No Surprise Here—Evolution Ignored Again

by Michael Dowd

by Jon Cleland Host

Though nearly everyone outside of the political right agrees that evolution has crafted our bodies (including our brains), it is still common for the huge effect of our evolutionary origins on our daily lives to be routinely ignored.  As David Sloan Wilson explains in his book Evolution for Everyone, evolution pervades nearly everything we do (especially those things we struggle with), yet is ignored like a taboo elephant in the living room.  Perhaps much of this blindness is simply that we haven’t been given the opportunity to learn these evolutionary details, but at least some of this blindness seems to be due to our reluctance to admit that we are evolved animals, not dualistic gods incarnated from some imagined spirit realm.

Regardless of the cause, this realization smacked me in the face yet again this morning when reading “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here”, which exposed another Yoga instructor found to be having sex with his female students.  The article spends plenty of time going over the sexual impact of yoga, yet never mentions that fact that millions of years of evolution have given us males a brain core (our Lizard Legacy) that keeps us looking for sex nearly 24/7, regardless of whether we are doing yoga, riding a bike, or whatever.  That lizard legacy can easily overcome our rational brains, if proper safeguards are not responsibly put in place ahead of time.

When we understand how evolution has given us our brains, the idea of respected men looking for sex goes from being shocking to being expected.  It shows why hard safeguards should always be in place to protect everyone involved.  Understanding our lizard legacy shows why it’s not our fault to have those urges, and also why it is very much our responsibility to handle them responsibly, ahead of time.  It shows why we shouldn’t pretend to sharply divide instructors into groups of “gurus” and “misanthropes”, as the article does, but instead to realize that these lizards live within us all, ready to bite if not responsibly harnessed.

This is especially important in areas dominated by liberals, such as yoga.  Many liberals imagine human nature to be basically good, and thus can miss the harmful parts of human nature, which are very real.  The realization that our brains, and thus our natures, have been built by evolution makes it easy to understand that we’ve accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage.  This baggage, in men, includes the often harmful desire for frequent sex with many different women.  When we begin to see the world through evolutionary eyes, we realize that to suppose that men lose these urges when they become respected is as silly as to think that their hands fall off.  In fact, as we now know, fame and respect often makes these urges stronger, not weaker (see here and here).  This reminds us all of the importance of dealing with these natural urges responsibly, which is easier if done openly from the start.

This is one area where even Calvinism contains a shred of truth – that our human nature is far from perfect, and that these harmful urges are always ready to spring into action.  John Calvin interpreted these in an unnatural way, yet, by seeing the natural origin of this part of all of us, we can move past the 16th century Calvinism while still benefiting from knowing those urges are real.  In fact, by appreciating how these same urges were needed for the very existence of our Ancestors and indeed ourselves, we can work to control them from a position of gratitude, a stronger position than one of guilt or shame.


2012: The Triumph of Multi-Level Selection Theory and a Renewed Appreciation of the Role of Cooperation in Human Cultural Evolution

by Michael Dowd

2012 promises to be a pivotal year for proponents of group selection and multi-level selection theory.

Last summer I had an opportunity to read and comment on an early draft of a book by Jonathan Haidt that will be published next month. Titled, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, I immediately perceived that this book has enormous practical implications for how economic, social, and political leaders attempt to solve civilization-scale problems.

Over the past few days I have become aware of two more forthcoming books that likewise will further our understanding of human social evolution: The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O. Wilson, and Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame, by Christopher Boehm. All three of these books make the case that group level selection is needed to explain human morality.

The purpose of this post is to give readers A PREVIEW OF THESE THREE BOOKS — and to draw your attention to several previously published books and essays grounded in the same paradigm shift, and which therefore deserve renewed attention in this pivotal year.

What they all have in common is the realization that we are in the midst of a significant expansion in evolutionary thinking, beyond the confines of individual- and gene-level selection to what has come to be called MULTI-LEVEL SELECTION theory.

Especially with respect to what enabled humans to cooperate in numbers far greater than instinctive kin affiliation and reciprocal altruism would support (and thus to evolve large-scale social structures), it turns out that “good-of-the group” traits actually do play a profoundly significant role.

MULTI-LEVEL SELECTION theory also makes abundantly clear that the power and pervasiveness of religions in human societies throughout the world is by no means an aberration. Religion is not, as some of the New Atheists would like to believe, merely a “virus” — propelled to advance and expand its own existence at the expense of its hapless host. Rather, religion, historically, was a profoundly important adaptive feature. Without it, group cohesiveness and the motivation of individuals to die for their tribe or state or nation would likely never have emerged from the palette of instincts we inherited from our pre-human ancestors. And without that kind of motivation, a group will not be able to defend itself against the incursions of neighboring (or long-distance conquering) cultures.

On this point, there may be no more important background reading than David Sloan Wilson’s work, especially his magisterial Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, which was published in 2003. In addition, Wilson chronicles the history of the debate in a New Scientist “Instant Expert” article, “Evolution of selfless behavior”. He also summarizes the current state of the field in a 2011 Evolution article, co-authored with Omar Tonsi Eldakar: “Eight Criticisms Not to Make About Group Selection”, introduced here. For even more background, see D.S. Wilson’s “Homage to George Williams and the Last Gasp of Individualism” IIIIII, IV, V, “Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection” I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX, “137 Co-authors Can’t Be Wrong—and That’s the Problem,” and his posts holding Jerry Coyne to account for his claims about group selection and cultural evolution (also here).

* * *

It is vital to remember that religion is about right relationship to reality, not the supernatural! As noted philosopher of religion Loyal Rue reminds us, religion is not about God. He writes,

The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed, but if live in right relationship with reality (wisely), then we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle. What we are less in agreement about is how we should think about reality and what we should do to bring ourselves into harmony with it.

Again, in contrast to the assumptions made by some of the New Atheists, just because pre-scientific manifestations of religion necessarily posited supernatural beings and forces does not mean that religions of today and tomorrow need do so. “Religio,” after all, means “to link together.” Religions (past and future) provide the over-arching world pictures that link all aspects of known reality, that attempt to answer all questions of meaning, and that therefore provide “personal wholeness” and “social coherence.”

