Are We Wrong about Who We Are?

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When Barbara Garcia’s home was flattened by this month’s tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, she was left homeless.  She didn’t have homeowner’s insurance, her daughter’s house likewise had been destroyed, and the entire contents of her home had been devastated.

But Barbara Garcia was not so concerned about all her worldly possessions. Instead she just wanted to find the body of her best friend, Bowser. Waiting for the tornado’s approach, Barbara had been sitting on the toilet in her bathroom holding her dog, Bowser, in her lap. But the force of the tornado not only ripped the toilet out of the floor heaving Barbara into the air, it also ripped Bowser from her embrace separating the two and burying Barbara under a pile of rubble. Scratched and shaken, Barbara managed to crawl out from under the rubble just as a camera crew arrived on the scene. While the cameras were rolling, Barbara recounted the story of how she was separated from her little dog. As if on cue, Bowser’s little nose peeked from under the remains of their home and as Barbara bent down to retrieve her best friend, she paused to say “Thank you God.”

As remarkable and heart-warming as this story is, that is not where it ends. Erin DeRuggiero, a total stranger living in another state, was so moved by Barbara and Bowser’s story that she launched a Go Fund Me page to raise money for their new home. DeRuggiero explains: “Barbara could have been my mother, my grandmother, my neighbor or my friend. I was shattered upon seeing her home destroyed, her recounting her experience and her joy upon seeing that her dog had survived it all. My goal is to ease her recovery, raise enough money to help her start to rebuild or relocate her life, and above all else, to show her that ‘life in the big city’ also means helping one another, even from 1500 miles away.”

You might think this is the end of this touching tale, but there is more. Not only did DeRuggiero exhibit empathy and generosity, but the many people donating money for Barbara and Bowser are illustrating that at least some strangers are motivated to help other strangers in need. In just nine days 1,292 people have donated over $53,000!

Many of us have been told that it is a “dog eat dog” world based upon “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest.” But is it possible that this view does not accurately reflect the diversity of human behavior?  Is it even an accurate assessment of dog behavior?  Rare is the dog, after all, that would ever eat another dog.

The originator of the term “natural selection,” Charles Darwin, allowed for cooperation and generosity as one form of natural selection, as this quote from his paradigm-shifting The Descent of Man illustrates:  “There can be no doubt that the tribe including many members who are always ready to give aid to each other, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over other tribes. And this would be natural selection.”

What if mammals, including humans, are more cooperative than competitive, at least under certain circumstances? And if that is possible, then under what circumstances might that be true?

Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule, has researched generosity, trust, empathy, altruism and morality between unacquainted humans and concludes that the neuropeptide oxytocin plays a major role. Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone” and is released in mammals during touch, birth, the nursing of infants and sex.

Zak’s research has found that when oxytocin levels are high, people’s generosity to strangers increases up to 80 percent.  “Oxytocin,” he says, “connects us to other people, and makes us feel what other people feel.”  He has observed spikes in oxytocin levels during a variety of social interactions in humans, including with online social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

It can be encouraging and hopeful  to see that as our ability to connect with each other increases, so does our impulse to help one another. But we also continue to be plagued by large-scale violence such as war, and the more personal atrocities of rape, assault and murder.

So what are we to think? Are these insults to our trust and generosity inevitable? Or might there be an alternative to human violence which is just as natural to our genetic make-up as competition and aggression? Might we be, under certain circumstances, far more capable of generosity and empathy than we normally assume?  Might we be wrong about who we are?

There is some evidence that the calming and bonding effects of oxytocin can switch off impulses for violence and transform us into a more loving and cooperative creature. In those rare present-day cultures (such as the Mosuo in China) where sexual activity is not shame-based, peaceful cooperation becomes much more prevalent.

Perhaps the most convincing example of this phenomenon is found in the bonobo. While Microsoft’s spellchecker still insists that “bonobo” is not a word, this ape has succeeded in creating a level of non-violence we remain unable to achieve.  Bonobos are eerily similar to us, more so than any other primate.  They walk upright much of the time. Their sexual interactions include behaviors we had once thought unique to humans, including deep kissing, fellatio and face to face sexual intercourse. Not only that, bonobos engage in sex to reduce tension, redirect anger and just for the fun of it! Procreation is actually a very small part of the bonobo sexual agenda which makes them exceptionally unique when compared to most animals and much more like their human cousins.

However, the bonobo has one distinct advantage over humans when it comes to maximizing the peace-making potential of oxytocin. Unlike us, bonobos are not subject to sexual shame. While most human cultures enforce various versions of sexual prohibitions and taboos, the bonobo is free to explore and express sex in ways which make their human observers blush.

For instance, bonobos have sex with same sex partners, not occasionally, but as frequently as they couple with the opposite gender. In fact, it may be that female bonobos have sex with each other more frequently than they have sex with males. Sex between female bonobos creates powerful bonds of loyalty, resulting in their unique propensity for supporting each other when facing male aggression. The result is a culture of checks and balances between the genders despite the superior size and strength of males. Female bonobos are sometimes seen as the dominant gender in bonobo culture.  But perhaps the fact that they do not allow the males to dominate them is such a shocking departure from typical gender relations in other species of mammals including humans, that some scientists interpret the resulting female empowerment as dominance.

When it comes to sexual empowerment, the bonobo has definitely left their human cousins in their proverbial dust. As Jack Hitt, contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, asserts in his article (Our Orgastic Future) for Lapham’s Quarterly:

“Human society is replete with displays of near intimacy and suggestive touching. We have developed customs of opposite-sex and same-sex hugging and kissing, handshaking, and back patting. And all of them serve as tokens of affection, perhaps with some subtle intimation that the encounter might develop into something else. Bonobos essentially went there and then kept going. On the long arc of sexual development as primate culture, maybe we’re the missing link on the way to bonobos.”

The prospects of a sexual evolution for humans which could lead to increased empowerment and decreased violence actually frightens many people. Strong cultural and religious taboos prevent us from seriously considering alternatives to our current relationship to sex.  But what might our world look like if we were to allow ourselves to boost our oxytocin levels by “making love instead of war?”  As cliché’ as that phrase has become, could there be some truth to the choice it points to? Would humans be nearly as violent as they currently are if our world cultures were not so sex negative?

Of course none of us need wait for the world’s population to shift to a more sex positive agenda. As individuals, we each can choose how accepting we want to be of other’s sexuality and how embracing we are of own sexual desires. We will always need and want healthy boundaries in sex no less than other aspects of our daily lives, but are there areas where we could be less reactive and judgmental about others?  About ourselves? Might we benefit from creating our own “Shame Free Zone?”

You might try an experiment toward that end. The next time you find yourself feeling uncomfortable about adult, consensual sex you don’t feel attracted to personally, try envisioning it as a measure taken to reduce violence in the world. If we begin to see sex as our “Antidote to a Mean World” maybe we can all live together with more harmony, love and acceptance. After all, we contain the roots of peace in our DNA. We have only to allow it to surface.

5 thoughts on “Are We Wrong about Who We Are?

  1. Thanks Veronica, I love how you work to make sexual acceptance less threatening to all of us. It’s both kind and effective!

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