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Debunking myths #3: Homo hominis lupus est

Dry grape - mindfulness

This article does not represent Extinction Rebellion’s position, but the opinion of a rebel member of the “Myth Debunkers for XR” group. See how the group drafts and selects articles, on our community forum: https://base.extinctionrebellion.be/t/myth-debunkers-for-xr-group-creation/787.

Myth 3: podcast
Listen to this Podcast we created for this article (French spoken) on Soundcloud

I am Mathilde, member of Extinction Rebellion, doctor in material sciences and electronic music composer. I am driven by the preservation of grace and wonder, which sometimes translates into the fight for the preservation of life. I believe in the power and necessity of transformations of the imagination in the transitions that are taking place, especially through art and the percolation of ideas between seemingly separated fields. This article engages only my personal opinion and not that of XR as a whole.

Man is a wolf to man, the destruction of the planet is in our genes, and we can do nothing about it...

Is man really a wolf to man?

This expression, which we owe to Hobbes, a 17th century philosopher, is so popular today that it silently legitimizes many things, from individualism, to the destruction of the planet, to aggressive behaviours, to strong and necessary state repression[1].

Behind this idea is a neurobiological justification: we are animals genetically programmed to dominate the other and plunder our planet.

To understand why we sip coffee whistling while sitting on a bomb[2], and what we can do about it, it is therefore interesting to delve into the opposing forces in our brain that seem incompatible at first glance: on one hand the maximisation of short-term pleasure and the reinforcement of dominative behaviour, and on the other hand the survival of the specie, which is uncertain when we look at the current ecological and climatic disaster.

I propose that we take a look at these neuroscientific considerations in order to highlight their limitations, and to offer some additional and necessary insights.

This article is written from a wealthy western country and refers to the abundance that takes place there and the people who benefit from it. I am however aware, that this situation is far from being global nor experienced by all.

Back in the days, when the survival of the human species depended on our ability to dominate, eat and reproduce

The striatum is the centre of encouragement and learning. Dopamine is a hormone, often referred to as the reward hormone, and it helps to strengthen the learning circuit.

Virtuous behaviour (which gives the performer an advantage over other individuals, such as finding a piece of cheese in a maze) results in the release of a certain amount of dopamine. This is an advantage for survival, so the learning of the path to the cheese must be reinforced. As all living species seek to survive, every action in this direction is encouraged by a reward.

An evolutionary advantage implies a reinforcement of behaviour.

But which behaviours represent a particularly interesting evolutionary advantage?

Reproducing ourselves, dominating others, gaining information about our environment, and eating.

In a word, our striatum whispers to us, "Go, eat as much as you can because food is not given in this world. Go, copulate as much as you can because the more you have, the more chances you have to pass on your genes for posterity. Go, be more important than the others, because that is how you will ensure yourself an access to material resources and sexual partners.[...] And do this more than the others, because if you don't, your genes will be overwhelmed by those of your competitors. »[3]

The example of the small fish named Burtoni, from the cichlid family, can shed light on the strengthening of dominance: after a victory over an opponent, it starts to release a hormone that stimulates its sexual organs. The testicles grow larger and produce sperm at an increased rate. In the defeated player, the opposite happens[4].

In this example, it seems clear that dominant individuals reproduce faster. It is therefore an evolutionary advantage to dominate.

The striatum. The real (and only) culprit in the destruction of the planet?

Are cravings for social status, sex, and food, harmful in themselves? What's wrong, for example, with having sex 40 times a day between consenting adults?

Instrumentalisation of aspirations in a capitalist market context

Here's the rub.

On one hand, the aspiration to dominate represents a problem in itself in a social context since it feeds the deleterious system of values in which we live: men dominate women; whites dominate people of colour; the rich, the poor; cis, non cis; straight, non-straight; adults, children; humans, non-humans...

On the other hand, the desire to dominate the other also translates into possession. I'm stronger, I'm better than you because I have more than you.

And this becomes deleterious in a context where objects do not appear out of a magic hat, but rather are made from resources whose extraction and transformation poison living beings. Overconsumption and overproduction are at the root of an irreversible collapse of ecosystems.

