#10- The Transmission of Patterns: Basic to Life, and to the Human World

In the previous installment, I defined “evil” as “a coherent force that spreads a pattern of brokenness,” and “the good” as “a coherent force that spreads a pattern of wholeness.”

To understand the human world, it is essential to recognize how central to our species story the dynamic between these two forces has been.

This dynamic might might reasonably be called “the battle between good and evil.” But just to be clear, calling it that is not to assert the involvement in our world of some supernatural actors.

What I am trying here to make visible, rather, is something that has arisen quite naturally – out of the interconnected network of cause and effect. It is a dynamic that has arisen, in an inevitable way, out of the evolutionary process: i.e. that process that first brought forth the systems of life on earth and then gave rise to a creature that — through the creation of civilized societies — escaped from the biological order in which it had evolved.

I wish it were simple to show how all this is so—how something that might reasonably be called “the battle between good and evil” provides a key to understanding the story of our species. That would make both my job and your job easier. But this picture is not so simple. Seeing it requires several steps.

  • First, one must “see” the forces, which requires excavating a network of connections buried amidst the concrete events in the human world.
  • Second, as one sees the nature and workings of those forces, one recognizes how much they have in common with those ancient and freighted terms “good” and “evil.” (This step is optional, however, because whatever one calls these forces — regardless of whether one makes the connection with those ancient concepts —  the human story remains the same.)
  • Third, one comes to recognize — on the basis of seeing how these forces each arose – how the ordeal to which humankind has been subjected for millennia has been the consequence of our having stumbled innocently into an impossible situation.
  • Fourth, the most hopeful note: from all the above, one can become freed from the sense that the evils of the world are a reflection upon what we humans are by nature, and this in turn can enable us to envision the better world that we might create.

While touching upon all of that, this installment will focus on that first step, i.e. making more visible those forces of wholeness and especially of brokenness. We’ll begin by developing those two concepts further.

Wholeness and Brokenness, the Patterns Fostered by Good and Evil

What I am calling “wholeness” is fundamental to the nature of life. It characterizes the orders – or structures — that life creates and requires.

By favoring life over death, the evolutionary process molds certain kinds of order. It is a reasonable approximation of the truth to say that favoring life over death means favoring order over disorder.

Although, even apart from living systems, there is a degree of order in the cosmos — from the level of the quark up through the level of clusters of galaxies–  with the systems of life, the level of ordering increases by orders of magnitude.

The orders that life creates are of mind-blowing intricacy at every level. Precise ordering is evident at the level of the cell – in which atoms and molecules are put together in very defined ways, with elaborate interactions – and evident also in the way that many cells can be brought together to constitute a living organism. And so it is on up the levels of the biological system — through species, communities, ecosystems, and the biosphere.

(Just imagine a time-lapse film of the earth—  following the earth’s changes, at levels from microscopic to global — from its original lifeless condition, onward through the entire process by which, over the past 3.5 billion years, this incredible order of life has unfolded upon this planet.)

The life-serving orders created by evolution involve interconnectedness, things fitting together well. The property I am calling “Wholeness” is what characterizes the structures (or ordering) that facilitate life, preserve life, enhance life, fulfill the needs of living creatures.

“Brokenness” is the opposite. “Brokenness” represents a breakdown of the life-serving order in living systems. It involves the destruction of those patterns or structures that make possible life’s flourishing and the fulfillment of living creatures.

To elaborate a bit further, consider two aspects of the wholeness that characterize healthy living systems. They can be called “synergy” and “viability.”

1) Synergy. The evolution of life appears to have operated in a completely opportunistic fashion, without a plan or purposefulness in its unfolding. Where there’s a niche that can be occupied by a predator, or a parasite, or pathogen, the opportunistic evolutionary process is likely to fill it.

Nonetheless, the tendency of evolution is to create synergistic patterns of interaction among the elements of a living system. In a synergistic interaction, each part functions in a way that tends to enhance the welfare of the other parts as well as its own. Even the relationship between predator and prey evolves over time to serve not only the predator, but the prey as well.

[One illustration: A recent article in Science News—”Lopped Off: Removal of top predators trickles through the food web,” Science News, November 5, 2011, pp. 26-29—shows how eliminating predators hurts the system as a whole.]

What works, survives. What doesn’t work, gets weeded out. Hence even the antagonistic relationships tend, over time, to operate within a larger context in which the system as a whole can be perpetuated.

2) Viability.  A system has the second component—”viability”—to the extent that it is able to maintain, without diminution, whatever it is upon which the system’s continued existence depends. A viable system does not eat itself out of house and home, does not foul its own nest, does not contain unsustainable practices.

As the ecologist Gregory Bateson once wrote: “No creature wins against its environment for long.”

(There are other dimensions along which “Wholeness” can be sliced, especially regarding its manifestations in the human world: within the psychic structure of the individual, there are “integration” and “integrity”; within social arrangements, there is “justice”; within human relationships, there are “peace” and “love.” One could expand this list of structures that involve things being well-ordered, of human arrangements that are life-serving, whose consequences are life-enhancing.)

