Human: A Species of Brilliant Killers

Homo Sapiens is an extraordinary species. But, let’s face it, we’re a species that kills our own kind.

If aliens are looking down at us, it’s one of the first things they’re noting:

Homo Sapiens seems so intelligent, but because they have no insight into the fact that they keep killing one another, they can’t figure out a way to stop.

We kill each other in individual and collective ways, rational and irrational ways, ritualized and forbidden ways, legal and illegal ways, masculine and feminine ways, literal and metaphorical ways. We do it for religious reasons, justified reasons, reasons of passion, mental health reasons.  We try, unsuccessfully, to use those reasons to stop ourselves.

New wars are constantly emerging. We choose leaders who start them. We send our children to fight in them. Many of our young warriors die, and the ones who don’t are traumatized for life.    

Our species commits genocide, domestic violence, gun violence, child abuse, rape, and incest. We argue about and often approve the death penalty, abortion, and euthanasia.     

We don’t just hurt and kill others. We hurt and kill ourselves. Self-harm, substance abuse and suicide are epidemics.    

We ‘kill’ in quotation-mark ways too. When charged topics enter an arena, we quickly regress to insults, bullying and ridicule. Instead of creatively imagining ways to solve intergroup problems, we block, unfriend, cancel, and ghost one another. We accuse each other of ‘isms’ and ‘anti-isms.’ We attack each other in social media where we spin reality any way we choose. Mainstream news, once trusted, is considered to be fake by people who see reality from a different vantage point.  In academia, ‘critical’ thinking is prized. Our most successful comedy shows ridicule others.    

Defenses against awareness of this dynamic, and all it implies, are powerful. We watch others win and lose, suffer and die, all day, every day. It happens in the news, in books, theater, film, TV and social media.  We’re stimulated by it, until we get bored and change the channel.    

Consider this ‘Murder Show’ skit from Saturday Night Live. It’s funny because it’s true. What does it imply that we delight in imagining murders?

You may be asking, if everything I just said is true, then we must be programmed this way. What, if anything, can we do?    

We can begin by asking the right questions. We need to slow down the zero-sum arguments over whether one war is more just than another, whether one political party is more right than another, or whether the death penalty and abortion are sinful, illegal, or acceptable. We can begin by stepping back and looking at these problems through a different lens. How did our species evolve as one that kills its own kind? Is it possible that we could change?   

One hypothesis is that, as our species matured psychologically, we developed complex identities that made us separate and distinct from one another. Perhaps we now suffer from a flaw in our genetic and psychological makeup, a flaw that prevents us from solving problems of human difference.   

Our identities form early in life. We’re wired to see the world from a certain vantage point. It’s been demonstrated that conservatives and liberals have different psychological profiles. Significant differences threaten our hard-won identities. If our psychological centers won’t hold, we will fight back, hard.

How can we begin to imagine the landscape that others see, and focus on shared horizons, without sacrificing our individual identities?

Classical analytic theory refers to the ‘body ego.’ Our physical bodies are the core from which our psyches form. I suggest that we might look at our ‘body politic’ from a similar vantage point.   

Our bodies are two-sided, with one side dominant and leading, for good reason. It’s stabilizing, and it helps us move forward. The same is true for our eyes. Two eyes that focus on a shared horizon provide us with clarity, perspective, and depth perception. When left and right share their different ways of perceiving our political landscape, adapt to one another, and focus on a shared horizon, with one side leading at a particular time, we can move forward. Two perspectives that don’t focus, that constantly argue that the landscape they see is the one and only truth, lead to blindness and paralysis.    

Is it possible to change this dynamic, as individuals and as a society? I believe it is.

New scientific theories like neuroplasticity and epigenetics, and psychoanalytic models of adaptation, ego plasticity, and defense interpretations, tell us that we’re capable of changing our brains and our psyches well into adulthood. I believe that it is possible to shift these forces, if we make the effort consciously and deliberately, with insight, methodology, and the motivation to try.     

As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. I’m honored to be invited into the inner worlds of many disparate individuals. Their political and religious viewpoints cross a wide spectrum. They believe what they believe for worthy reasons, reasons that emerged from the complex matrix out of which other elements of their personalities emerged – the way they were raised, their genetics, their passions, their internal conflicts, symptoms and defenses, and ways of living, loving, and thinking.  Some of them use research, statistics, and intellectual arguments to support their points of view. Some identify with a powerful leader or God. Some are mentally ill and see reality through the lens of delusion. Some think about abstract ideas while others want help putting food on their tables.    

These powerful styles lead to differences that could strengthen us, but end up leading to seemingly insurmountable chasms. We need to learn to talk TO and WITH, not AT, ABOUT and AGAINST one another. We need to learn to read people’s communications better than we do, honoring their experience rather than arguing ineffectively against them. We need to learn how to read others the way we learned how to read books and interpret math and music symbols. If we can begin to do that, we will one day be able to solve human problems just as effectively.    