Personal wholeness and social coherence are adaptive necessities. Now that there is no longer any possibility for human groups to migrate away from their despoliation of home landscapes (e.g., salinization of soils owing to irrigation, or massive erosion of mountains slopes due to overgrazing of livestock or overharvesting of trees), religious worldviews are called upon to fulfill one more functional need: ecological integrity.

Thanks to the evidential knowledge accumulated by modern science, all three functions can now be fulfilled by secular worldviews inspiringly conveyed (i.e., “religious naturalism”).

If you scoff at the possibility of a thoroughly secular religion ever coming into being, I highly recommend Loyal Rue’s scholarly 2006 book, Religion Is Not About God. In 2000, in fact, he offered a compelling example of how evolution itself could form the basis of a modern-day, thoroughly naturalistic religion. This was his 160-page popular book, Everybody’s Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution.

Similarly, I recommend David Sloan Wilson’s 2007 book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, Joan Roughgarden‘s 2010, The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness, and Allen D. MacNeill‘s chapter, “The Capacity for Religious Experience Is an Adaptation to Warfare.”

Finally, lest anyone assume I am opposed to the New Atheists, know that I am profoundly grateful for the evolutionary role they are playing in helping (nay, forcing) our stodgy old (all-too-often dysfunctional) religions to catch up with the wealth of knowledge that science now offers. As you can see here, listen to here and here, or read here and here, I regularly share with religious audiences of all kinds my appreciation for, and tremendous debt of gratitude to, the New Atheists.

So…let me now whet your appetite for the three books forthcoming this year that will continue the work of advancing our understanding of how human societies evolve by (a) multi-level selection (individual traits selected for “the good of the group”) and (b) the unique powers of religions to foster large-scale group cohesion and a spirit of sacrifice (with our without “God”). Here they are:

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The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
by Jonathan Haidt (Pub date: March 13, 2012)

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JONATHAN HAIDT is a professor in the psychology department at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis.

DESCRIPTION

A groundbreaking investigation into the origins of morality, which turns out to be the basis for religion and politics. The book is timely (explaining the American culture wars and refuting the “New Atheists”), scholarly (integrating insights from many fields) and great fun to read (like Haidt’s last book, The Happiness Hypothesis).

REVIEWS

“A remarkable and original synthesis of social psychology, political analysis, and moral reasoning that reflects the best of sciences in these fields and adds evidence that we are innately capable of the decency and righteousness needed for societies to survive.” (Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University)

“The Righteous Mind refutes the “New Atheists” and shows that religion is a central part of our moral heritage. Haidt’s brilliant synthesis shows that Christians have nothing to fear and much to gain from the evolutionary paradigm.” (Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution)

“Haidt’s research has revolutionized the field of moral psychology. This elegantly written book has far-reaching implications for anyone interested in politics, religion, or the many controversies that divide modern societies. If you want to know why you hold your moral beliefs, and why many people disagree with you, read this book.”  (Simon Baron-Cohen, Cambridge University, author of The Science of Evil)

The Righteous Mind is an intellectual tour de force that brings Darwinian theorizing to the practical realm of everyday politics.” (Christopher Boehm, University of Southern California, author of Moral Origins)

“Here is the first attempt to give an in-depth analysis of the underlying moral stance and dispositions of liberals and conservatives. I couldn’t put it down and discovered things about myself!” (Michael Gazzaniga, University of California, Santa Barbara, author of The Ethical Brain)

COMMENT BY MICHAEL DOWD

In an early draft of his book, Haidt crafted a lovely analogy to illustrate the difficulties that advocates of “multi-level selection” are facing in their encounter with the reigning paradigm of individual-and gene-level selection. In a passage that didn’t make it into the final manuscript (but you can savor here), after outlining four distinct lines of evidence in support of multi-level selection, Haidt illustrates how unique humans are in the animal kingdom (with respect to good will beyond kin selection and reciprocal altruism) while poking fun at those who argue against group level selection in human societies by pointing to examples of where it doesn’t exist among other animals…

Imagine going to the zoo with a friend who has never seen a giraffe and doesn’t believe they are real. He declares: ‘It is possible in theory for an animal to have a neck longer than ten feet. But I shall endeavor to prove that such long necks do not in fact exist.’ Your friend takes you to see lions, bears, elephants, snakes, and penguins. He takes measurements at each exhibit, each time exclaiming, ‘No long necks here!’ Each time you say, ‘Enough! Can we go to the giraffe house now?’ But your friend doesn’t seem to hear you.

Human beings are the giraffes of altruism. Yes, most of human nature was shaped by natural selection operating at the level of the individual. Most, but not all. We have a few group-related adaptations too, as many Americans discovered in the days after 9/11. We humans have a dual nature—we are selfish primates who long to be a part of something larger and nobler than ourselves. We are 90% chimp and 10% bee. If you take that claim metaphorically (not literally), then many of the groupish and hivish things that people devote their lives to doing will make a lot more sense. It’s almost as though there’s a switch in our heads that activates our hivish potential when conditions are just right.

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The Social Conquest of Earth
by Edward O. Wilson (Pub date: April 9, 2012)

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EDWARD O. WILSON, one of the world’s preeminent biologists, is the author of more than twenty-five books, including Sociobiology and the Pulitzer Prize–winning On Human Nature.