It’s no innovation of mine to connect an idea of “wholeness” to the nature of the systems toward which life strives. Our bodies strive toward health, and the word “health” is etymologically rooted in the idea of “wholeness.” A body can be healthy, or whole, and so can an ecosystem, even up to the global system of life. Health is a wholeness of order. And in medicine many of those things that cause a breakdown of health are called “disorders.”

Clearly, however, there’s nothing perfect about the order that has emerged here on earth. Suffering has been part of life as long as there have been creatures that feel. The course of life’s development has been marked by waves of extinctions. And then, more recently, there has been the history of civilized humankind, with all the brokenness it displays, and generates.

How are we to understand these major aspects of disorder? How does “brokenness” enter into the system of life, which I’ve said is characterized by the establishment of patterns of “Wholeness”? And how does this brokenness relate to the issue of “evil” as a force, I have claimed, that consistently transmits a pattern of brokenness into the human world?

Not All Brokenness is a Result of “Evil”

Life has been developing on earth for nearly four billion years. One might say that “brokenness” — in the sense of damage being inflicted on the systems and creatures of life — has been around just as long. But “evil” – as I think it most useful to define it – is a newcomer. There are three main sources of “brokenness,” but only one of them warrants being called “evil.”

The first source of brokenness is from those elements of our world (or cosmos) that preceded life and are beyond the control of the systems of life.

Life has established a powerful presence on this planet. But life emerged out of a “cold” and (apparently) indifferent and lifeless universe. That vast non-living world, with its own great forces at work, has by no means disappeared. And those forces can inflict disorder on whatever structures life has so carefully assembled.

For example, a massive object, streaming from the cold, lifeless realms of outer space, might slam into our planet, devastating major parts of the wholeness of the living system. This seems to be what happened some 65 million years ago, rendering the dinosaurs and much else extinct.

Nor does the system of life control the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates. Thus some millions of years ago, the two continents of the Americas, floating on the earth’s outer surface, drifted into contact—at the isthmus of Panama—bringing together two previously-separated communities of animal life. These two communities had not evolved any life-serving order between them, and thus their sudden combination produced disorder, and a resulting wave of extinctions.

Likewise with earthquakes and tsunamis that occasionally wreak devastation on particular areas on into our times.

Although such forces that come from outside the living system, may be said to impart brokenness to the biological order, they have nothing to do with what I am calling “evil.”

They do not emerge out of “brokenness,” because they never were more whole. They involve no systematic “working” to impart brokenness, no exploitation of brokenness in the human world, no malevolent face that accompanies its expression— i.e. none of those things that are part of how “evil” was defined here in “Understanding Evil.”

The brokenness caused by asteroids and earthquakes is therefore fundamentally unlike the force that has arisen from within the human system itself and that “works” to spread brokenness onto whatever it touches.

(In the 18th century, when a catastrophic earthquake devastated Lisbon, many interpreted it as a punitive act of God. But all those with a scientific worldview – among whom I include myself – now regard these as impersonal things that just happen.

Hurricanes are now an ambiguous source of brokenness—as the weather systems of the earth have now been destabilized by human activity: the meteorologists say that human-induced climate change does not create hurricanes, but it does make them more extreme. Hence, given that brokenness in the human system has worked to prevent our responding to the challenge of climate change, even as the basic danger has been visible now for decades, today’s hurricanes are inflicting a hybrid form of brokenness on people and other living things.)

A second source of brokenness—one mentioned above in explaining “synergy” —is the result of the wholly opportunistic nature of the evolutionary process.

Because the workings of evolution are not, so far as one can see, directed by any benevolent force, biological evolution does not create a world where the lion will lie down with the lamb, except to make dinner of it.

Hence, rather than the wholeness of some utopian vision, the purely opportunistic process of evolution gives us predators and parasites living at the expense of other organisms. One creature’s meat is inevitably another creature.

Nonetheless, the process of biological evolution works over time to create a synergistic order to contain the conflictual elements in the system within an overarching wholeness. (This brings us back to “synergy” and “viability” as necessary aspects of the wholeness living systems require.)

To repeat a couple of earlier examples:

The wolf may be cruel, but when it kills the lamb, the death of the lamb is not an injury to lambkind. It is part of the pattern of survival not only for wolves but for the sheep as well. If there were no wolves, the sheep would overgraze the land, and before long the foundation on which the lives of the sheep rests would be undermined. A pattern of wholeness has evolved over time to serve the perpetuation of the whole.

The American chestnut was virtually obliterated from the North American forests, in which they played so important a role, when the Chinese chestnut was suddenly introduced onto the American continent. The Chinese chestnut carried with it a fungus. While the American variety of chestnut was devastated by the sudden arrival of that fungus, the Chinese version of the chestnut and the fungus had evolved over millions of years a relationship that allowed them to co-exist.

So evolution’s opportunism, which was inevitable as life emerged out of non-life, means that life will injure life. But, as evolution works over stretches of time, with what serves life being selected over what undermines life, the brokenness of that sort gets subsumed within a larger pattern of wholeness.

So, while it is true at one level that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” and that suffering is inflicted in the natural order, the fact that this “red in tooth and claw” level is embedded in a larger wholeness differentiates it from the kind of brokenness, found in the human world, that warrants being called evil.