Human understanding IS rocket science. It’s equally complicated, but it’s equally possible. I fear that, given our divided, digital world, robots are becoming human, and humans are being pushed toward the concrete and the robotic; pills and surgeries, good guys and bad guys. If we lose the essence of what makes us human – our shared search for meaning, empathic imagination, loving compassion, and a pathway to Truth via creative imagination – the path that we’re on could be a dead end…   

How can we re-find this pathway? One possible route is to imagine a curriculum in Emotional Literacy, using daily thought experiments, and develop it until it exists on a par with other major subjects. Right now, psychology is taught in single courses, in a way that’s either too intellectual or too social-emotional. Neither works effectively enough to help us imagine the emotional experience of the other and develop ways of communicating across vast human divides.

In 2012, I was given the opportunity to design an emotional literacy pilot project for the summer program at Street Squash, a Harlem-based youth enrichment program.  For one week, we turned a middle school classroom into a microcosm of adult society. We assigned students ‘future selves,’ complete with careers, incomes, and tax brackets. Sixty students discussed their feelings about their jobs and incomes in relation to their classmates’ (the rich were clearly superior and coveted). They calculated their taxes, learned how the government uses those taxes, and explored the perspectives of our political parties through the lens of their adult selves. Studying current events, they discussed the importance of reading for context and understanding the perspective of others. Students were challenged to consider their unique emotional imprint, imagine the emotional experience of people from different backgrounds, talk TO rather than AT friends from across imaginary divides, and imagine new ways to effect social change.   

The course was so well received that we were invited to design semester-long courses for their academic program; full curricula with detailed lesson plans can be seen at Students also interviewed Dr. Vamik Volkan and Lord John Alderdice, Videos entitled, ‘Why Do We Have War and What Can Our Generation Do About It?’ can be seen on the same website.    When our students reached senior year, we added an innovative internship.  Eight seniors co-taught courses to younger students, and collaborated with students at Hunter High School to write an ebook,, based on the work of Dr. Volkan.   

How do I picture this type of program emerging in schools? Here’s another example.   

In elementary school, a lesson is this:

A classmate comes up to you in the playground and says, ‘Your sandcastle is crooked’. Let’s list as many reasons as we can think of for why your classmate might say that to you, and let’s think about how you might respond in each situation.

Students might wonder if he was mean because his father was mean to him. Maybe she’s competitive with you. The teacher might explain that for some people (ASD, OCD), crooked things make them anxious. Or maybe your sandcastle is crooked, and it’s your friend’s clumsy way of offering to help.   

Now imagine the same question posed as a homework assignment or test question for an older child.

Someone walks into your playground and says, ‘Your sandcastle is crooked’. List six different reasons why a person might say that to you, and six different responses based on your hypothesis. Choose one of them and create an in-person or email dialogue designed to test it. What clues might tell you whether your hypothesis is accurate? Try to remain true to yourself and build a bridge to that person. Your dialogue doesn’t have to lead to a happy resolution, but it should be deep, complex, and authentic.

Now imagine the same question, posed metaphorically, for university students.

Given that we all have our ‘castles in the sky’ – the conscious and unconscious structures that define us to ourselves – choose a political or religious ideology. Think of a time in history, or in the present day, when one leader’s worldview was challenged by another, with the message, ‘Your castle in the sky is distorted’. Write a paper on the way that dynamic was or is being addressed in historical context, and how a greater capacity for self-other awareness and an understanding of group identity dynamics might or might not have led to a different outcome.

This type of question may not appear to be different from more personally provocative ones that are posed now by our social environment currently. But think about how much more complex and accurate responses would be if students had studied the forces of human nature academically, tested their understanding as deepening thought experiments, and developed laboratories to find ways to harness those forces effectively, for the previous twelve years.

Note that because this program uses thought experiments that are experience-near but not violating of personal boundaries, deeper insights into human nature are able to rise to the surface. Personal insight, improved relationships, and an opportunity for the most gifted to rise to the surface, would be some of the products of such a program.    

Future generations would be able to recognize and vote for leaders who combine strength, vision, and empathic imagination and communication. Critical Race Theory supporters and opponents could imagine ways to teach history that honours, and challenges, both points of view.     

When I get on a plane, I trust that the people who designed, built, and are flying that plane spent many years studying rocket science. In contrast, when I hear world leaders, media pundits, or the masses on social media talking about dropping real or metaphorical ‘bombs’ on dislike or feared others, I hear children in a playground saying, Your sandcastle is crooked, you scare me, and you have to die. This attitude must change. I believe that, with insight, creativity, motivation, and hard work, it can.    

Adult generations have not been able to solve the problem of war, but I’m convinced that, with a greater understanding of human nature and techniques for communicating across divides, our children can make that leap of imagination and implementation. They need the right questions, tools that give them a place to begin, and an academic program that values that language, that learning, and that discovery.

Originally published in Psychoanalysis Today