So the damage does not (only) come from the aspirations in themselves, it comes from the encounter between these billions of brains waiting for more (sex, social status, food, information) and an industrial and political apparatus capable for the first time of providing everyone with ten pairs of shoes, three computers, as much fried chicken or porn as you want; not only capable, but encouraging and monetizing these desires. All this while taking care to conceal the manufacturing conditions.

Besides, we don't just want money, a watch or a car, we want THE new car our neighbour doesn't have, what the vice president of General Motors said back in the 1920s: « The key to economic prosperity is the creation of organized dissatisfaction. »[5]

Dissatisfaction facilitated by certain brain functions: one study shows that the pleasure circuits are activated in monopoly players when they receive more money than their opponents,[6] another shows that it is not so much the absolute salary that counts than the relative one: we want to be a little above the others.[7]

We are, therefore, well programmed to (among other things) compare ourselves to others and want to have more than them. And what is astonishing is that instead of leading to a marked differentiation between individuals, or to a society where eccentricity would be queen, it tends rather to homogenize behaviors according to income (consumption or mass culture). By trying to be above our neighbour, we end up being a little bit like the other neighbour...

These functionalities on which our survival depended yesterday (feeding, reproducing, dominating) evolve by genetic mutation on time scales much larger than those concerning changes in society.

200,000 years ago, in a context where the human species did not dominate the other ones, it was an advantage to reproduce and eat as soon as we were given the chance to. But today, it is not longer necessary to behave so to avoid species extinction.

While waiting for the next mutations, anything that can be done to prevent extinction?

When our striatum does (also) good

One of the first nuances that we must bring to this bleak portrait of our striatum is that it also allows us to do beautiful things. The ambition to rise above others is, for example, a powerful engine of transformation and creation. Even if it should not be erected as a cardinal value, it nevertheless is partly responsible for certain graceful things in this world, such as, by example, Sydney Bechet's Blue Horizon.

It should also be noted that certain "virtuous" behaviours are also encouraged, such as altruism and sharing.[8]

We can learn to value other behaviours, we can create new social norms that are contagious. Take the striatum at its own game.

The question is whether we want to play this game: even though the new snobbery would be to be altruistic and respectful of the environment instead of owning a SUV, we can be pretty sure that it won't tackle the problems linked to the existence of domination: someone who rides a bike will be able to despise someone who rides a SUV, and the patterns of domination will simply be translated. Other actors, same rules of the game.

There's more to the brain than just the striatum. What do you say we take a walk around the prefrontal cortex?

Sydney Bechet, jazz clarinetist. Isn't the desire for social domination an important motivation for many artists?

Against impatience, deferred gratification

In the animal world, there is usually a survival advantage to immediately seize any opportunity that presents itself.[9]

In the human species, we also often give priority to the present over the future. It has been noted that when a future reward is announced, the discharge of dopamine is proportional to the delay between the announcement of the reward and its coming.[10]

One of the explanations behind this priority could lie in the uncertainty of the future: when we don't know what will be done tomorrow (or in 50 years), why deprive ourselves or why change? If I'm the director of an oil platform, why stop drilling since in 50 years I won't be here anymore? My children? They will have money to live with. Air con and comfortable houses.

This relation to time, this immediacy, is part of our biological determinism. But, here again, it is instrumentalized: today's delays in obtaining anything are intended to be reduced as much as possible. We see it in the growth of fast delivery services, premium subscriptions, ready meals, the format of information (post facebook, twitter), the development of technologies that aim to offer us more and faster like 5G.

Our mental resources for waiting are being depleted, and our dependence on instantaneity is increasing from generation to generation.[11] At the societal level, this reinforces social inequalities and becomes the cause of public health problems. Compulsive behaviours can lead to obesity, STDs, impoverishment, addiction, psychological distress...

Waiting or getting bored has become a symbol of mediocrity, failure, missing out on something. The emergence of "holes" is another proof: how many times does a friend call me (or vice versa) to ask if I am available earlier, to avoid having "hole" in his afternoon? The unexpected, the moment that is not "full", and by extension a certain dimension of chaos, are to be avoided at all costs. While it is often in these floating moments that emerge the things that jostle us, enchant us, that we tell with enthusiasm.