It is only that third factor — the force that has emerged out of the human world itself, and that transmits a pattern of brokenness — that warrants being called “evil.” And it is how that force of brokenness arose, and how it operates, that we are exploring here.

The Transmission of Patterns

The transmission of patterns is at the heart of how the living world and the human world work. Life transmits a pattern – from generation to generation – encoded in DNA. A culture transmits its pattern by other means.

These ways that living systems transmit their patterns — genotype and the persistence of culture — are straight-forward: each time the pattern expresses itself, it looks pretty much the same.  (But as we ‘ll soon see, the “coherent force that transmits a pattern of brokenness/wholeness, is not so straight forward. Because the patterns of good and evil are shape-shifting.)

In the biological transmission of a creature’s genetic heritage, the pattern that gets preserved is right there in front of our eyes. We can look at a medieval painting where human faces are depicted, for example, and can readily see that these are faces that could blend right in to our present-day world. A pattern has been preserved, more or less intact. For that matter, when archaeologists uncover a skeleton from some homo sapiens from tens of thousands of years ago, we can recognize that skeletal pattern as essentially identical to the bony structure inside each one of us.

Given enough time, incremental changes will become visible – some pre-human skeletons from four or five million years ago might combine ape-like and human-like traits – but basically, from generation to generation, essentially identical patterns get transmitted.

Likewise with the transmission of the content of culture, albeit with changes occurring a good deal more rapidly. Take language: the language used by the parental generation may have some slight differences from how their children use the language, but English moves from generation to generation essentially unchanged. We can go back centuries, at least to Shakespeare – if not also to Beowulf – and still recognize and comprehend the English that’s been transmitted through time to us.

So it is with the various other patterns that structure a culture. Culture persists.

(In WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, I give some dramatic illustrations of what I call “the persistence of culture” through time. One of these examples describes how the descendants of Jews — who settled in New Mexico centuries ago in order to hide out from the Inquisition — continued for centuries into our times to light candles on Friday nights—even though they long since had become actual Catholics and had no idea why they were lighting those candles, except that it was a practice handed down through the generations.)

It is therefore reasonably easy to recognize how both our biological heritage and our cultural heritage get passed along through time through the transmission of patterns. But with the workings of “evil” — and for that matter, of “the good” — it is not so straightforward to see the pattern that gets transmitted through time.

The Shape-Shifting Expressions of an Evil Force

What makes the transmission of patterns different with the forces of good and evil is that the pattern that gets transmitted is one level abstracted from what is visible to us.

The specific, visible manifestations of brokenness in the world change, as the “force of destruction” does its work: at one point it could be war, instead of peace; or injustice, instead of justice; or ugliness, instead of beauty; or cruelty, instead of kindness; etc. Those are the things we “see.”

But what can also be “seen,” with some effort, is what these visible manifestations have in common: “brokenness.” In terms of fulfilling the needs of life, each represents a degradation, a kind of disorder.

And there’s another, crucial thing they have in common: they generate each other.

Each form of brokenness– those within the human creature (such as cruelty, the lust for power, dishonesty, lack of integrity, greed, insistence on war)  as well as those at the collective level (like injustice, oppression, war, exploitation, deception) — is fed and engendered by the others. That’s how the pattern of brokenness gets transmitted.

Sometimes one can see the manifestations of evil working together, like basketball players passing the ball back and forth between them on a fast break. Like Trump and racism: the force of racism had been fed by a generation of Republican dog whistles, and that amplified racist animus then in turn helped propel Trump into the presidency, from which he works to reinforce racism, as in his divisive comments lately about black NFL players and the national anthem.

Likewise with Trump and the power of the Lie. It was because the power of the Lie had grown in American politics, as a consequence of decades of growing dishonesty from the Republican Party and its media allies. This, in turn, cleared the way for a constant liar like Donald Trump to be elected to the presidency. And then the fact that a liar could be chosen by the American people strengthened the power of the Lie.

(But fortunately, Trump’s many defects make it quite possible that he will discredit and ultimately weaken the brokenness he represents. Trump may prove to be first the apogee, and then the downfall, of the “evil force” that has hijacked the American right.)

It is through these lines of interconnections among these forms of brokenness that we can discern a coherent force at work moving through the human world like a dark wind, transmitting patterns that inflict suffering and spread ugliness in the human world.

Tracing These Lines of Connectedness

To flesh out the idea of these lines of connectedness among all the forms of brokenness we see. A simple exercise — involving thinking about cause and effect — brings this flow of brokenness into focus:

For each form of brokenness we see in the world – injustice, war, cruelty, etc. – we can ask two questions, one leading backward in time and the other going forward.

1) First, looking backward, to flesh out the causal connections. What is it in the world that produces this particular kind of brokenness? (E.g.,  what are the factors that led to this war? What were the factors that led to this exploitative social arrangement? Or, what is it that resulted in this person being cruel, or greedy, or insistent on domination?)

