selye. Selye believed that stress was an inherent feature of life, but became grating when an organism's metabolic energy supply was taxed too heavily, causing an adaptive response that eventually led to impaired functioning and ultimately to death.

 " Nonspecificity . Each result (on the left) is specific, each causative agent (on the right) is specific. Yet they are all nonspecific results in that they must go through a common pathway. No direction connection is possible between a result and a cause." Hans Selye

"Nonspecificity. Each result (on the left) is specific, each causative agent (on the right) is specific. Yet they are all nonspecific results in that they must go through a common pathway. No direction connection is possible between a result and a cause." Hans Selye

The businessman who is under pressure to make a deadline, the student who wants to pass the test, and the husband who hopelessly watches his wife slowly dying from cancer, all suffer from stress. The problems they all face are different, yet they all elicit essentially the same biological response.

In addition to what might be considered acute emotional or mental stressors, poverty, starvation, single-parent upbringing, pollution, and population density, are all examples of types of chronic stress that can cause a negative ripple-effect on society.

Those who live in poverty, for example, have worse health than those who have a higher socioeconomic status. Moreover, individuals at each level of socioeconomic status also enjoy better health than individuals just below them.2

Frederick Douglas said that "it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men” and in 2012 Shonkoff et al. highlighted that scarcity, stress, or financial instability during a child's development could cause "short-term physiologic and psychological adjustments that are necessary for immediate survival and adaptation, but which may come at a significant cost to long-term outcomes in learning, behavior, health, and longevity."

A mechanism by which scarcity, stress, or financial instability impairs learning, behavior, health, and longevity is by increasing the concentration of the classical stress hormone cortisol in the blood. For instance, children who live in low-income homes were found to have higher levels of cortisol, which can increase susceptibility to a wide array of problems including heart disease and cancer later in life.3

The rise in cortisol is closely related to two other substances released in stress, estrogen, and serotonin, which are associated with aggressive behavior.4-7 For example, in 1998, a group discovered that the concentration of serotonin in the blood was related to the level of population violence:

"To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that an index of serotonergic function is related to violence in the general population." Moffitt, et al. (1998)
 “It is very difficult for people to believe the simple fact that every persecutor was once a victim. Yet it should be very obvious that someone who was allowed to feel free and strong from childhood does not have the need to humiliate another person.” Alice Miller

“It is very difficult for people to believe the simple fact that every persecutor was once a victim. Yet it should be very obvious that someone who was allowed to feel free and strong from childhood does not have the need to humiliate another person.” Alice Miller

Swiss psychologist Alice Miller said that "it is very difficult for people to believe the simple fact that every persecutor was once a victim" and according to an article written in 1976 by Gernot Köhler and Norman Alcock, people living in poverty — in the midst of an overall affluent, abundant society — are victims of what they called "structural violence":

“Whenever persons are harmed, maimed, or killed by poverty and unjust social, political, and economic institutions, systems, or structures, we speak of structural violence. Structural violence, like armed violence, can have two effects—it either kills its victims or it harms them in various ways short of killing.” Gernot Köhler and Norman Alcock (1976)

Rather than attempting to troubleshoot individuals and families experiencing the effects of stress, poverty, instability, and structural violence through the use of ever growing state control, it might be more productive to try to identify the many causes that produce the same repeated effect.

Part II: A Distorted Idea of Human Nature

 "An Englishman who had learned the ways of nature in the tropics was almost bound to view evolution differently from a Russian nurtured on tales of the Siberian wasteland." Kropotkin Was No Crackpot by S.J. Gould

"An Englishman who had learned the ways of nature in the tropics was almost bound to view evolution differently from a Russian nurtured on tales of the Siberian wasteland." Kropotkin Was No Crackpot by S.J. Gould

In J.W. Prescott's 1975 article, Body Pleasure and The Origins of Violence, he explores many different variables contributing to societal crime and violence. Along with underscoring the vitamin-like qualities of touch, family planning, and acceptance and openness about the body and its functions, Prescott touches on one other aspect of developmental and societal stress that is often overlooked: the heavy Western emphasis on crushing one's adversaries through fierce competition:

“The competitive ethic, which teaches children that they must advance at the expense of others, should be replaced by values of cooperation and a pursuit of excellence for its own sake. We must raise children to be emotionally capable of giving love and affection, rather than to exploit others." J. W. Prescott (1975)

In America, education, sports, and the market economy are a few examples of the competitive ethic that weaves the fabric of the modern Western culture. Getting a bad grade on a test, or losing a friendly competition aren't likely to have far-reaching ramifications, but losing in the market economy, and being unable to meet your individual needs or the needs of your family is much more severe leading to the socioeconomic problems discussed above. Herein lays the political paradox of "achieving the greatest individual liberty possible while preserving the greatest equality within a community."8

A knee-jerk reaction to the inability of a person or family to meet their needs is the dominant neo-Darwinian view of 'survival of the fittest.' However, according to Pyotr Kropotkin's book, Mutual Aid, it appears that this glorified competitive ethic has been artificially imposed upon us, obscuring the underemphasized survival role of cooperation, solidarity, and altruism.

In his book, Kropotkin describes that when he attempted to observe the ruthless neo-Darwinian survival in action, he failed to find it:

"...Although I was eagerly looking for it, that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.” Kropotkin

And instead, he found that the fittest species were undoubtedly the most sociable:

"In all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution.” Kropotkin

Kropotkin did not deny the competitive form of struggle but found that the cooperative struggle between organisms and their environment outweighed the direct struggle among individuals for limited resources. And most importantly, Kropotkin considered cooperation as a dominant feature of advanced organisms that led to "the highest development of intelligence and bodily organization."9

I hate to sound like a hippie, but I think this last bit sheds light on a common destiny that should unite us, "transforming us into citizens of Planet Earth" as Edgar Morin has said. It also reminds of Vladimir Vernadsky's book, The Biosphere, in which he states that humans are the fruit of extended complex processes.

 “The man and the mankind are first of all, and most closely, linked with the living matter populating our planet. By no real physical process can they be separated from it. Such separation is possible in thought alone.” Vladimir Vernadsky

“The man and the mankind are first of all, and most closely, linked with the living matter populating our planet. By no real physical process can they be separated from it. Such separation is possible in thought alone.” Vladimir Vernadsky

"Ancient religious intuitions that considered terrestrial creatures, especially man, to be children of the sun were far nearer the truth than is thought by those who see earthly beings simply as ephemeral creations arising from blind and accidental interplay of matter and forces. Creatures on Earth are the fruit of extended, complex processes, and are an essential part of a harmonious cosmic mechanism, in which it is known that fixed laws apply and chance does not exist." Vladimir Vernadsky

Another way of thinking about it is that if we evolved for a specific purpose, part of that purpose might be to attain higher and higher degrees of metabolic intensity through fostering a richer environment (A. N. Severtsov's concept of "aromorphosis").10, 11 In the words of Bill Hicks: "We're supposed to keep evolving. Evolution did not end with us growing opposable thumbs. You do know that, right?"

Part III: Toward The Flow of Desired Activity

 "The 'good' or healthy society would then be defined as one that permitted man's highest purposes to emerge by satisfying all his prepotent basic needs." Abraham Maslow

"The 'good' or healthy society would then be defined as one that permitted man's highest purposes to emerge by satisfying all his prepotent basic needs." Abraham Maslow

I think one of the things that hold people back from entertaining the idea that society can be arranged in a more productive way is that they think humans are inherently selfish and are mostly unable to rise above the instinct of self-preservation.

It appears that Hans Selye had similar reservations after ruminating on his forty years of research saying that his greatest hope was the possibility of arriving at "a code of conduct based upon natural laws" to combat the "attitude of pessimism and doubt [that] seems to have settled upon mankind" leading to "violence, drug abuse, and aimless destructive aggression" which was slowly replacing "constructive behavior as an outlet for our need of self-expression and creation."

While I imagine that pessimism and doubt are natural consequences of a culture that celebrates celebrity scientists that progress ideas about "selfish genes," American psychologist Abraham Maslow believed that deep down in every individual there was a tendency towards "self-actualization," in that we want to use our abilities and talents to give back to our communities, which leads to a genuine sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.

