Beginning With Fire
The Story of Addiction, Human Nature, and Evolution
Problems & Mysteries
If you can read this page, you are a member of the world’s most intelligent species. You are also a member of a species headed for extinction in the blink of an eye.
On the face of it, these two facts don’t seem compatible. Dinosaurs, who at their brightest were not as intelligent as poodles, survived spectacularly for over 150 million years. Then, about 65 million years ago, an asteroid twice as large as Mount Everest and moving at over 30 times the speed of sound slammed into the Gulf of Mexico, creating tsunamis that swept around the planet, massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions — and a world-wide cloud of dust, blotting out the sun for many months. This global catastrophe, called the K-T extinctioni,eliminated an estimated 85% of the species living at that timeii. Over the course of the next million years or so mammals, who had been slinking around in the undergrowth while the dinosaurs were on the prowl, became dominant. Several types of mammals evolved exceptionally high intelligence, in particular the primates. And we, Homo sapiens, are conspicuously the most intelligent of the primates. Surely then, with our amazing intelligence, we should be at least as successful as the dinosaurs — until the next asteroid comes along, anyway.
But we are a precocious species. We’ve been around for less than one tenth of one percent of the reign of the dinosaurs, and we’re not waiting for an asteroid. We are plundering and poisoning our planet on such a scale that we are, ourselves, initiating a massive extinction unparalleled since the K-T event. Having just got here, in evolutionary terms, we are on course to make the earth uninhabitable for humans, and millions of other species, within the next few generations.
If we’re so smart, why aren’t we safe? Why don’t we use our remarkable intelligence to change course, and rescue ourselves from this imminent peril? Because we suffer from a problem born out of our own cleverness; we are immersed in the quintessentially human predicament known as addiction. But wait a minute — what is this talk about addiction being born of cleverness; addiction as a predicament. Isn’t addiction a disease? Well, that’s one story about addiction that has been widely embraced, and proven quite useful in its way. In this book, though, we turn that familiar notion on its head. As we will see below and in the following few chapters, addiction is best understood not as a disease that creates human dilemmas, but rather as a human dilemma that creates disease.
Story or Theory?
As you can tell from the title, this book tells a story — “The Story of Addiction, Human Nature, and Evolution.” If you are a person who likes to think in theoretical terms, you will recognize the broad outlines of a theory in this story of addiction. But we focus here on the story, because the stories we tell ourselves and each other shape our lives more powerfully and more intimately than the theories we learn. Our theories may be elegant, but our stories are convenient. That is, they convene — bring together — the different elements of our lives in ways that offer us coherence, meaning, and comfort.
This is not to say that the stories we embrace are necessarily true, or even particularly reasonable. Often, compelling stories win people over in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Long after sailors had circumnavigated the globe people resisted the idea that the Earth is round, and clung to the “flat Earth” story. It felt intuitively right to them, and at that time it was believed by many to conform to religious teachings. This is similar to the contemporary “debate” regarding the theory of evolution and the story of creationism. The theory of evolution is supported by an ever-growing mass of evidence. But as we moved into the 21st century a majority of Americans (55% according to a survey conducted by CBS)iii did not believe that humans evolved from other species. Both evolution and creationism evoke engaging storylines, but it appears that in these troubled times, most Americans find the old biblical story of creationism more comforting.iv
In general, though, we are better off if the stories that shape our lives are in fact true. The widespread popularity of the myth of creationism reduces the level of scientific literacy among American citizens, at a time when science plays a more central role in our lives than ever before. And widespread confusion about addiction leaves us in the dark as to why we resolutely continue, individually and en masse, along paths of certain destruction.
Stories Old and New
Addiction, by its nature, runs contrary to common sense — we see people continuing their addictive behaviors or involvements long after it is obvious that the cost hugely exceeds any positive payoff. So it is understandable that people have found addiction difficult to explain. The stories people have embraced to account for the unreasonableness of addiction can be sorted into two groups; ancient and modern. For centuries it was assumed that people became addicts because they were bad, crazy, or stupid; because of moral failings, insanity, lack of intelligence — or combinations of the three. This led to addicts being locked up, punished, humiliated — or combinations of the three. What it didn’t lead to was sobriety. For the most part, people who were addicts didn’t get better. They lived miserable lives, and died miserable deaths. Then, during the last century, as the scientific world view gained prominence, a more modern story took shape, based on the idea that addiction is a disease.
This idea is very understandable because, as addiction permeates our lives more and more extensively, we certainly become diseased. Not only our bodies, but our minds, our spirits, our relationships — indeed, our cultures and communities — become wracked with disease. So it makes perfect sense that the idea of disease should be intimately associated with addiction.v
But there is a big difference between result and cause. The fact that addiction leads to disease doesn’t at all show that addiction is caused by disease. Nonetheless, despite the confusions and inconsistencies that have plagued the “disease model” of addiction, this relatively modern viewpoint has encouraged people to regard addicts with compassion rather than contempt, and to make humane treatment available for them. As a result, millions of people have emerged from the vortex of addiction to lead healthy and productive lives.