2) Then, looking forward, to flesh out how what was an “effect” then operates as a cause. In what ways does this brokenness impact the world around it? How has this injustice, or war, or cruelty, affected the psychic structure of its victims? How have these broken forms of human consciousness fed back into the world as a drive to make war, or to institute unjust societal structure, or to bring pathologies into family life, etc.?

As each manifestation of brokenness gets revealed as both the result and the cause of some other kind of brokenness, this dense set of lines of interconnection reveals a pattern of brokenness moving through a cultural system over time.

(In the next installment, we will examine how a major root of the brokenness in the human world lies in the process described by “the parable of the tribes # 5. History shows us, for example, how the conquest (enslavement, extermination, etc.) of one people by another is the consequence of the disorder in the intersocietal system, where there’s no order overarching the system to assure that the interactions within it are subsumed into a process that serves the viability and synergy of the whole. That urge toward conquest — the desire for power and empire-building — can also, in turn, be seen as the fruit of the trauma suffered by people through the historical experience of that inescapable “war of all against all.” People can be wounded so that they have no compassion for their fellow humans and they are driven by a desire to extend their power as far as they can.)

Injustice may be the outcome of conquest, but then it also creates psychic structures that contain brokenness. Rage is the product of injury, and then can be harnessed also to empower injurious uses of power.

People generally think of evil in terms of the “evil” manifested – in their character and behavior — by individual human beings. Because this is what is most readily visible to our eyes, that is where people’s attention has forever been focused. So one way to make clear the need to look beyond that level is to ask about each of those human forms of evil – greed, cruelty, the lust for power, dishonesty, hypocrisy, etc. – “What is it that makes a person that way?”

Almost invariably, I would suggest, the brokenness we find in those people who demonstrate what has been traditionally called “evil” is the result of injuries done to them out of the brokenness of the world in which they developed.

(Once again, all of this could also be done likewise with the manifestation of Wholeness, of the good, in the human world. In both cases, a pattern with a consistent relationship to the integrity and health of the human world, is being transmitted in cultural systems through time.

How this transmission of the pattern of wholeness can work was intimated in the earlier piece, #3, describing how “the sacred space of lovers” forms a “template” around which life can be transmitted from generation to generation with the wholeness of form that serves life. The more that lovers can realize together the ideal of that “sacred space,” I argued, the more they can provide a template around which children can grow up to be whole, with the strength and soundness conducive to navigating life’s challenges well. And the more they can carry in their own hearts the ability, when they are grown up, to establish a lovers’ relationship that will provide the same for children of their own.)

The Figure that Emerges

These causal connections reveal a kind of “wave” of brokenness moving across the sea of culture.

These lines of cause-and-effect bring into relief a kind of “visible figure,” the way a picture would emerge in the connect-the-dots puzzle I remember from my childhood. The figure revealed by connecting these dots is a destructive force that acts as if it is trying to shape the human world into its worst self.

The way this coherent force acts “as if” it means us ill and will never stop “trying” to make things go ill in the world makes it reasonable to use the word “Evil” to name it.

It’s true that this picture of “evil” lacks that personal dimension of an Evil One, the Devil. This is not a personal Adversary to the Good. Rather this “force of evil” should be understood in secular terms as a kind of “causal nexus of disorder.” And it is impersonal in that it emerged naturally and inevitably when the human creature created a new and unprecedented unregulated life-form, civilized society.

(Recall from the parable of the tribes:”if somewhere else in this vast cosmos, there are creatures that have crossed that threshold [out of their biologically evolved niche into civilization], they too will have had their social evolution warped by this same inescapable selection for power, and their nature warped by the demands those warped societies impose upon their members.

Brokenness is the inevitable consequence of a creature escaping from the biologically evolved order and creating a new, unregulated life-form, civilized society.

So it’s natural. But even so, there’s also a spiritual dimension to it.

There’s something about the “face” of it that gives us the sense of a kind of “dark spirit” as we perceive it through its many ugly manifestations — — a dungeon, a battlefield, the slavedriver’s whip, the corporation that sacrifices the well-being of everyone’s children and grandchildren for some short-term profit, the election of a president that insists on fomenting strife and division, a wave of species extinctions.

It moves “as if” it were animated by a malevolent determination to do us ill.

Tracing all such connections represents an instance of what Americans started calling, in the wake of 9/11, “connecting the dots.” That metaphor has become a cliché, but when it first sprang forth, it contained a message important to the task at hand here.

Connecting Dots to See the “It”

I love an apt metaphor, and the metaphor of “connecting the dots” is one I found especially exciting and effective when I first heard it, in the wake of the attacks of 9/11. Although overuse since then has made the metaphor into a cliché, when I first heard it used it conjured up a vivid image from my childhood.

Back in the 1950s, many of that era’s comic books included puzzles in which one literally connected the numbered dots in sequence, using a pencil or pen. The pay-off for that exercise was that out of those drawn lines there emerged a figure – an animal, or some other thing – that had not been perceptible when all one saw were the separate dots.

9/11 gave rise to the metaphor, because that disaster was seen as the consequence an American failure to “connect the dots.”  That is, the agencies whose job it was to discover and block such an attack had failed to see the “thing” — i.e. this al-Qaeda conspiracy to wreak havoc on the United States by hijacking airplanes and turning them into incendiary bombs – that would have become visible to them had they connected all the various separate manifestations of what was afoot.