Amidst the struggle to meet a person's basic needs, however, the "free, unimpeded flow of desired activity"12 that could lead to Maslow's self-actualization and betterment of the planet is a luxury that most people do not have. While I'm not sure what the future will or should look like, I do know that there's something a person can do immediately to improve the health of the universe: focus your existing energy into becoming a better version of yourself.

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
— Leo Tolstoy

Becoming a better version of yourself could take the form of incorporating something as simple as Ray's raw carrot salad every day, getting the vitamin D level measured, or taking steps to end a toxic relationship or job.

 "I must reorganize the environment of man by which then greater numbers of men can prosper." Buckminster Fuller

"I must reorganize the environment of man by which then greater numbers of men can prosper." Buckminster Fuller

Moreover, according to Bucky Fuller, having the courage to speak one's own truth — lovingly and not destructively — while not making others seem ignorant might help work in the same direction.

"Our survival won’t depend on political or economic systems. It’s going to depend on the courage of the individual to speak the truth, and to speak it lovingly and not destructively... The integrity and the courage of the individual to speak his own truth and not to go along with the crowd, yet not making others seem ignorant. After a while, if enough human beings are doing it, then everybody will start going in the right direction." Bucky Fuller

I think part of speaking one's own truth in a non-destructive way is keeping in mind that when a person gravitates to a rigid position, they are likely doing so partly because of the failure of existing imposed systems. For example, the mother that beelines to an alternative treatment for her autistic child might be doing so because modern medicine has nothing effective to offer. Similarly, the skeptic that doubts the official narrative behind a widely televised tragedy might find motivation in the fact that his government is constantly lying to him. Instead of victim blaming people for harboring "wrong ideas," it might be more productive to build new systems to replace imposed systems that are tending to make everyone sick while stifling human potential.