DESCRIPTION

Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? In a generational work of clarity and passion, one of our greatest living scientists directly addresses these three fundamental questions of religion, philosophy, and science while “overturning the famous theory that evolution naturally encourages creatures to put family first” (Discover magazine). Refashioning the story of human evolution in a work that is certain to generate headlines, Wilson draws on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to show that group selection, not kin selection, is the primary driving force of human evolution. He proves that history makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology. Demonstrating that the sources of morality, religion, and the creative arts are fundamentally biological in nature, Wilson presents us with the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition and why it resulted in our domination of the Earth’s biosphere. 90 illustrations

REVIEWS

The Social Conquest of Earth is a huge, deep, thrilling work, presenting a radically new but cautiously hopeful view of human evolution, human nature, and human society. No one but E. O. Wilson could bring together such a brilliant synthesis of biology and the humanities, to shed light on the origins of language, religion, art, and all of human culture.” (Oliver Sacks)

“Wilson’s newest theory…could transform our understanding of human nature—and provide hope for our stewardship of the planet…. [His] new book is not limited to the discussion of evolutionary biology, but ranges provocatively through the humanities…. Its impact on the social sciences could be as great as its importance for biology, advancing human self-understanding in ways typically associated with the great philosophers.” (Howard W. French, The Atlantic )

“A monumental exploration of the biological origins of the human condition!” (James D. Watson)

“Once again, Ed Wilson has written a book combining the qualities that have brought his previous books Pulitzer Prizes and millions of readers: a big but simple question, powerful explanations, magisterial knowledge of the sciences and humanities, and beautiful writing understandable to a wide public.” (Jared Diamond, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel)

COMMENT BY MICHAEL DOWD

E. O. Wilson, in his 1998 masterpiece, Consilience, urged natural scientists, social scientists, and scholars within the humanities to welcome rather than fear advances in knowledge that would ground each field within the knowledge base of the nested level of reality from which it emerged (e.g., chemistry emerging from physics, biology from chemistry, social dynamics from biology, and so on). Who would have guessed that, in pursuit of consilience between the biological and social sciences, Wilson would coauthor a landmark paper in 2007 with evolutionist David Sloan Wilson (no relation) that would overturn one of the ideas he himself had pioneered in the 1970s? The title of that paper is “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology.” (Connie and I actually read an early draft of that paper when we were visiting David Sloan Wilson in his home in Binghamton, NY.) The abstract of the paper depicts multi-level selection as key:

Current sociobiology is in theoretical disarray, with a diversity of frameworks that are poorly related to each other. Part of the problem is a reluctance to revisit the pivotal events that took place during the 1960s, including the rejection of group selection and the development of alternative theoretical frameworks to explain the evolution of cooperative and altruistic behaviors. In this article, we take a “back to basics” approach, explaining what group selection is, why its rejection was regarded as so important, and how it has been revived based on a more careful formulation and subsequent research. Multi-level selection theory (including group selection) provides an elegant theoretical foundation for sociobiology in the future, once its turbulent past is appropriately understood.

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Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame
by Christopher Boehm (Pub date: May 1, 2012)

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Christopher Boehm is director of the Jane Goodall Research Center and professor of anthropology and biological sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Boehm is the author of several previous books, including Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior.

DESCRIPTION:

For three decades, genetic altruism has been cited as the dominant theory to explain the paradox of human generosity; experts claim our altruism is limited to close kin. But Moral Origins tells a different story. By studying the social and natural environments of primates, Boehm has devised a convincing new hypothesis: as autonomy-loving humans became large game hunters, severe group punishment began to genetically favor individuals with superior self-control. Essentially, bullies and free-loader types were killed or expelled from social bands because they interfered with the survival of others in the group. This social bias singled out highly altruistic individuals as preferable marriage partners, political allies, and group leaders—what Boehm calls “social selection.” The result was the first stirrings of conscience, and the genetic effects eventually led to a fully-developed sense of shame.  Rigorously researched and expertly argued, Moral Origins offers a new evolutionary paradigm of human generosity and cooperation. With its new perspective on the forces that shaped human morality, it offers insight into some of the toughest problems of our time—dealing humanely with those who transgress, and, perhaps, realizing how to prevent them from going bad to begin with.

COMMENT BY MICHAEL DOWD

This is my first encounter with the work of Christopher Boehm. I eagerly await his book.


A Pentecostal, Evangelical Naturalist?!

by Michael Dowd

The following is cross-posted from my new Emergent Village Voice blog, here.

I’m often described in the mainstream media as an ‘evangelical minister’ or ‘Pentecostal preacher’, even though I speak far more often in moderate and liberal churches (and in secular settings) than I do in evangelical, Pentecostal, and Emerging Church venues. Not surprisingly, I’ve been asked on a number of occasions, by both religious liberals and conservatives, “In what sense do you consider yourself a Pentecostal evangelical, and how does that mesh with your being an outspoken religious naturalist?”

For 33 years I’ve proudly called myself a Pentecostal, though my political and theological views are by no means right-wing, and for the past two decades I’ve tended to say “evolutionary Pentecostal” or “Pentecostal naturalist” for clarification. My experience in Pentecostal and evangelical contexts has been almost entirely positive—indeed, salvific—and continues to nourish my life and work.

I was raised Roman Catholic and struggled with sex, drug, and alcohol-related issues in my teens, during the mid 1970s. Soon after my 20th birthday, I had a born again experience and went on to graduate from an Assemblies of God college and an American Baptist seminary. I pastored three churches in the 1980s and 90s and have been an itinerant evolutionary evangelist for the past ten years. Speaking in tongues (see below for my naturalized interpretation) has been a vital part of my spiritual practice for decades.

The primary reason I unabashedly call myself an evolutionary Pentecostal, however, is this: The core tenets of the evangelical-Pentecostal tradition accurately reflect the nature of the Universe and the human condition so long as they are REALized—that is, interpreted as undeniable in a this-world realistic way. And, yes, as I shall explain below, it is quite easy for an evolutionary evangelical to translate faith statements such as the following in natural, science-based (demythologized), and profoundly life-giving ways . . .

  • The faithfulness of God and the authority of God’s word
  • The necessity of Christ and the centrality of the cross
  • The need for conversion
  • The call to live the gospel in word and deed
  • For me, these core evangelical teachings have become more meaningful and inspiring now that I interpret them in ways that mesh with a 21st century understanding of reality. What God/Reality has revealed through evidence about the nature of the Universe and our own inner workings now fundamentally shapes my religious interpretations.

    I foresee a time, not long coming, when millions and eventually tens of millions of evangelicals and Pentecostals delight in discovering that their religious identity and salvific faith do not, in fact, require beliefs that fragment one’s experience of the world. Almost all of us are quite comfortable in partaking of the fruits of the scientific enterprise when it comes to how we travel long distances (jet planes instead of carriages) and how we deal with injury and disease (X-rays, MRIs, antibiotics). For me, one of the greatest miracles is that I can receive information from anywhere in the world and from almost any time in history—and that I can press a little button and have my own thoughts and insights join that glorious parade. Why should we not, then, also value what science teaches us about ourselves and our collective journey: about how we got here, what a glorious role we get to play in the body of life, and the grandeur of this amazing Universe?