So, impatient to read about how to get around the call of the now?

Perhaps you are familiar with the famous study of the marshmallow. In 1972, Stanford psychologist Walter Mishel told children that they can either have one marshmallow now or two in 10 minutes.

This study is based on what is known as delayed gratification, in which the frontal cortex, the seat of will and planning, keeps an idea present in consciousness for minutes, days, months, years. It intervenes, for example, when there is a superior benefit to denying an immediate pleasure. It is the centre of planning, a real machine for travelling into the future.

As in the marshmallow experiment, we often do things in our lives because we believe in the long-term benefit of our behaviour. That's why we study: studying gives us a deferred advantage and gives us a priori access to a more pleasant life.

This ability (to opt for delayed gratification) is not innate and can be trained: Jiska Peer has measured that the frontostriatal bundle of children who opt for the delayed gratification option is thicker.[12]

We therefore have the opportunity to develop this capacity, especially during childhood and adolescence, when the connections between the frontal cortex and the striatum can become thicker.[13] Training allows the future to take precedence over the present.

Take the striatum at its own game, bring the cortex into the equation... and what about consciousness ?

Against impulse, mindfulness

I take a grape in my hand. I spend several minutes observing it, seeing its reflections, its appearance, the shades of colour, listening to it, passing it over my lips. I place it in my mouth, without biting it, I feel it with my tongue, paying attention to what it does to me.

When I finally bite it, the pleasure and satisfaction of biting is increased tenfold in a very enjoyable way.

Aim less, but better

Mindfulness, the awareness of gesture and taste, has proved to be a successful therapy for treating obesity: it involves regaining control of compulsive behaviours and fighting against the bias of temporal devaluation.[14]

And when faced with injunctions to consume, to make a weekend in Madrid, to accept a job with dubious morals, we are like a compulsive person: everything, right away, regardless of the consequences.

But thanks to our consciousness, we are able to enjoy better, to need less, to re-evaluate what satisfies us, to take the time.

Consciousncess comes up against strong trade injunctions. There is a dispossession of sensation in favour of the possession (of objects or experiences), for the benefit of some: thus, summer is no longer the wind and the sun on the skin, it is the sun of the Maldives Islands (499.9 € round trip 5 nights in a hotel). Jogging isn't running anymore, it's running in Adidas sneakers. The job of marketing, well told in C. Salmon's Storytelling, is to replace sensation with experience. I don't buy Nike anymore, I buy the shoes worn by Sofia, a strong young woman from Molenbeek. I'm no longer a jogger, I'm also becoming a fighter who's had a difficult journey.

Let's zoom out the board a little more. Striatum, cortex, consciousness. What about the relationship to others ?

The satisfaction of tasting this grape can be increased tenfold by the awareness of its appearance, smell, sound, texture.

Mutual aid and symbiosis - other laws of the jungle

This title is close to that of a book written by Pablo Servigne and Gauthier Chapelle. In it, they argue that in many species, those that survive in difficult conditions, are not the strongest, but the most united.

This theory echoes that of Pierre Kropotkin, who looks for examples in different species: "those that know best how to unite and avoid competition have the best chances of survival and further progressive development".[15]

Another example is William Muir's work on the "super-hen model", in which the isolation of the most competitive individuals (in this case, in egg-laying) has negative effects on group dynamics (individuals attack and kill each other), and can work against increasing productivity.[16]

This observation provides a clear opposition to Social Darwinism, which aims to transpose the theory of evolution to human societies: the strongest will survive, the weakest will be eliminated. Indeed, it is rather in a fragile competition/cooperation ratio that a non-destructive form of equilibrium for society as a whole can be found: this is called symbiodiversity. The societies that have the greatest chance of survival and development are not those that have only high-performing elements.