Had American authorities perceived that thing – an “It” made visible by the interconnecting lines — the nation might have been spared the loss of several thousand lives, the major destruction of major landmarks, and a national trauma.

That metaphor has since become a cliché. This is the consequence not just of its overuse, but also because it has been drained of a central part of its meaning. What I no longer hear when the image is used is the part that calls out, “Look, there it is!” – that “It” being a figure that suddenly becomes visible when the connections are made.

Those questions outlined above regarding the manifestations of brokenness – questions about what are the causes and the consequences of each such manifestation – call out for just that kind of connect-the-dots “Aha!” moment. Seeing how each form of brokenness can be seen as growing out of previous brokenness in the system, and how each then in turn fosters subsequent manifestations of brokenness, brings into focus a “figure,” an “It” that is moving through the system over time.

That “It” is the “force of brokenness” (or the force of “evil”) that is central to understanding the human drama. (Or, the “It” could be the “force of Wholeness.”)

Those questions bring that “It” into focus by showing the interconnections of how that force works through time (longitudinally). But that same “It” – “a coherent force” – can become visible if we draw the interconnections among things occurring simultaneously (horizontally), growing out of the same source.

For example, in WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, I asked a rhetorical question to make visible something about the force animating the Republican Party in our times. What is it, I asked, that manifests itself in all these ways? What is it that

  • Shows an insatiable lust for power and wealth.
  • Makes a fight over everything.
  • Preys upon the vulnerable.
  • Divides people against each other.
  • Tramples on hard-won structures of justice and good order.
  • Sacrifices the greater good for selfish advantage
  • Deceives and manipulates in order to exploit those that support it

The failure to see this “It” — the one that that becomes visible from the connecting these dots — has done far more damage to American civilization than resulted from the failure to see the conspiracy to perpetrate the attacks of 9/11.

In the next installment, in the hope that this “It” will become still more vividly and dramatically visible, more connections will be drawn, and the nature of the human story and human challenge will come more clearly into focus.


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Are there people you know who would answer “yes” to the question with which this piece began? If so, please send them the link to this piece.


NOTE: The comments that follow, below, are from people I’ve asked to serve as my “co-creators” on this project, i.e. to help me make this series as good and effective as possible.

They are people who have known me and my work. And my request of them is that –when the spirit moves them to contribute – they add what they believe will help this series fulfill its purpose and give the readers something of value. I’ve invited them to tell the readers what they think will serve the readers well, and to pose questions or challenges they believe might elicit from me what I should be saying to the readers next.

I am grateful for their attempting to help me find the right path.


Ed Schmookler:

My issue with the characterization of history of Good vs. Evil is that i think of evil as requiring the intention to do harm — intention being central to most spiritual traditions.  Activity generated by Brokenness, however, requires only brokenness behind it.

Andy Schmookler:

 You’re right, Ed, about “most spiritual traditions” – because most spiritual traditions have dealt with evil in terms of the individual human beings who manifest it. And I respect that you – having for years worked as a psychotherapist with people who have had to deal with some of the most horrendous of traumas at the hands of people with “the intention to do harm” – would think about “evil” primarily in terms of that individual level.

On the question of how important it is to differentiate between those who do harm knowingly and intentionally, and harm done by people who don’t have such a conscious intention, I’m not sure. I think, for example, of the major football star who got suspended a couple of years ago when it came out that he severely beat his young son: when he had been a boy, this football star had been beaten in the same way, and had been given to believe that’s how you teach a kid right conduct.

(In addition, I do believe that intentions can be unconscious as well as conscious, and that much harm is done by people who have destructive motives they do not recognize in themselves.)

To you, if I understand correctly, the football star’s child-beating would not be “evil,” but only an “activity generated by Brokenness.” I am likely to put that kind of brokenness as just a different point along the spectrum of brokenness on which the person who knowingly and purposefully does harm is somewhat further out.

My focus, regarding evil, is at a different level than the one where individual “intention” is found. It is to understand where the destructiveness comes from and how it works in the world. So to me, with both the NFL child-beater and the Satanist torturer, we ask the same question: How did this person come to be this way?

I imagine you, too, would imagine the intentional harmer to have become that way through certain kinds of injurious experiences. In other words – and correct me if I’m wrong – I imagine that your interpretation of how a person like that gets to be a person like that involves the infliction of serious wounds imparted by the world’s surrounding brokenness. (What would be the alternative? Some kind of “Bad Seed”?)

So in that respect, I think that if one’s focus is more on understanding evil than on merely identifying it, then the systemic perspective is the more fundamental one.

At the individual level — which is but a manifestation of the workings of brokenness as it moves through the human world — “intention” is an important concept. But at the systemic level – in which we sees a “force” pushing brokenness “as if” it had a purpose, but which is only a function of the way things natural work in such a system – intention is not so central a matter.


Layne Longfellow:

Whereas I readily see the reasons for choosing “wholeness /brokenness”, I think there would be a fruitful directness attained by allowing “Good/evil,” with all their surplus meaning.

