Consciousness evolution and planetary survival: psychological roots of human violence and greed: paper presented at the Thirteenth International Transpersonal Conference entitled Spirituality, Ecology, and Native Wisdom in Killarney, Ireland, June 1995.

Author:Grof, Stanislav

The two most powerful psychological forces in human history have been without doubt violence and greed. The amount and degree of atrocities that have been committed throughout ages in various countries of the world-many of them in the name of God--is truly unimaginable and indescribable. We can think here of the countless Christians, sacrificed in Roman arenas to provide a highly sought-afar spectacle for masses, many hundreds of thousands of victims of the medieval Inquisition who were tortured, killed, and burned in the autos-da-fe, the mass slaughters on the sacrificial altars of the Aztecs, and the millions of soldiers and civilians killed in wars and revolutions of all times.

Genghis Khan's hordes sweeping through Asia killing, pillaging and burning villages, Alexander the Great's army conquering all the countries lying between Macedonia and India, the amazing spread of Islam by sword and fire, the expansion of the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the ventures of Cortez and Pizarro, the colonialism of Great Britain and other European countries, and the Napoleonic wars - all these are examples of unbridled violence and insatiable greed.

This trend has continued in an unmitigated fashion in the twentieth century. Historically, more people were killed in the last hundred years than have existed from the dawn of humanity up to the last century. A total of twenty million men and women were killed on the battlefields of World War Il and an equal number as a consequence of the wars off the battlefield.

The expansionism of Nazi Germany and the horrors of the Holocaust, Stalin's domination of Eastern Europe and his Gulag archipelago, the civil terror in Communist China and in the South American dictatorships, the atrocities and genocide committed by the Chinese in Tibet, the cruelties of the South African Apartheid, the war in Korea and Vietnam, and the recent bloodshed in Yugoslavia and Rwanda are just a few salient examples of the senseless bloodshed we have witnessed during the last fity years

The human greed has also found new less violent forms of expression in the philosophy and strategy of capitalist economy emphasizing increase of the gross national product, "unlimited growth", plundering recklessly non-renewable natural resources, encouraging conspicuous consumption, and practicing "planned obsolescence". Moreover, much of this wasteful economic policy that has disastrous ecological consequences has been oriented toward production of weapons of increasing destructive power.

In the past, violence and greed had tragic consequences for the individuals involved in the internecine historical events and their immediate families. However, they did not threaten the evolution of the human species as a whole and certainly did not represent a danger for the eco system and for the biosphere of the planet. Even after the most violent wars, nature was able to recycle all the aftermath and completely recover within a few decades. This situation has changed very radically in the course of the twentieth century. Rapid technological progress, exponential growth of industrial production, massive population explosion, and particularly the discovery of atomic energy have forever changed the equations involved.

In the course of this century, we have often witnessed more major scientific and technological breakthroughs within a single decade, or even a single year, than people in earlier historical periods experienced in an entire century. However, these astonishing intellectual successes have brought modern humanity to the brink of global catastrophy, since they were not matched by a comparable growth of emotional and moral maturity. We have the dubious privilege of being the first species in natural history that has achieved the capacity to eradicate itself and destroy in the process all life on this planet. The intellectual history of humanity is one of incredible triumphs. We have been able to learn the secrets of nuclear energy, send spaceships to the moon and all the planets of the solar system, transmit sound and color pictures all over the globe and across cosmic space, crack the DNA code and start genetic engineering. At the same time, these superior technologies are being used in the service of primitive emotions and instinctual impulses that are not very different from those which motivated people of the Stone Age.

Unimaginable sums of money have been wasted in the insanity of the arms race and the use of a miniscule fraction of the existing arsenal of atomic weapons could destroy all life on earth. Many millions of people have been killed in the two world wars and in countless other violent confrontations occurring for ideological, racial, religious, or economic reasons; hundreds of thousands were bestially tortured by the secret police of various totalitarian systems. Insatiable greed is driving people to hectic pursuit of profit and acquisition of personal property beyond any reasonable limits. This strategy resulted in a situation where, beside the specter of a nuclear war, humanity is threatened by several less spectacular, but insidious and more predictable doomsday scenarios.