    Referring to myself as a “born again, Spirit-filled Christian naturalist” has everything to do with personal experience and with language I find inspiring. It has nothing to do with otherworldly, unnatural beliefs. For me, supernatural beliefs have been REALized through many years of learning and exulting in God’s work as presented through the sciences. I do not feel diminished by the shift; rather, I feel uplifted. Thus I consider myself a religious naturalist, and I celebrate being part of that group, too.

    As an evolutionary Pentecostal evangelical naturalist, I cherish the very same doctrines and teachings that other Pentecostal and evangelicals cherish. But rather than interpreting the core elements of my faith in unnatural and otherworldly ways, as I used to, I now interpret these concepts in natural, undeniably real ways. As I write in Chapter 4 of Thank God for Evolution (in the context of distinguishing public from private forms of revelation),

    A distinction must be made at this point between flat-earth faith and evolutionary faith, as I shall use these terms throughout the rest of this book. What I mean by flat-earth faith is not people believing the world is flat. Rather, it refers to any perspective in which the metaphors and theology still in use came into being at a time when peoples really did believe the world was flat—that is, when there was no reliable way for humans to comprehend the world around them by means of science-based public revelation. Religious traditions that are scripturally based, and whose texts have not changed substantially since the time of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Hubble, Crick, Dawkins, and Hawking become, necessarily, flat-earth faiths when interpreted literally.

    An evolutionary form of a religious tradition differs from its flat-earth form in a striking way.  The evolutionary version is grounded in knowledge rather than beliefs and in the authority of cumulative wisdom (what God has been revealing through scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence) rather than the authority of an ancient past.  Thus, every meaningful religious meme in my tradition—God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, sin, salvation, the kingdom of heaven, the return of the Lord—I now interpret as night language.  Night language carries an inspiring interpretation of reality that gives voice and meaning to real human experience—experience that may or may not be fully explicable even today but that would have been outright impossible to understand objectively prior to what God has revealed in the past two hundred years through scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence (see here and here).

    How was the world made?  Why do earthquakes, tornados, and other bad things happen? Why must we die? Why do we struggle with inner feelings and impulses that tempt us to act in ways detrimental to ourselves and our loved ones? And why have other cultures answered these same questions in different ways? These and other big questions cannot be answered by the powers of human perception alone. Yet answer them we must. Thus, long before modern science could be recruited to the task, ancient cultures gave useful and inspiring answers—answers that now compel literalistic forms of religions to engage in endless battles with the scientific worldview.

    Prior to advances in technology and scientific ways of testing truth claims, factual answers were simply unavailable. It wasn’t just difficult to have a natural, factual understanding of infection before microscopes brought bacteria into focus; it was impossible. Similarly, it was impossible to understand the large-scale structure of the Universe before telescopes allowed us to see galaxies.  I prefer to think of the venerable answers recorded in ancient scripture not as supernatural but as pre-natural (and unnatural, if interpreted literally). Indeed, they could not have been otherwise.

    REALizing Core Evangelical Tenets

    1. The faithfulness of God and the authority of God’s word. I no longer imagine an invisible landlord or an otherworldly king whose main business is engaging in unnatural acts—that is, supernatural interventions. Thanks to a science-based, deep-time worldview I now know God; I do not merely believe in Him. For me, the word God is a compelling way to personalize my relationship with Inescapable Reality, especially when I am humbled by awe, gratitude, sorrow, confusion, or disappointment. Under these circumstances, “God” is to whom I am spontaneously led to pray. Similarly, “the authority of God’s word” no longer applies merely to ancient mythic texts; I now recognize evidence as modern-day scripture and facts as God’s native tongue. Only by submitting to ‘the authority of God’s word’—that is, by aligning with Reality and living integrously—can I know heaven, not just mythically but really—here, now.

    2.  The necessity of Christ and the centrality of the cross. This core evangelical meme teaches that, as individuals, we are saved by grace through faith—and that, as a species, our salvation really does hinge on both horizontal (ecological) and vertical (evolutionary) integrity. The stories of Jesus the Christ in the early Christian scriptures reveal a divine man who was the very embodiment, the incarnation, of what I now regard as the four essential characteristics of “big integrity”: trust, authenticity, responsibility, and service. I choose to believe that this is not a coincidence. ‘Jesus is Lord’ and ‘Integrity is my religion’ are night and day language reflections of each other.

    3.  The need for conversion. This teaching I now enthusiastically interpret through the lens of what God has been revealing through the sciences of neurobiology and evolutionary psychology (see chapters 9 and 10 of TGFE, and here, here, here, and here.) Thanks to the prefrontal cortex, which is the locus of our sense of the divine and the brain component concerned with good judgment, we have the opportunity to habitually choose to abide “in Christ”—in deepest integrity—and thus to override ancient instincts for safety, sustenance, sex, status, and such. These are instincts that other animals are incapable of choosing against. But we can. To walk the path of integrity, however, a conversion experience of some kind is generally required. That is, we must choose this path above all else, and do so with vigor, time and again. The support and accountability of community in this effort is crucial, hence the need for what early Christians referred to as ‘the body of Christ’. It is now widely accepted that integrity is a precondition for true joy. Indeed, I would argue that integrity is everything. With it, heaven on Earth is ours. Without it, hell is the inevitable result. Getting right with God (abiding ‘in Christ’, in integrity) really is the only way we will ever experience ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.’ Thus, evolution matters—profoundly and practically. Without a meaningful deep-time perspective grounded in our best collective understanding of the Universe and our role in it, we can’t possibly know what integrity (i.e., right relationship to reality) is, much less know how to live in it.