An unnecessary and counterproductive complexity results from introducing two new terms that have to be effortfully defined.

Andy Schmookler:

As you can see from Ed’s comment above, Layne, each of the possible paths of terminology carries its own difficulties and challenges.

Following your advice to use “Good/evil,” I encounter the difficulty – the example with Ed being only one form of it – that other people already have their own ways of understanding those words that precede their encounter with my proposed way of “Understanding Evil.” The result is that my argument encounters resistance, or at least a speed bump, and that mental furniture would have to be moved for them to think about evil the way I’m proposing.

On the other hand, if I were to just to use dichotomies like Wholeness/Brokenness or constructive/destructive, then, as you suggest, I forfeit that “fruitful directness” of ideas that come laden with “surplus meaning.”

My desire is to employ the whole set of dichotomies. It is true, as you also say, that terms need to be “effortfully defined.” But the stacking of these dichotomies offers something of more than enough value, I believe, to warrant that effort.

In other words, to see good/evil and wholeness/brokenness as deeply interrelated dichotomies that illuminate essentially the same central part of the human drama make take effort. But the picture that emerges from putting those dichotomies together is central to understanding that “integrative vision” that this series is trying to convey.


Philip Kanellopoulos:

If I understand correctly, synergy is created when more wholesome parts within a system compete with less wholesome parts. Because the more wholesome elements will also be more viable, they will prevail to replace the less wholesome elements. That is, eventually good triumphs over evil. However, in the presence of the socio-evolutionary selection for power, and in the absence of an over-arching mechanism to keep that selection for power in check, the forces of brokenness are constantly provided with a renewed point of entry into the system to wreak their havoc.
It seems to me that having a diversity of personalities within a group of hunter-gatherers would be useful. Is it possible that personalities we might characterize today as “evil” could at times serve a legitimate function? At the risk of dabbling in evolutionary psychology, could a general insensitivity toward the beauty of life actually be useful when it comes time, say, to kill or butcher some magnificent animal for food? Anyone else with an abiding respect for life might find such tasks abhorrent, but not those who are less sensitive. Such an “evil” personality, if it naturally exists, would of course need to be kept from harming the group, presumably by the social accountability inherent in small foraging groups, by the group’s egalitarian nature, and by its intolerance of behavior that’s antisocial. With the selection for power acting as a magnifier, however, such naturally “evil” impulses would no longer be contained. If the supposition is true, if some “evil” impulses are natural, then that would make it that much easier for evil to propagate through the human system. It would mean that not only does evil inflict injuries that produce impulses toward further evil, but it also encourages any “evil” impulses already present. Also, brokenness would tend to elevate to positions of power individuals who most readily manifest any self-serving impulses toward committing evil.

I see that many liberals are reluctant to use the term “evil”, and how that may be related to their rejection of a religious worldview in favor of a scientific worldview. However, if religion could be brought into accord with science, then a rejection of religion would become unnecessary. As mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “I don’t see any conflict between science and religion. Religion has to accept the science of the day and penetrate it to the mystery. The conflict is between the science of 2000 B.C. and the science of 2000 A.D.”

Andy Schmookler:

You raise a good many good points, Philip. To touch on a few, briefly.

I’m not sure if it’s quite on target to refer to the more “wholesome” (or whole) elements competing with the less, when we’re talking about the synergy in natural systems. Synergy refers to the life-serving ordering of the various elements within the system, not so much with the wholeness of those elements considered in themselves.

For example, in our part of the U.S. there is now an infestation of stink bugs. Considered in themselves, they are well put-together. The lack of synergy with such an invasive species has to do with their numbers not being held in check, as they are in Asia where they evolved and where they have natural predators. The lack of wholeness is at the scale of the system, not the creature in itself.

Your comment that it would be useful to have “a diversity of personalities within a group of hunter-gatherers” seems to me likely quite right. Genetic diversity is generally advantageous to populations: different environmental conditions and different challenges reward different ways of being.

The chances for a species to perpetuate itself, therefore, are enhanced if the species hedges its genetic bets. It seems that evolution long ago “figured out” the wisdom of the adage heard in the investment world: “Diversify your portfolio.”

“[M]any liberals are reluctant to use the term ‘evil,’” you say, “and …that may be related to their rejection of a religious worldview in favor of a scientific worldview.” Quite so. And at some cost—much of that cost unnecessary.

As I’ve said, I believe that the liberal disbelief in “evil” – not recognizing anything working in the world that might reasonably be called “a force of evil” – has impeded the ability of Liberal America to perceive what we’re up against in this nation in these times. That’s one immediate cost, but it is connected with others having to do with a truncated view of reality—truncated because of not seeing things whole.

You go on to talk about the possibility of religion being “brought into accord with science.” That may, or may not, characterize what I’m trying to do here. I definitely am hoping to provide a solid, scientific (or at least science-compatible) way of talking about things like “the good,” “evil,” and “the sacred.” Hoping, too, to provide an intellectually sound way to make connection with the moral and spiritual passions that inspire people to move mountains.

While I am not sure what is required for something to constitute a “religion,” I do believe that most (if not all) of what religions have provided can be had without holding beliefs contrary to the evidence contemplated in the light of reason.


