When the psychologist Maureen O’Hara said that humanity is either standing on the brink of “a quantum leap in human psychological capabilities or heading for a global nervous breakdown” she perfectly articulated our species’ predicament.
The fastest growing realization everywhere has to be that humanity can’t go on the way it is going. Indeed, the great fear is we’re entering endgame where we appear to have lost the race between self-destruction and self-understanding — the race to find the psychologically redeeming and healing understanding of our ‘good and evil’-stricken human condition that is needed to bring about O’Hara’s “quantum leap in human psychological capabilities”.
With 60 years of experience as a psychiatrist, often working with inter-generational issues in families, particularly empathy and empathic deficits, I know, first-hand, the now epidemic levels of distress and alienation in society, and the resulting urgent need for that holy grail of insights of the explanation for the human condition.
Certainly there are many different scientific theories for why we humans are the way we are, so competitive, aggressive and selfish that human life has become all but unbearable; I have spent my career studying and applying them. But what all that experience has taught me is that none of these theories plumb the great depths of the human psyche sufficiently to actually confront and solve the issue of our species’ psychologically troubled condition — except for the work of Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith.
I first became aware of Griffith’s treatise on the human condition in 2004 when, in my role as psychiatric consultant to the Bonobo Species Preservation Society, I was rehabilitating a very disturbed young bonobo named Brian at the Milwaukee County Zoo. One of Griffith’s many insights into the human condition is that it was our ape ancestors’ nurturing of their infants that created our species’ cooperative and loving moral instinctive self or ‘soul’, and this correlated with my observations of the nurturing origins of the extraordinarily empathic behavior of bonobos.
In his definitive presentation of his treatise, the masterpiece book that is Freedom: The End Of The Human Condition, Griffith stresses that only by solving the human condition — explaining why we are competitive, aggressive and selfish rather than all-loving and empathic — can we save our species from self-destruction; a world of wars, refugee crises, ecological devastation, polarized politics, mental illness and addiction, and family breakdown. “All the ailments the world suffers from are symptoms of the deeper issue of the human condition”, he writes.
Griffith begins his explanation of the human condition by arguing that while historically we have simply excused the darker aspect of our nature as a relic of a competitive and aggressive animal past, where the instinct to survive and reproduce genes dictated behavior, this is just a convenient excuse while we searched for the real reason for this divisiveness.
“The involvement of our fully conscious thinking mind demonstrates there is a psychological dimension to our behavior. We don’t suffer from a genetic-opportunism-driven ‘animal condition’”, writes Griffith, “we suffer from the psychologically troubled ‘human condition’.”
His key unlocking insight is remarkably straightforward. Like all living creatures, our species must once have been controlled by instinct, but then we evolved a conscious mind capable of understanding cause and effect. And from that moment on our conscious mind has been in a wrestling match with our original instinctive orientations for the control of our lives. It is this conflict, Griffith explains, that is the cause of our human condition.
“Our newer nerve-based, conscious mind began to act independently of our instincts; in effect, defy them. When our instincts resisted and gave conflicting instructions they, in effect, ‘criticized’ our conscious mind’s search for knowledge. The inevitable result was that we became psychologically defensive, angry and determined to prove our instincts’ ‘criticism’ was undeserved. The price we paid for heroically searching for knowledge was that we unavoidably became sufferers of the insecure state of the human condition.”
So rather than our condition being an immutable genetic state, the very good news is that our psychologically insecure condition can be healed with redeeming, compassionate understanding. So it’s understanding of ourselves that we needed to heal the pain in our brains. Certainly the human condition now presents itself in countless manifestations, and I have seen most varieties of psychosis during my career, but what Griffith has identified is the core insecurity that has given rise to such a tragic proliferation. As Griffith points out, “‘psychosis’ literally means ‘soul-illness’ and ‘psychiatry’ literally means ‘soul-healing’ (derived as they are from psyche meaning ‘soul’, osis meaning ‘abnormal state or condition’ and iatreia meaning ‘healing’), but we have never been able to truly ‘heal our soul’, explain to our original instinctive self or soul that our fully conscious thinking self is good and not bad and consequently reconcile and heal our split selves — but now at last we can.”
Like Darwin did with his theory of natural selection, Griffith puts forward a wide-ranging induction-derived synthesis. As Professor Scott Churchill, former Chair of Psychology at the University of Dallas, said in his review of Freedom, “Griffith’s perspective comes to us not as a simple opinion of one man, but rather as an inductive conclusion drawn from sifting through volumes of data representing what scientists have discovered.”
Dr. Churchill also recognized the importance of Griffith’s synthesis, concluding that “This is the book that all humans need to read for our collective wellbeing.” I certainly agree. In the twilight of my long career, I am thrilled to be able to say that I have no doubt Griffith’s explanation of the human condition is the holy grail of insight we have sought for the psychological rehabilitation of the human race.
To quickly assess Griffith’s breakthrough treatise I recommend the interview with Griffith at HumanCondition.com where he summarizes his explanation. Even though it is only one hour long, this interview is proving so amazing in what it is able to make sense of that it is generating much excitement online.