    4.  The call to live the gospel in word and deed. Evangelicals and Pentecostals alike have a robust and honorable tradition of supporting one another in growing and living in integrity, doing important work in the world, and sharing with others the good news they have experienced. I stand firmly in this tradition. The only difference for me and for other evolutionary evangelicals is that the good news, or gospel, we share is informed by cumulative knowledge. What I call “The Gospel According to Science: Evolutionary Good News” has everything to do with celebrating and evangelizing the saving good news that God has been revealing through the entire range of sciences and for centuries. It has nothing to do with believing literally in past miracles or so-called supernatural events. The idea that the gospel—God’s Great News for Humanity—is merely (or mostly) about saving select individuals from the torment of an otherworldly hell when they die degrades and defiles this teaching. ‘The gospel of Jesus Christ’ is infinitely more real and more inspiring than cosmic fire insurance!

    In sum, traditional evangelical language supports both my walk with God and my commitment to an empowering and unfragmented view of the world. The following declarations are my way of translating traditional belief statements into experiential truth:

    1.  “I believe in the faithfulness of God and the authority of God’s word” becomes . . .

    Reality is my God, evidence is my scripture, and integrity is my religion. I trust life. I trust time. I trust the truth.

    2.  “I believe in the necessity of Christ and the centrality of the cross” becomes . . .

    I know that Integrity is the key to joy and that I cannot walk this path alone; I need others. Living “in Christ”, with no resentments, no secrets, or unfinished business, I know the peace that passes all understanding and can embrace my mortality and honor death as no less sacred than life.

    3.  “I believe in the need for conversion (i.e., that one must repent of sin and accept Jesus as personal Lord and Savior)” becomes . . .

    Lasting freedom and happiness will elude me unless I make right relationship to Reality/God my highest commitment, and keep choosing Big Integrity as my compass one day at a time.

    4.  “I believe that we are to live the gospel in word and deed” becomes . . .

    How can I not express love and compassion, share the good news, and do everything in my power to ensure a thriving future for planet Earth and for the millions of species that constitute my larger family? What greater calling could there be? What more honorable legacy could I leave?

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    Note on Speaking in Tongues

    The defining characteristic of Pentecostalism is ‘speaking in tongues’. What follows is a naturalized interpretation of this spiritual gift, which I present as one of the ‘evolutionary integrity practices’ in my section on ‘evolutionary spirituality,’ pages 212-14 of Thank God for Evolution.

    Speaking in tongues has been a significant part of my spiritual practice for half my life. Speaking in tongues has its detractors, but there are sound evolutionary reasons for its effectiveness. The following practice will REALize the act of speaking in tongues, because it doesn’t require you to believe anything. It’s an experience available to anyone who tries it.

    How I speak in tongues is simple. I pretend I can speak a foreign language; vocalizing nonsensical sounds in a gentle, melodic, or rhythmic way. I encourage you to try it, right now. Do it in whatever way comes naturally, for a few minutes or longer, until it becomes effortless. Now speak in tongues again, but this time inaudibly, though perhaps still moving your lips. Then continue this ‘speech’ without moving your lips; have it happen just internally. Whichever form suits you best, you should notice almost immediately that your awareness expands. You are more aware of what you see and hear and feel—without trying. Just as a person who speaks a foreign language can also think in that language, if you can speak in gobbledygook, you also can think in gobbledygook. Because you cannot think in made-up syllables and in English at the same time, this practice effectively silences the verbal part of your brain. It gives your Monkey Mind a banana to chew on. Speaking in tongues (outwardly or internally) makes it easy to attend to noticing what’s real and what’s important in the present moment, rather than falling back into distraction. It’s no coincidence that many report feelings of ecstasy and a sense of the divine when speaking or thinking in tongues.

    When speaking in tongues first came to me a few months after my born again experience in 1979, it truly was baptism in the Holy Spirit, as my Pentecostal Christian tradition had taught me. ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’ is a resonant way to describe this experience using night language. Speaking in tongues is immersion in the holiness of this moment, this time and place. I often do it intentionally, to quiet my mind while driving, for example. Or it may arise on its own, especially when I am overcome with gratitude or overwhelmed by beauty. On such occasions, emotions take control of my body: arms lift skyward and I babble away in gentle ecstasy.

    While there may be documented cases of people ‘speaking in other tongues’ who were actually speaking in a language that they had not yet learned (e.g., Acts 2:8), for most Pentecostals the experience is an incoherent babble—as if they were speaking a foreign language. The emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits are the same either way. When I speak in tongues or quietly think to myself in tongues, even for a few moments, I usually feel a connection to God and to everyone and everything around me—a connection that is difficult, if not impossible, to experience when my Monkey Mind is doing its thing. My conscious mind is released from the bondage of words.

    Speaking in tongues helps me give voice to emotions too difficult to express any other way. I thus often pray in tongues. Early on in our relationship, Connie and I occasionally relied on this gift of the Spirit during difficult times. I could express my anger, frustration, or disappointment to her, and she could hear it and respond similarly, and neither one of us had to deal with the aftermath of cleaning up hurtful words or compounding the problem by misstatements or misinterpretations. Recently, I have begun to rely on the gift of tongues not only for emotional expression in times of great feeling, or while in prayer. I now regularly think in tongues simply to still the otherwise constant conversation in my head, quieting the jabber of opinions and insistent trivialities that otherwise isolate me from the presence of the Holy Spirit. Quietly speaking and thinking in tongues, at will, has thus become my preferred form of meditation. The Great StoryEpic of Evolution, and Big History all help me understand how this gift of tongues is both a natural outgrowth of the human developmental journey (day language) and a gift of the Holy Spirit (night language). The Great Story thus helps me receive the blessings of an ancient spiritual practice, while living fully in our contemporary world.

    __________________________________________________________

    Michael Dowd is America’s evolutionary evangelist. He is the author of the bestselling bridge-building book, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World (Viking 2008 / Plume 2009), which was endorsed by 6 Nobel laureates and other science luminaries, including noted skeptics and atheists, and by religious leaders across the spectrum. Since April 2002, Michael and his wife, Connie Barlow, an acclaimed science writer and evolutionary educator, have traveled North America non-stop, and have addressed more than 1,600 religious and non-religious groups—ranging from Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical Christian churches, to Unitarian Universalist and secular high school, college, and university settings, to New Thought, New Age, and Eastern spirituality groups. Their passion is teaching and preaching the great news of what God is revealing through evidence about human naturedeath, and the trajectory of big history, and how this can inspire people of all backgrounds and beliefs to live in integrity and to cooperate across political and religious differences in service of a just and thriving future for all. Their work has been featured in numerous national and local TV, radio, and print media, including The NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, Discover, CNN, ABC News, and Fox & Friends. (Video clips and recorded interviews, here.)


