What is evil? Where does it come from? Does everyone have a dark side? These questions have been keeping scientists busy for quite a while. Does evil arise through a neurological process in our brains? Or does it have to do with the psychological circumstances of our daily lives? Where is the tipping point?
Philip Zimbardo, whom most of us probably know from the Stanford Prison Experiment (1971), has been exploring these issues for more than 30 years. In this video he explains his theory about why ordinary people can suddenly turn evil, or on the contrary: do good. He hereby introduces the concept of a tipping point. A critical moment where the decision of doing good or doing evil is made, and how it works.
Philip Zimbardo has broadly explained this groundbreaking theory in his book, The Lucifer Effect (2007).
The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit. That would be like saying that you would disappear if I closed my eyes.
Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Human beings took our animal need for palatable food … and turned it into chocolate souffles with salted caramel cream. We took our ability to co-operate as a social species … and turned it into craft circles and bowling leagues and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We took our capacity to make and use tools … and turned it into the Apollo moon landing. We took our uniquely precise ability to communicate through language … and turned it into King Lear.
None of these things are necessary for survival and reproduction. That is exactly what makes them so splendid. When we take our basic evolutionary wiring and transform it into something far beyond any prosaic matters of survival and reproduction … that’s when humanity is at its best. That’s when we show ourselves to be capable of creating meaning and joy, for ourselves and for one another. That’s when we’re most uniquely human.
And the same is true for sex. Human beings have a deep, hard-wired urge to replicate our DNA, instilled in us by millions of years of evolution. And we’ve turned it into an intense and delightful form of communication, intimacy, creativity, community, personal expression, transcendence, joy, pleasure, and love. Regardless of whether any DNA gets replicated in the process.
Why should we see this as sinful? What makes this any different from chocolate souffles and King Lear?
There is divine beauty in learning… To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth. Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps. The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples. I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests. And so are you.
We live on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way Galaxy which is one of billions of other galaxies which make up a universe which may be one of a very large number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. That is a perspective on human life and our culture that is well worth pondering.
Carl Sagan, quoted in Dan Lewandowski and John Stear, “A Tribute To Carl Sagan” (via cwnl)
The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.