However, the strategy of assembling and isolating the most efficient elements is widespread in the world of large companies (Amazon, General Electrics, Microsoft...) and, unsurprisingly ... in the world of football! These strategies, which are particularly harmful for workers, are not beneficial to companies either: even Real Madrid is not doing as well when the highest paid footballers are there![17]

Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid defender, in flagrant anti-play. Is it a good idea to bring together the best paid players? (source)

Therefore, we humans are animals who are individually encouraged by our biological determinisms to eat, reproduce and dominate. But mutual-help remains at the centre of the strategies inscribed in our genes on which the survival of our species depends. Man is therefore not a wolf for man, especially in crisis situations.

What does the brain plasticity of a child weigh in a war context, if (s)he is taught not to eat all the raspberries right away ? (do we understand this sentence and why it’s here?) If we were determined only by our brain, and if it led us to harm others and the environment, then why would we find societies far from the single dominant Western model that cohabit permanently with their environment[18] ?

There's no such thing as pure behavioral biology

Biological explanations allow us to apprehend phenomena of domination of the other, consumption and destruction of the planet. The knowledge of these biological determinisms is for me a necessary step to be able to free oneself from them, as Henri Laborit defends it in The imaginating man, but so is the knowledge of our social determinisms. Our interactions and our structures impact our brain, and vice versa.

If social sciences are less interested in the origin of domination than in its expression, its structures and the tools that maintain them, they also offer explanations and avenues for reflection to refuse and bypass the simple programming of individuals to destroy their environment.

We are at least as much a bunch of genes in the grip of our striatum and the strengthening of reward circuits as individuals who are born into structures that are intrinsically and profoundly racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, specist, that encourage individualism,[19] promote fear and rejection of the unknown.

One could cite thousands of examples that go in this direction, the treatment of Islam by most French media where reporters are asked to "stage fears rather than realities"[20], the fact that a black man is 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than a white man in the USA,[21] or the fact that 53% of films produced by men in 1995 and 2005 did not pass the Bechdel test.[22]

One could also cite the widespread idea that "Everyone thinks above all of his own interests, almost never of the common good"[23], already cool in the IVe century BC. Although self-interest is a powerful driving force, as mentioned earlier, the idea that self-interest and the common good are two orthogonal directions falls to me into the category of ideologies, not absolute truths.[24]

Rather than looking for which of the egg or the chicken, which of nature or culture, let us concentrate our efforts on identifying and transforming (or destroying) the toxic feathers that choke us.

Regaining consciousness ... and power

All these keys to understand and respond at the individual level can become "friendly weights" in the balance of social justice and environmental protection. So let's learn to savour the grape, let's value delayed gratification.

However, cognitive dissonance, which describes the situation when beliefs are context-dependent, is a miraculous human asset. Even if the CEO of Total is enjoying his grape, he would probably be able to deliver between two yoga sessions an exploration permit.

So we may be able to resist the call for "everything, now", to train our consciousness, our frontal cortex, and our children's, to play on mutual-aid, but if we continue to live in a world full of instant incentives, if the oil lobbies pay a billion dollars against climate policy[25], it may not be enough.

Alongside these individual levers, whose impact seems significant to me, the distribution of power must be completely re-evaluated, for example by creating citizens' assemblies. State and economic structures must be profoundly modified through collective action. "In order to act, people have to get together".[26]

"How do we get to all this?" is a delicate question. I will briefly give you my answer, one of many equally valid: disobey and imagine.

Say no. Refuse. Get up and walk away. Disobey the order that is no longer on the side of life. Occupy. Use and then give up one's privileges so that there are fewer and fewer of them. Refusing the unique story.

Dream. Train our eyes to see life that grows among the ruins and be inspired by it. Glimpse grace in the indeterminate. Changing the vocabulary in depth: yesterday's utopians are today's realists.

Embroider here and now the soft carpet on which you want to set our feet tomorrow.

Further reading

  • H. Laborit, The Imagining Man
  • S. Bohler, The human bug
  • A. L. Tsing, The mushroom of the end of the world
  • P. Servigne and G. Chappelle, Mutual aid, another law of the jungle
  • J.E. Scott, Small praise for anarchy
  • Saul Alinsky, Being Radical: A Pragmatic Handbook for Radical Realists
  • C. Salmon, Storytelling,


[1] Rutger Bregman, Humankind, a hopeful history

[2] This sentence comes from the book The Human Bug, by Sebastien Bohler, who was the main source of information and inspiration for this article.