References

  1. Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged. Springfield: G & C Merriam company; 1971.
  2. Chen E, et al. Socioeconomic differences in children's health: how and why do these relationships change with age? Psychol Bull. 2002 Mar;128(2):295-329. That is, each decreasing SES (socioeconomic status) level is associated with an increasing prevalence of disease. Thus, not only do poor people suffer from worse health than non poor people, but individuals at each level of SES also enjoy better health than individuals just below them. This finding is challenging to researchers who seek plausible mechanisms to account for the SES effect. Far less is known about the impact of SES on health during childhood, even though childhood health problems constitute a significant proportion of health care costs. For example, estimated lifetime costs of injuries, the leading cause of mortality among children, exceeded $185 billion in 1985. Reviews have concluded that poverty has a detrimental effect on children’s health."
  3. Lupie S.J., et al. Can poverty get under your skin? basal cortisol levels and cognitive function in children from low and high socioeconomic status. Dev Psychopathol. 2001 Summer;13(3):653-76. "It has been shown that individuals from lower SES (socioeconomic status) report greater exposure to stressful life events and a greater impact of these events on their life than individuals from higher SES. This suggests that individuals from lower SES may have greater vulnerability to stress and, subsequently, to disease. The association between SES and stress may stem from environmental and social–psychological factors. With regard to environmental factors, it is known that, as one moves down the SES ladder, residential choices become more limited and many of the environments in which individuals lower on the SES hierarchy live are associated with increased mortality rate and crime." "Individuals of lower SES are exposed to a higher rate of change or instability in their lives, and this instability has been found to produce a higher level of individual stress in lower SES individuals." "Although adults can adapt to stressful events, stress in itself may have the most detrimental effects on children." "The adrenal glucocorticoid hormone cortisol is the principal effect or in this system and is thought to be responsible for both adaptational and maladaptational processes in response to perturbing situations." "When the HPA system is functioning under basal conditions, cortisol levels generally follow a circadian rhythm with elevations of cortisol levels in the morning and decreases in cortisol over the day. Following the onset of a stressor, however, cortisol levels raise rapidly (in a range of 10–15 min), initiating the peripheral catabolic processes required for mobilizing energy reserves to meet the metabolic demands imposed by the stressor." "The results obtained in this study revealed significant developmental SES differences in cortisol levels during childhood, which tended to equalize during youth. Children from elementary schools (ages 6–10 years) presented significantly higher basal salivary cortisol levels when compared to children from high SES." "Indeed, a major advance in behavioral neuroscience during the past decade has been the establishment of a lifelong perspective for environmental influences on stress reactivity during development that persist for a lifetime. In this line of work, we can cite animal studies that have shown that prenatal stress increases emotionality and stress hormone reactivity for the life of the individual. Conversely, postnatal 'handling' of neonates leads to reduced emotionality and reduced stress hormone reactivity for the lifetime of the individual."
  4. Plonk, J., and Feldman J.M. Adrenal function in the carcinoid syndrome: effects of the serotonin antagonist cyproheptadine. Metabolism. 1975 Sep;24(9):1035-46. "Our data suggest that the alterations in adrenal function in our patients may be related to elevated serum serotonin. If CYPRO acts by antagonizing serotonin, these data may give support to the idea of serotoninergic control of cortisol secretion."
  5. Caticha, O., et al. Estradiol stimulates cortisol production by adrenal cells in estrogen-dependent primary adrenocortical nodular dysplasia. "Estradiol stimulated cortisol secretion in a dose-response manner in the absence of ACTH."
  6. Malick, J.B., Barnett, A. The role of serotonergic pathways in isolation-induced aggression in mice. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1976 Jul;5(1):55-61. "Male mice that became aggressive following four weeks of social isolation were treated with seven known serotonin receptor antagonists. All of the antiserotonergic drugs selectively antagonized the fighting behavior of the isolated mice; the antiaggressive activity was selective since, at antifighting doses, none of the drugs either significantly altered spontaneous motor activity or impaired inclined-screen performance. Antagonism of 5-HTP-induced head-twitch was used as an in vivo measure of antiserotonergic activity and a statistically significant correlation existed between potency as an antiserotonergic and potency as an antiaggressive. PCPA, a serotonin depletor, also significantly antagonized isolation-induced aggression for at least 24 hr postdrug administration."
  7. Trainor, B.C., et al. Estrogenic encounters: how interactions between aromatase and the environment modulate aggression. Front Neuroendocrinol. 2006 Jul;27(2):170-9. "Hormone manipulation studies conducted in a wide variety of species indicate that estrogens modulate aggression." "Such changes in central aromatase activity may play an important role in determining how social experiences affect the probability of whether an individual engages in aggressive behavior." There is growing evidence that estrogen produced in the brain regulates aggression as well.Thus if aromatization of T has important effects on behavior, individuals with similar T levels could behave very differently if they differed in central aromatase activity or estrogen sensitivity (e.g., estrogen receptors). In this review, we consider the evidence that aromatization within the brain may mask relationships between androgens and aggressive behavior."