Among these are industrial pollution of soil, water, and air; the threat of nuclear waste and accidents; destruction of the ozone layer; the greenhouse effect; possible loss of planetary oxygen through reckless deforestation and poisoning of the prohibitions and injunctions), we would kill and steal indiscriminately, commit incest, and be involved in unbridled promiscuous sex. This image of human nature relegated such concepts as complementarity, synergy, mutual respect, and peaceful cooperation into the domain of temporary opportunistic strategies or naive utopian fantasies. It is not difficult to see how these concepts and the system of values associated with them have helped to create the crisis we are facing.

During the twenty-five years of its existence, revolutionary developments in Western science have brought convincing evidence for a radically different understanding of the cosmos, human beings, and the psyche. It has become increasingly clear that consciousness is not a product of the physiological processes in the brain, but a primary attribute of existence. The universe is imbued with creative intelligence and consciousness is inextricably woven into its fabric. Modern consciousness research has shown that the conceptual framework of traditional psychiatry and psychology that reduces the human psyche to biology, postnatal biography, and the Freudian individual unconscious is superficial, inadequate, and incorrect.

In non-ordinary states of consciousness, such as systematic meditation, shamanic rituals, near-death experiences, psychedelic sessions, powerful forms of experiential psychotherapy, and spontaneous psychospiritual crises, the psyche can reach far beyond such narrow limits. It is possible to transcend the dynamics of the unconscious dominated by animal instincts and connect with transpersonal domains. In the last analysis, the individual psyche of each of us is commensurate with the totality of existence; the deepest nature of humanity is not bestial, but divine. This understanding of existence provides a natural basis for reverence for life, cooperation and synergy, concerns for humanity and the planet as a whole, and deep ecological awareness.


    Modern human study of aggressive behavior started with Charles Darwin's epoch-making discoveries in the field of evolution in the middle of the last century (Darwin 1952). The attempts to explain human aggression from our animal origin generated such theoretical concepts as Desmond Morris' image of the "naked ape" (Morris 1967), R. Ardrey's idea of the `territorial imperative (Ardrey 1961), Paul MacLean's `triune brain' (MacLean 1973), and Richard Dawkins' sociobiological explanations interpreting aggression in terms of genetic strategies of the `selfish genes' (Dawkins 1976). More refined models of behavior developed by pioneers in ethology, such as Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinbergen, and others, complemented mechanical emphasis on instincts by the study of ritualistic and motivational elements (Lorenz 1963, Tinbergen 1965).

    However, any theories suggesting that the human tendency to violence simply reflects our animal origin are inadequate and unconvincing. Animals exhibit aggression when they are hungry, defending their territory, or competing for sex. However, the nature and scope of human violence - Erich Fromm's "malignant aggression" (Fromm 1973) - has no parallels in the animal kingdom. There are no natural parallels to the atrocities committed in the course of human history. Awareness of the inadequacy of the belief that aggression is an inborn fact of evolutionary nature led to the formulation of psychodynamic and psychosocial theories that consider a significant part of human aggression to be learned phenomena. This trend began in the late 1930's by the monograph Frustration and Aggression by Miller and Dollard (Miller and Dollard 1939).

    Psychodynamic theories are trying to explain the specifically human aggression as a reaction to frustration, abuse, and lack of love in infancy and childhood. However, even explanations of this kind fall painfully short of accounting for extreme forms of individual violence (such as the Boston Strangler, serial murders of the Geoffrey Dahmer type, or the Texas gunman White), crimes committed by gangs and criminal groups (like the Sharon Tare murders, prison uprisings), and particularly mass societal phenomena like Nazism, Communism, bloody wars, revolutions, genocide, and concentration camps.

    In the last several decades, psychedelic research and deep experiential psychotherapies have been able to throw much light on the problems of human aggression. They discovered that the sources of this problematic and dangerous aspect of human nature are much deeper and more formidable...

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