Jack Miles:

God writes straight with crooked lines, goes the old saying. Originally Spanish, I’ve been told, and when I was told that, I was given the Spanish original: Diós escribe derecho con lineas torcidas. As always with proverbial wisdom, another proverb is readily available for the diametrically opposed view. Here, the literal equivalent would be Satan writes crooked with straight lines, but the nearest actual equivalent in English-language proverbs would probably be The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

As I write, we are midway in the Sixth Extinction, the one caused by human intervention in the global ecology. According to Elizabeth Kolbert, in her Pulitzer-winning book The Sixth Extinction, this one is going to be more drastic in its impact than the previous five unless something drastic happens to reverse its course.  There are some hopeful signs, but several years ago, when asked by New York magazine at the turn of the year to name the key problem facing us during the year ahead, I named the apparently insuperable conflict between economy and ecology. The just mentioned hopeful signs are all signs that point toward one step or another out of that conflict, but for now the conflict is still massively with us. We know no way to live, in other words, than by unbroken economic growth, yet our growth has so disrupted global ecology that it has set in motion a mass extinction that will eventually extinguish us as well.

No one trying to “make ends meet,” “keep a roof over our heads,” “put food on the table,” etc., etc. is trying to drive the species to extinction. No one dumping tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by flying to Paris for a family vacation is trying to provoke the California wildfires that forced my wife and me to evacuate yesterday. (We’re back home, and safe, today.) Such intentions are good or at least neutral. “What were they thinking of?” has become a kind of buzz-question for insane behavior perceived in retrospect. The answer is usually, “They were thinking of other subjects altogether.” The next time you take a long airplane trip, your intention will not be to hasten global warming. Even Exxon directly intends profit, not climate destabilization.

And let’s remember, to double back to “God writes straight,” etc., that good can come out of evil. A shorthand summary of early American history would be “stolen land, stolen labor.” The Euro-American invaders stole the land from the Amerindians and developed it with labor stolen from the Africans they enslaved and imported for the purpose. And yet there are values in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that you and I cherish and strive to maintain against the current erosion. An entire estimable civilization was founded on those two colossal crimes—crimes, by the way, whose course corresponds very cleanly to The Parable of the Tribes. Had the Amerindians succeeded in preserving their civilization and holding off the Europeans, had the Africans foiled the European enslavement plans, American civilization as we know it might never have come into being, and you and I would still be living somewhere in Eurasia.

Talking about “deep history” in this way finds, in the deconstructionist manner, the silver lining in every cloud and the tarnish on every strand of silver. Its effect, whatever its intent, is to eliminate the ethical as a subject for serious discussion. Such talk would seem to militate against your search for an adjusted sense of an evil principle—something like the Rabbinic yetzer hara’—against which we could mobilize a latter day yetzer hatov or positive principle. It would seem also to militate against my own desperate desire to mobilize against the Trump Administration’s campaign to accelerate climate destabilization. That form of resistance calls for a societal transformation mobilizing action that can slow the rate of extinctions and, in the process, preserve our own habitat and our own species.

Because I hope for that transformation, I am drawn to your view that we do not actually live in a world in which all good leads eventually to evil and all evil eventually to good but rather in a world with a broad underlying tendency toward order and life that we can foster by good intentions and matching good actions. Reinhold Niebuhr is the author of the famous Serenity Prayer:

God grant me

the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed,

the courage to change the things that must be changed,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

Your hope, and I share it, is that understanding more fully how the essentially innocent search for life, for the defense of life, for the enhancement of life, and so forth has led tragically to the spread of violence and the widespread destruction of life—that understanding how all this came about without our ever deliberately seeking it may foster in us “the wisdom to know the difference” as our democracy makes its crucial choices.

I need to read Dexter Filkins’s article, “Rex Tillerson at the Breaking Point,” in full in the current New Yorker, but I just heard Filkins interviewed on the radio, and he seemed to say both that Secretary of Defense Mattis believes that North Korea’s acquisition of both nuclear weapons and the ICBM as a delivery system is causa belli for the United States and that the resulting war will be more destructive of human life than any we have ever seen. Will our country conclude that diplomacy has definitively failed (Trump seems to be there already) and preemptively attack North Korea, causing at least hundreds of thousands and perhaps a few millions of deaths, rather than countenance the possibility that North Korea might launch a nuclear attack on us? The whole world has lived now for generations with a USA capable of launching a nuclear weapon against it with our ICBMs. It is impossible for the United States to live with a North Korea with the corresponding capability to attack us?

This is evidently the judgment that looms before us, and so an actual nuclear attack on North Korea is apparently very much in prospect, this being taken to be the only way to drastically change the Kim regime. But, then, following your logic about how violence spreads, would it not be imaginable for other nuclear powers, contemplating the possibility that they too might face a preemptive American nuclear attack, to copy the American strategy and preemptively attack the United States, and indeed with nuclear weapons? Might Russia not conclude that now is the ideal moment—American polity in increasing disarray, the North American continent increasingly vulnerable to crippling natural disaster—for just such a preemptive attack?