  8.  Ianik Marcil. Libertarian and Egalitarian. 2013. (English translation of an essay originally written by Ianik Marcil for the Huffington Post by Éric R. Lépine) "How do we reconcile the greatest individual liberty possible while preserving the greatest equality within a community? Therein lies a fundamental political paradox, and one that could hardly be more current…" "Paradoxically, it is from this libertarian and permissive vision that the author defends the possibility of social justice and the importance, in particular, of economic equality. For Ogien, contrary to right libertarians, economic inequalities are devoid of any moral sense. Indeed, such 'libertarians' justify economic inequalities claiming these are simply the result of free individuals acting and making certain choices in the absence of coercion—as such, they claim, outcomes are strictly the result of talent or individual merit. Ogien, however, claims that both liberals and libertarians justify inequalities on the basis of moral precepts. As such, they are tied to a “positive” vision of political freedom which values effort or merit, for instance. Consequently, “this tendency towards moral justification of economic inequalities is in fact all too akin to a new phase of intellectual war waged on the poor in democratic societies where the official ideology contends that each one of us has an equal chance of reaching the top, as long as we are willing to put forth the necessary effort” (p. 171). But, if we accept the author’s minimalist conception of political freedom, we come to realize that economic inequalities unequally redistribute access to individual freedom and they stem “from the retrograde political role of this positive freedom” (p. 131). The justification of inequalities, based, to some extent, on a false conception of morality, clearly demonstrates how unjustified they really are and, consequently, the State—collective decisions—is justified in attempting to oppose such inequalities.Being free can be described as the absence of exploitation or domination by another and, at the same time, to be under the protection of social rules that aim to facilitate social justice. Economic equality is the only path towards this state of total freedom (permissiveness).Thus, we can clearly see, the criteria for evaluating State intervention—permissiveness, equality and discretionary use of force—form the basic premises for a stringent and idealist guide on political life. This short summary does not do justice to the whole of the arguments presented in Ruwen Ogien’s thesis but, given the current trend towards collective moral conservativism and extreme individualism, its reading would appear to me all the more urgent and necessary. The philosophical resolution of the paradoxical marriage between individual freedom and social justice offered by Ogien proposes many fruitful insights on our desire to live in a better world."
  9. Stephen Jay Gould. Kropotkin Was No Crackpot. Natural History vol. 1997 "An Englishman who had learned the ways of nature in the tropics was almost bound to view evolution differently from a Russian nurtured on tales of the Siberian wasteland." "Kropotkin begins by acknowledging that struggle plays a central role in the lives of organisms and also provides the chief impetus for their evolution. But Kropotkin holds that struggle must not be viewed as a unitary phenomenon. It must be divided into two fundamentally different forms with contrary evolutionary meanings. We must recognize, first of all, the struggle of organism against organism for limited resources – the theme that Malthus imparted to Darwin and that Huxley described as gladiatorial. This form of direct struggle does lead to competition for personal benefit." " But a second form of struggle – the style that Darwin called metaphorical – pits organism against the harshness of surrounding physical environments, not against other members of the same species. Organisms must struggle to keep warm, to survive the sudden and unpredictable dangers of fire and storm, to persevere through harsh periods of drought, snow, or pestilence. These forms of struggle between organism and environment are best waged by cooperation among members of the same species-by mutual aid. If the struggle for existence pits two lions against one zebra, then we shall witness a feline battle and an equine carnage. But if lions are struggling jointly against the harshness of an inanimate environment, then lighting will not remove the common enemy – while cooperation may overcome a peril beyond the power of any single individual to surmount." "What can we make of Kropotkin’s argument today, and that of the entire Russian school represented by him? Were they just victims of cultural hope and intellectual conservatism? I don’t think so. In fact, I would hold that Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to cooperation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals. If Kropotkin overemphasized mutual aid, most Darwinians in Western Europe had exaggerated competition just as strongly. If Kropotkin drew inappropriate hope for social reform from his concept of nature, other Darwinians had erred just as firmly (and for motives that most of us would now decry) in justifying imperial conquest, racism, and oppression of industrial workers as the harsh outcome of natural selection in the competitive mode."
  10. Peat, Raymond. Generative Energy. 1994. "The extremely favorable energy relationships which exist in the early embryo (which is very small in relation to its supply of energy) appear to support a certain structural relationship, which sketches out the structural-functional possibilities for the future, when our environmental energy resources might be richer."
  11. M.I. Budyko. The Evolution of The Biosphere. 1984 "Aromorphosis: The existence of living organisms is possible only if they are provided by energy influx from the environment. For the overwhelming majority of animals this flux of energy is ensured by oxidation of their organic matter through the absorption of oxygen. Since the ancient atmosphere did not contain oxygen in any considerable quantities, it has been suggested that earlier organisms were anaerobic and their existence was based on less effective, in terms of energy, reactions of disintegration of substances than aerobic organisms. The entire history of evolution of organisms is associated with profound changes in mechanisms of their energy supply, the efficiency of these mechanisms gradually increasing in more advanced forms. As mentioned earlier, a great majority of contemporary organisms are aerobic, i.e. they use oxygen in the reaction of decomposition of glucose and related substances. By this reaction CO2 and H20 are produced and energy is liberated and used by organisms." "An additional energy received by an animal in an environment with an increased oxygen content may be used for different purposes, including the development of a more complex structure in the course of evolution. Of especially great importance in this case might be the improvement of organs maintaining metabolism, such as the circulatory and respiratory systems in vertebrates."
  12. Ray Peat. Mind and Tissue. 1985