    Big Integrity Resources: Growing in Right Relationship to Reality

    by Michael Dowd

    I was recently a plenary speaker at Integral Spiritual Experience 3, at Asilomar Conference Center, in Pacific Grove, California. After my presentation, which was almost identical to the one listed below as the main presentation I now deliver to all secular and religious audiences, I was asked by nearly a dozen people, “Where can I go to to learn more about the science-based ‘big integrity’ approach to spirituality and cultural transformation that you just presented?

    The following is intended as a resource for those interested in deepening their knowledge base and/or improving their skill-set re living in big integrity (in right relationship to Reality/God) and supporting others and our species in doing the same. Said another way, these tools can help you have an honorable, rather than a dishonorable, relationship to the future — whether you consider yourself religious, non-religious, spiritual-but-not-religious, or even anti-religious.

    * * *

    “The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed, but if live in proper relationship with reality (wisely), then we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle. What we are less in agreement about is how we should think about reality and what we should do to bring ourselves into harmony with it.”  ~ Loyal Rue, Religion Is Not About God

    QUESTION: How do we (as radically diverse individuals, groups, and societies) support each other in growing in ‘right relationship to reality’ so that, together, we can ensure a just and healthy future for the entire body of life?

    What follows are links to some of the best resources online and in print for dwelling in right relationship to reality, individually and collectively. Here you will find perspectives and tools to help you live authentically, love deeply, relate joyfully, contribute meaningfully, die peacefully, and leave a sweet legacy—regardless of your background or beliefs, or whether or not you meditate.

    These resources reflect humanity’s current global collective intelligence—i.e., our best evidential, science-based understandings—of (A) how life works, (B) how your life works, (C) how social systems work, and, given all this, (C) how to thrive and help our world thrive in the 21st century and beyond.

    What follows is intended to help you enjoy maximal success and fulfillment (and deepest communion with God/Reality) in this life and this world, by honoring your real nature (as evidentially understood). If you are honestly more concerned with what happens in a supposed afterlife or otherworldly, supernatural realm, I suggest you stop reading now and consult with your priest, minister, rabbi, guru, or imam. The following is probably not for you.

    * * *

    Right Relationship to What’s Real and What’s Important TODAY

    • The main program I’m now delivering in ALL secular and religious contexts (from Roman Catholics and Mainline Protestants, to Evangelicals and Emerging Churches, to skeptic gatherings and science conferences, to New Age, Eastern, and Integral groups, to the United Nations) can be found on YouTube in two versions: one narrated (in two parts) and one live. Both are accessible HERE. This program shows how a meaningful, science-based view of human nature, death, and the trajectory of big history makes sense of our world, clarifies our priorities, and offers a realistically hopeful and deeply inspiring vision of the future.

    • “One-on-one with Michael Dowd”: NH Public Television documentary on me and the above program.

    What’s New? on The Great Story website: links to TONS of wonderful, free online stuff, posted and edited by Connie Barlow

    Everybody’s Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution: Loyal Rue

    Loyal Rue, Religion Is Not About God – 6 minute YouTube video

    • “Richard Dawkins for Christians and All Spiritual People?“:  Text & YouTube reviews of Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True

    3-minute YouTube introduction, by Richard Dawkins

    6-minute YouTube video introduction to Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality

    23-minute YouTube video introduction to Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality

    • “Good and Bad Reasons For Believing”: letter by Richard Dawkins, written to his (at the time) 10-year-old daughter, Juliet

    • “What’s Real? What’s Important? Evidence as Divine Guidance”: blog post by Michael Dowd

    • “Kinship with the Cosmos” – Neil deGrasse Tyson: (8-min YouTube clip)

    • “We Are All Connected”: Symphony of Science music video featuring Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye the Science Guy

    “Religion Is About Right Relationship to Reality, Not the Supernatural”: blog post by Michael Dowd

    Thank God for the New Atheists: sermon by Michael Dowd published in Skeptic magazine / shorter version published in Australasian Science

    The New Atheists as God’s Prophets: podcast 2 hours after I learned I had cancer / sermon audio / interview with The Infidel Guy

    Journey of the Universe: Brian Swimme & Mary Evelyn Tucker (book and film)

    • ”Coming Home to Reality“: audio of a sermon by Michael Dowd

    • “The Evidential Reformation: Humanity Comes of Age”: blog post by M. Dowd

    • “Evolutionary Spirituality: Coming Home to Reality”: blog post by M. Dowd

    • “The Salvation of Religion: From Beliefs to Knowledge”: blog post by M. Dowd

    • “Evolution and the Revival of the Human Spirit”: secular sermon (text): Dowd

    Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World: Michael Dowd (endorsed by 6 Nobel laureates and other science luminaries, including noted skeptics and atheists, and by religious leaders across the spectrum). Here is an 80-second book trailer.

    Carl Sagan: Apple Pie (introduced by Michael Dowd) - 2:28 minute YouTube clip, by Connie Barlow

    * * *

    Right Relationship to Your History and Self: Knowing Who & Where You Are

    13.7 Billion Years of Evolution in 85 Seconds: YouTube clip

    What Is The Great Story? The Epic of Evolution: our common creation story (Lots of really great stuff linked from this page!!)