Such are my fears. My hope can only be for a suddenly countervailing and bold wisdom in high places, a wisdom that might “know the difference,” take the longer view, and run the smaller risk, so that peace might spread rather than war in the worst form. Our species is already drifting toward extinction. Can you imagine any more drastic acceleration of that drift than metastasizing nuclear conflict? God help us.

Andy Schmookler:

Another interesting essay/meditation from you, Jack. Thank you for these thoughts, some of which challenge me to expand on what I’ve said, and some of which challenge the validity (or at least the adequacy) of some of what I’ve said. Here are some points you move me to make:

A propos of the “sixth extinction,” and all the other environmental damage that we’re inflicting, some distinctions should be made.

First, to acknowledge that not all brokenness in the world is to be understood in terms of “evil” or of the other sources that I just identified.

For example, even without “the parable of the tribes,” and without the “force” that transmits a “pattern of brokenness,” the species that crosses the threshold into inventing its own way of life will inevitably both suffer from and inflict a degree of brokenness. That’s because the nature within the creature was crafted for a different environment and a different way of life from the one in which it then finds itself.

(To name one minor example: Those who work nights and sleep days pay a price in health, because the “graveyard” shift runs counter to the inborn connection between light and the diurnal cycle.)

Also, a creature that was “crafted” over eons during which its impact on the surrounding world was negligible will need to transcend its inborn nature when there are seven-plus billion of them wielding mighty technologies and rendering the species into a bull in the ecological china shop.

Another example: the nuclear age has certainly required that some humans discipline their aggressive impulses to a degree not required of humans living like bands of primates and armed only with fists and clubs.

So, yes, not all brokenness comes from what I’m describing as “evil.”

Yet, there’s a difference – in terms of evil – between the contribution to climate change made by  humankind from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution up to the scientific discovery of what was happening, and the contribution that has been made in the decades since. Things done out of innocent ignorance are different from things done despite having the requisite knowledge of what is required to serve wholeness and not brokenness.

We can start with your sentence about Exxon: “Even Exxon directly intends profit, not climate destabilization.” Yes, the people at Exxon have not been seeking deliberately to ruin our climate. But they are willing to do so to make a profit. And we know that they’ve deliberately lied to the public – for decades — to prevent anyone from getting in their way.

So maybe there’s a distinction between someone who sets out to murder someone, and someone who murders someone just because they got in their way. But it’s murder either way, and Exxon can be said to have chosen to pursue its own short-term profit ahead even though that means sacrificing the well-being – even possibly the lives – of our children and grandchildren.

The example of Exxon brings up also the dynamics not only at the human level, but also the dynamics inherent in the logic of the systems that people set up. For the capitalist system has its own logic—and its blind spots – such that it generates a kind of brokenness unless those blind spots are corrected by collective-level decision-making from a different (democratic) system. As Wendell Berry has said, our economy is not the same as God’s economy.

About the logic of the corporation (and other actors) embedded in the market system, I refer people to my book, The Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy Shapes Our Destiny. ###

The most challenging point you’ve made here is that concerning the ways in which, as you see it, good can be the consequence of evil and evil can be the consequence of good. Even while, for several years, I’ve been emphasizing how “brokenness begets brokenness,” and “wholeness begets wholeness,” I’ve wondered about this very question you raise.

And I’m not satisfied I’ve thought it through adequately, but let me venture this as a reply.

Yes, it is true that if the European/English colonists had not stolen all the land from the Native Americans, our forefathers never would have brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

So, in that sense, whatever we might declare good and whole and welcome about the United States coming into being would never have developed here were it not for a major historical crime.

However, according to the way that I am proposing we look at the web of cause and effect – with its patterns moving through cultures over time – to say that the theft was a prerequisite for this nation arising on this continent does not equate to saying that the “values in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that you and I cherish and strive to maintain against the current erosion” are the fruit of that crime.

Rather, the Europeans brought to this continent a culture in which a variety of patterns were embedded—the whole and the broken. So even while some of these cultural patterns enabled them to enslave and steal and concoct their justifications (“superior race,” “manifest destiny”) etc., it was other patterns that provided the basis for the notion that all men (women had to wait) are endowed by their Creator with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The English had conquered people before, sometimes (as in Ireland) most cruelly. But the ideas of rights and liberties and equality grew out of such patterns as those that took form in the Magna Carta, grew in English common law, and gained expression in Locke’s philosophy (among, of course, other currents in the flow).

So it is true that, as history unfolds, sometimes good things become possible because of evil that was done.

But the enabling factor – the making possible – is different from the engendering factor.

As I’ve said, though, I’m not sure how much the idea that “brokenness begets brokenness” is in need of amending.

As for your thoughts about Trump and North Korea and the possibility of nuclear war, I’ll just say here that this worrisome moment reinforces my sense that we really do need to set our course for a world that is more utopian than the “realists” would judge possible. (See my “Prepare for the Best” piece.) #### For in time, whatever is possible to happen will happen. And the election of a malignant narcissist to the presidency of the United States, with his finger on the nuclear trigger, is one of those unpleasant but apparently not impossible occurrences that the world must be organized to prevent or at least mitigate, if humankind is to have any kind of decent future.

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