Manhattan Project #49 We were better off as apes

(the penultimate episode of The Manhattan Project, wherein Jed Berman laments the fact that human beings became so smart)

But I didn’t forget about the whole thing. In fact, I thought about it a lot. I tried to imagine how the world might have been, if our brains hadn’t developed the ability to think, to construct ideologies that morphed into culture and produced what we’ve all been taught to think of as civilization. What if we hadn’t learned how to drive a wedge between our natural mirror neuron-driven response to each other and the violent behaviors embedded in those damned beliefs about politics, religion, and the material world?

It was our fucking developed brain—the thinking part we call our mind—that allowed us to plan attacks on our neighbors when we wanted their food or their possessions. Our minds gave us the ability to rationalize the violence it took to pull off those raids. It probably didn’t happen all at once, maybe as slow as the millennia long process involved in the evolution of consciousness that led to thought itself.

And there wasn’t anybody there to say: Don’t lose touch with your mirror neurons! Don’t let go of your naturally evolved human nature that has allowed you to live peaceably with those around you for so long. If you give that up you’re going to bring down on your heads a whirlwind of violence and death.

Maybe we wouldn’t have invented all of the weapons if we’d stayed in touch with ourselves. That might have meant that the great empires of history would never have been built, on the bones of dead enemies and fellow countrymen. The powerful military leaders historians now celebrate might never have risen above the masses, might never have been able to slaughter millions of innocents for their own gain.

Attila would have stayed a nomad tending goats, only the neighbors who refused to help the poor, starving Huns might have responded to their own mirror neurons—would have seen the Huns through sympathetic eyes—and come to the aid of the vagrants who wandered into their villages and campsites. The Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Romans might never have been known by those names, and those names might never have struck terror in the hearts of people living cooperatively on the peninsulas and continents of Europe and Africa.

And young men in all of those ancient societies might have learned to love instead of hate, to care instead of kill. And the people who long ago made their way to North and South America might not have been decimated by diseases and violence inflicted on them by adventurers who sailed across the sea to rob them of their livelihoods and their lives.

I had to think about all of the soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD or other more drastic emotional problems. What if that’s happening, more this time than ever before, because their mirror neurons are clashing with the ideology and the training and the killing they’re forced into? What if they know, deep in the primitive part of their brains, that human beings aren’t meant to treat each other that way, and they can’t avoid doing it. That’s what Penny Coleman would say. Maybe they’re suffering from a major mental blowout, the only way their brain can think of to reduce the pressure, the psychological discomfort, the cognitive dissonance.

And I thought about Nathan Thibodeau, a good man who loved his family and his country. A local guy who drank the Kool-Aid of nationalism and militarism offered to him by the country he wanted to serve, and lost touch with a human nature that would have allowed him to care as much about those defined for him as the enemy as he did for those who peopled his local world.

What if that uneasiness he wrote about in basic training when they taught him to kill was really the better part of him—his true nature—sounding an alarm that the person he was born to be was under attack from thoughts and actions that could tear him apart. He obviously managed to ignore that discomfort until he stared into the lifeless eyes of his victims in Iraq. And then it all got mixed up inside his head—his love for his family, his fear for their safety, his guilt or shame or whatever over taking the lives of human beings he knew to be among the innocents—and he ended up listening to the wrong voices in his mind, his conscious mind, the part laced with ideologies and beliefs he didn’t question as they were being drilled into him, as they’ve been injected into each of us, in one form or another, over thousands and thousands of years.

And then I thought about my mom. If Albert Einstein hadn’t been divorced from his mirror neurons, from his empathetic self, he might not have signed a letter urging the United States to develop that awful weapon, and my mom wouldn’t have been recruited to help build it. The regret Einstein felt over his invention actually being used might have been a faint echo issuing from somewhere in the mirror neuron system in his great and powerful brain.

If he hadn’t been conditioned away from empathy, the Manhattan Project would never have happened, and we wouldn’t need to mount a New Manhattan Project to put an end to the fear and pain human beings have experienced since the first one wreaked such awful damage when it was born. The New Manhattan Project, if it ever actually got underway, might dismantle the killing machines. Surely, people driven by empathy would know that was the right thing to do.


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