    • This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity: David Christian

    • Born With a Bang / Lava to Life / Mammals That Morph, 3 kids books: Jennifer Morgan

    The Universe Is a Green Dragon: Brian Swimme

    Canticle to the Cosmos DVDs: Brian Swimme (12 one-hour programs)

    The Dream of the Earth and The Great Work: Thomas Berry

    The Universe Story: From Primordial Flaring Forth to Ecozoic Era: Swimme & Berry

    The View From the Center of the Universe: Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams

    The Cosmic Society – 3 minute YouTube clip: Nancy Ellen Abrams

    Nancy Ellen Abrams: “View From the Center of the Universe”: 9-minute YouTube interview

    The New Universe and the Human Future: Nancy Abrams and Joel Primack

    Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century: Howard Bloom

    A Theory of Everything: Ken Wilber

    Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution: Steve McIntosh

    Cosmos: Carl Sagan (13 hour-long episodes): On DVD or free viewing on Hulu.com

    Wonders of the Solar System: BBC TV series with Brian Cox

    • “Kinship with the Cosmos” – Neil deGrasse Tyson: (8-min YouTube clip)

    Michael Dowd, Darwin Day Celebration 2011, Omaha: 1-hr YouTube clip

    Peter Mayer, “My Soul”: 5-minute music video

    * * *

    Right Relationship to Time: Honoring the Past, Ensuring a Healthy Future

    The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and Pursuit of Social Justice: Peter Corning

    Evolution’s Arrow: The Direction of Evolution and Future of Humanity: John Stewart

    • “The Evolutionary Manifesto: Our Role in the Future Evolution of Life“: John Stewart

    The Trajectory of Human History: Ever-Expanding Cooperation and Compassion: blog post by Dowd/Stewart

    Humanity: The Chimpanzees Who Would Be Ants: Russell Genet

    Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny: Robert Wright

    * Ghosts of Evolution – 5-minute music video celebrating deep-time eyes, by Connie Barlow

    The Empathic Civilization: Jeremy Rifkin

    The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined: Steven Pinker

    The Rational Optimist: Matt Ridley

    • Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity’s Future: Duane Elgin

    • Michael Dowd, Darwin Day Celebration 2011: Omaha: 1-hour YouTube clip

    Peter Mayer, “The Play” – 5-minute YouTube music video

    * * *

    Right Relationship to Your Instincts: Harnessing Your Inherited Drives (more accurate model than “ego”, “id”, “shadow”, “sinful nature”, “inner demons”)

    Thank God for Evolution: Michael Dowd (Parts III and IV: Chapters 8-13)

    • Physical instincts: Your reptilian brain’s cravings for safety, sustenance, and sex

    Experiential exercises for honoring and taming your physical instincts

    • Social instincts: Your old mammalian brain’s drives for bonding, status, and play

    Experiential exercises for befriending your social instincts so they serve you

    Interpretive instincts: Your neocortex’s quest for knowing, meaning, & morality

    Experiential exercises for mastering your interpretive (self-deceptive) instincts

    • Co-creative instincts: Your prefrontal cortex’s zeal for wholeness & contribution

    Experiential exercises for unleashing your creative, self-giving instincts

    • Evolutionize Your Life: Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow: How to eliminate self-judgment and create a big-hearted life of purpose and joyful integrity by honoring your Stone Age Instincts. (It’s basically about how new discoveries in evolutionary brain science clarify how to gain freedom from self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors, cultivate healthy relationships, and thrive in the face of life’s challenges.) Free online teleseminar / 5-week online course

    Supernormal Stimuli: Deirdre Barrett

    Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain: David Eagleman

    • Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Human Sexuality—How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships: Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jetha

    The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness: Joan Roughgarden

    Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People: Joan Roughgarden

    You Still Don’t Understand: Richard Driscoll

    Evolutionary Psychology 1: The Science of Human Nature: Allen MacNeill (7 hr audio)

    The Moral Animal: Robert Wright

    The Science of Good and Evil and The Believing Brain: Michael Shermer

    The Age of Empathy: Frans de Waal

    The Male Brain and The Female Brain: Louann Brizendine

    The Happiness Hypothesis: Jonathan Haidt

    Straight from the Heart: Paul and Layne Cutright

    Getting Real: Ten Truth Skills You Need for Living an Authentic Life: Susan Campbell

    The 5 Things We Cannot Change: And the Happiness We Find By Embracing Them: David Richo

    • Michael Dowd, Darwin Day Celebration 2011, Omaha, NE – 1-hr-YouTube clip

    * * *

    Right Relationship to Death: Living Life Fully by Celebrating Your Mortality

    • Death Through Deep-Time Eyes (main webpage portal) by Connie Barlow

    • Litanies: (1) The Gifts of Death (2) Is This a Universe We Can Say ‘Yes’ To? by Connie Barlow

    In the Beginnning: Stardust Video – 3 minute YouTube clip, by Connie Barrow

    • “Thank God for Death: Could Anything Be More Sacred? More Necessary? More Real?”: blog post by Michael Dowd

    • “Time and Death: Secrets of Evolution with Sagan, Cuvier, Darwin, Eiseley, and Barlow”: 9-minute YouTube clip

    • “Tree Talks About Death” (a.k.a, “Even Stars Die”) by Connie Barlow

    • “How Doctors Die: An ICU Nurse Responds”: blog post

    The Scientific Understanding of Our New Sacred Understanding of Death by Connie Barlow

    • “Death, Budgets, and Generational Justice”: by Connie Barlow: YouTube clip / blog post / podcast

    • “Death Through Deep-Time Eyes”: audio sermon by Connie Barlow

    • Connie Barlow’s YouTube program on a sacred, science-based view of death: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, finale

    • “Immortality Projects in the Internet Era: The Rise of Volunteerism, the Demise of Consumerism, and the Democratization of Cultural Progress”: blog post by Connie Barlow

    • Michael Dowd, Darwin Day Celebration 2011, Omaha, NE – 1-hr YouTube clip

    Peter Mayer, “One More Circle ‘Round the Sun” – 4-minute music video

    * * *

    Right Relationship to Your Social and Ecological Context—and Your Legacy

    Green Space Green Time: The Way of Science: Connie Barlow

    Peter Mayer: “My Soul” – 5 minute YouTube music video

    The Sacred Depths of Nature: Ursula Goodenough

    Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World: Joanna Macy

    Gaia’s Garden, Second Edition: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture: Toby Hemenway

    Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things: Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart

    Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution: Paul Hawken, et.al

    Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World: Paul Hawken

    Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, & Society in the Age of Transition: Charles Eisenstein

    The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism: Howard Bloom

    Reflections on Evolutionary Activism and The Tao of Democracy: Tom Atlee

    Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity: Peggy Holman

    EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want: Frances Moore Lappe´

    Religion Is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature and What to Expect When They Fail: Loyal Rue

    • Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist: Joan Roughgarden

    Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society: David Sloan Wilson

    Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives: David Sloan Wilson

    The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time: David Sloan Wilson

    Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World: David Gershon

    Integral Life Practice: A 21st Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity, and Spiritual Awakening: Ken Wilber, Terry Patten, et al.