[3] The Human Bug, Sebastien Bohler, p44

[4] R.D. Fernald et K. Maruska, Social information changes the brain, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, vol 109, pp 17194-17199

[5] J. Rifkin, the end of work, the discovery, 2006

[6] N. Bault, M. Joffily, A. Rustidhini, G. Coricelli, « Medial prefrontal cortex and striatum mediate the influence of social comparison on the decision process », Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, vol 108, pp 16044-16049, 2011

[7] F. cheung, R.E. Lucas, « income inequality is associated with stronger social comparison effects : the effect of relative income on life satisfaction ». Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 110, pp332-341, 2016

[8] A Soutschek, C.J. Burke, A.R. Beharelle, R. Schreiber, S.c. Weber, I.I. Karipidis J. ten Velden, B. Weber, H. Haker, T. Kalenscher, P.N. Tobler, « the dopaminergic reward system underpins gender differences in social preferences », Nature Human Behavior, vol. 1, pp 819-8279, 2017.

[9] J. Stevens et D. Stephens, « The adaptive nature of impulsivity » in Impulsivity : the behavorial and neurological science of discountin, sous la direction de gregory J. Madden and Warren K. Bickel (Washington DC : American Psychological Association, 2010), pp361-388, 2010

[10] W. Schultz, Dopamine reward prediction error coding, Dialogues in Clinic Neuroscience, vol 18, pp 23-32, 2016.

[11] L. Stanney, Because we can : a study of millennial impatience and the rise of the next day delivery, dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree BA(Hons) New Media, School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds, 2017

[12] J.S. Peper, R.C. W. Mandl, B.R. Braams, E. de Water, A.C. Hijboer, P. Cedric, M.P. Koolschijn, E.A. Crone, Delay discounting and frontostriatal Fiber tracts : a combined DTI and MTR study on impulsive choices in healthy young adults, Cerebral Cortex, vol 23, pp 1695-1702, 2013

[13] H. Wake, PR Lee, RD Fields, Control of local protein synthesis and initial events in myelination by action potentials, Science, vol 333, pp 1647-1651, 2011

[14] A. Ruffault, S. Czernichow, M. Hagger, M. Ferrand, N. Erichot, C. Carette, E. Boujut, C. Flahault, The effects of mindfulness trianing on weight-loss and health-related behaviours in adults with overweight and obsesity : a systematic review and meta analysis, Obesity Research and Clinical Practice, vol 11, pp 90-111, 2016

[15] P. Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, 1902

[16] Muir, W. M. (2013). Genetics and the Behaviour of Chickens: Welfare and Productivity. In Genetics and the Behaviour of Domestic Animals, 2 (2nd ed.). pp. 1–30

[17] https://evonomics.com/why-stacked-ranking-is-the-destructive-employer-practice/

[18] https://reporterre.net/Philippe-Descola-La-nature-ca-n-existe-pas

[19] The question of the intentionality of this encouragement, which is often raised, seems to me to underscore the effect that we are trying to describe here, as does the objection that the systemic caracteristic of these oppressions is not considered because their mechanisms are not fully known.

[20] https://www.scienceshumaines.com/comment-les-medias-francais-voient-l-islam_fr_4780.html

[21] https://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white

[22] This test qualifies films in which there are at least two women named (surname/first name) in the work, who talk together, and who talk about something that is unrelated to a man. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Test_de_Bechdel#:~:text=Le%20test%20de%20Bechdel%20is,'intention%20d'Alison%20Bechdel.

[23] Aristotle, Politics

[24] This point deserves an article of its own. It seems obvious to me that, from a caricatural point of view, those who would have the most to lose in maximizing the common good are the dominant minority. Many measures that would promote the common good are treated (because analyzed through a narrow spectrum) as being in direct contradiction with personal interests.

[25] https://reporterre.net/1-milliard-de-depenses-en-lobbying-par-les-petroliers-contre-la-poiltique

[26] Saul Alinsky, Being Radical: A Pragmatic Manual for Radical Realists

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