    The Moral Landscape and Letter to a Christian Nation: Sam Harris

    • Is Biblicist Christianity Bankrupt?: Michael Dowd’s public blog debate with Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (The NY Times iNewp service: “The People’s Press” also ran this debate as a series: Part 1234567)

    The Success Principles: Jack Canfield

    Landmark Education’s “Curriculum for Living” (The Forum, Advanced Course, SELP)

    Practicing Radical Honesty: Brad Blanton

    • “Kinship with the Cosmos” – Neil deGrasse Tyson: 8-min YouTube clip

    • Michael Dowd, Darwin Day Celebration 2011: Omaha: 1-hr YouTube clip

    * Bruce Sanguin: Evolutionary Christianity: 7-minute YouTube clip

    Peter Mayer, “Holy Now”: 5-minute music video

    * * *

    Right Relationship to Children: Inspiring Evolutionary Educational Materials

    BEST BOOKS:

    Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story: Lisa Westberg Peters and Lauren Stringer

    Born With a Bang / Lava to Life / Mammals That Morph, 3 kids books: Jennifer Morgan

    Bang! How We Came to Be: Michael Rubino

    Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: Laurence Pringle

    • The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True: Richard Dawkins

    ONLINE TEXT, AUDIO, and VIDEO:

    Evolutionary Curricula for Children and Youth: main portal on TheGreatStory website, by Connie Barlow

    • Imprinting is NOT Indoctrination (by Connie Barlow): Introduction / podcast / PDF

    Inspiring Naturalism for Families: podcast interview with Jon Cleland Host

    The River of Life: programs for kids based on Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale

    • “Tree Talks About Death” (a.k.a, “Even Stars Die”), by Connie Barlow

    Skeptic’s Dictionary for Kids: portal to lots of great stuff (Robert Carroll)

    Remember Who You Are: middle school curriculum by Connie Barlow, based on The Lion King

    • Evolutionary Songs: Ages 6 to Adult

    • We Are Made of Stardust curriculum by Connie Barlow, plus recommended resources

    • Coming Home to North America: how to become indigenous to this continent

    Celebrating North America: scripted plays by Connie Barlow

    • Evolutionary Parenting: Jon Host: (1) An Introduction, (2) Thoughts About Holidays


    How Doctors Die: An ICU Nurse Responds

    by Michael Dowd

    Note by Michael Dowd: A week ago a colleague sent me a link to an obscure blog that had “gone viral”:

    “How Doctors Die — It’s Not Like the Rest of Us, But It Should Be

    Tremendously moved, I decided to do my part in spreading this sobering news and vital perspective. One of those who received my email was a young nurse, newly certified for working in the Intensive Care Unit. Below is her response (slightly modified for confidentiality).

    Her story brought me to tears of joy and gratitude when I first read it. May there be ever more nurses with the training, the courage, and above all the heart exemplified by this unheralded young hero.

    ____________

    Response by a young “Intensive Care Unit (ICU)” nurse:

    Thank you so much for this timely article. Only two months ago I participated in an “End of Life and Palliative Care in the ICU” class, where I was genuinely moved/tormented by the suffering my fellow nurses and I are surrounded with in the ICU.

    A peaceful, gentle death is so valuable — and so rare.

    I recently cared for a young adult cancer patient at the end of her life.  She came to the ICU after having a bone marrow transplant to deal with the “pre-leukemia” she had developed, owing to an aggressive chemo regimen initiated several years earlier for her breast cancer.

    By now, her whole body had deteriorated to such an extent that she required a mask that forced air into her lungs in order to oxygenate.  She spent two weeks in our hospital’s ICU, with her lungs progressively worsening.

    All the nurses knew she was not going to leave our unit. But her oncologist kept telling her to “fight it out!”

    Finally, and this was on my shift, with her parents at her side, “Gloria” (the name I’ll use) finally said that she just wanted the pain to go away.

    Suddenly, everything changed.

    I had just brought into her room her evening meds — literally thousands of dollars worth of antibiotics and anti-rejection medications.  None of it mattered anymore.

    I took down all the unnecessary tubing, started a morphine drip and administered Glycopyrrolate (which dries secretions and softens the “death rattle”).

    This felt massive to me. I remember this mix of emotions: sadness, relief, and an overwhelming sense that I was a part of something huge.  I still cannot wrap my head around it.

    I was able to help transition one profoundly suffering human being from a regimen of “Come on! Power through! Endure, endure, endure!” to, “It’s okay, Gloria. You fought so, so hard. Now close your eyes, let your pain fade, and rest.”

    It was beautiful.

    Gloria died the following day — not on my shift, but I felt so happy that I had been able to share the transition with her and her parents.

    To think of everything we had put this woman through in hopes of an inaccessible cure is just … sickening.

    Medicine has gotten to the point where we’ve gone as far and as invasive as we can go. I wish people — both we professionals and the public at large — would begin to prioritize a dignified death above all.

    Family members need to know that there is far more beauty in spending quality time (rather than simply a quantity of time in the hospital) with their unalterably disabled and ultimately incurable loved ones.

    Sadly, when family members must make medical decisions, too often those decisions are influenced by a subconscious need to palliate our own emotional suffering. As well, an irrational fear that we will otherwise be guilty (or at least will feel guilty) spurs good people to say “yes” to absolutely every intervention that forestalls death.

    Though I wish everyone could die at home surrounded by love and comfort, I know it is the nature of those battling cancer to often push themselves far past their ability to survive the journey home.

    It is my duty to honor this incredible fight and allow them to pass peacefully, without pain — and to let them know that accepting death is the greatest victory.

    ~ by an ICU nurse