Why, then, do we need a new story? Because the addiction-as-disease story, while a major improvement over the ugly and destructive “bad, crazy, stupid” stories, falls far short of meeting our current and very urgent needs. The disease story of addiction is similar to the horse and buggy mode of transportation, which was a big improvement over walking. But if your house is on fire and the fire station is ten miles away, you’d better hope they have a fire engine, because by the time the horse-drawn wagon gets there, they’ll find nothing but smoke and ashes.
In a meaningful sense, our house is on fire. In our addictive rampage humankind is like a conflagration sweeping across the face of the globe, leaving scorched earth behind us. Unfortunately, addiction leads to a state of mind — denial — that tells us we don’t really have a problem. It is more comforting to imagine that the addicts are someone else; a minority population afflicted with an unfortunate disease. We prefer to think of ourselves as being outside the burning house — either because we feel we’ve never experienced addiction, or that we’ve solved the problem because we are in “recovery.”
In fact, we all participate in, and are deeply effected by, addiction. If we are to begin to change course, mend the damage as best we can, and take on a role of conscientious stewardship of the earth, we must develop a deep understanding of how addiction happens, how widespread it really is, and how it can be most effectively addressed. For starters, of course, we need a definition. What is addiction?
An Honest Mistake
In this case, turning to the experts won’t answer our question. A survey of the literature turns up well over one hundred definitions of addiction offered by respected authoritiesvi — and nothing even approaching consensus emerges as to which definition is most accurate or adequate. When a subject is as prominent in public discussion as addiction, but the most basic question, “What is it,” remains conspicuously unresolved, you can be sure that you have struck a raw societal nerve of some sort. We know we’re up against something really important, but we can’t for the life of us sort it out. Laypersons and experts alike have tended to resemble the allegorical blind men examining an elephant, each having access to only one part of the animal — leg, trunk, tusk, ear, tail, torso — and therefore each describing very different creatures. And of course, to some extent they are all correct — they all successfully describe different aspects of the beast, sometimes in meticulous detail. But in another sense they all fall short, through not grasping the elephant in its entirety. The allegory is especially apt, because for years the image of the “elephant in the living room” has served as a metaphor for situations where groups of people — families, friends, business associates — have lived with the enormous problem of addiction in their midst, but felt unable or unwilling to name it. At this point we are all living with the elephant of addiction in our global living room, and, like the blind men, we come in contact with parts of the Great Beast. Yet, for a variety of reasons, we do not share a truly adequate definition of this colossal presence in our midst; we have not been able to fit the pieces together. You will find my definition of addiction a few paragraphs below, and the first two sections of the book will flesh out this definition considerably in order to help you understand addiction not merely conceptually, but viscerally. This is how we need to know our subject — on a gut level — for this is where addiction resides in human experience.
But first I need to be clear about which version of addiction it is I am defining — which sense of the word is our subject in this book, for there are three usages that are commonplace. I will call them trivial, physical, and profound. The trivial usage is just that; a loose use of the word to describe something that we really like — “I’m really addicted to Meryl Streep movies,” or “Aunt Marie’s clam chowder,” or “moonlight walks.”
Physical addiction, on the other hand, is not a trivial matter. A person becomes physically addicted as their body develops a dependency on chemicals. If deprived of the substance on which they have become dependent they experience withdrawal. Depending on the degree of addiction, withdrawal manifests on a continuum of severity ranging from negligible to life-threatening, with many states of discomfort and impairment in-between.
However, physical addiction, in and of itself, is easily explained by common sense. The addiction comes into being because a certain activity is pleasurable or gratifying, and is therefore repeated over time. Repeated use promotes dependency, and as dependency sets in tolerance develops, meaning the addict has to increase the “dosage” to achieve the same effect. Meanwhile, problems associated with the activity begin to mount. Often dependent persons arrive at a point where they feel that the costs exceed the benefits, at which point their own sensible reasoning tells them it’s time to change course. If we are dealing only with physical addiction, it is then a straightforward path — though perhaps arduous and painful — to doing whatever is required to wean oneself off the substance. Addicts of this sort join will-power to common sense, enlist outside resources as needed — detox, counseling, whatever — and, once the withdrawal process is completed, move on with their lives, perhaps rather bruised and battered, but existentially intact. And once the physical withdrawal is behind them, it is no longer appropriate to call them addicts.
As we know, however, not every addict finds it to be this simple. Millions of addicts “kick the habit” — go through withdrawal — only to find themselves revisiting the addictive behavior. They do this not just once or twice, but time after time, typically stretching over years and even decades. This persistence is especially perplexing because, the longer addicts cling to the behavior, the more the rewards dwindle, and the problems escalate. Increasingly, the addiction becomes the central focus and fixation of the addict’s life, violating every apparent notion of common-sense and logical reasoning, not only for observers, but for addicts themselves. We will see in the chapters that follow that addicts make these unreasoning and unreasonable choices because there is a voice that calls to them with mounting imperious authority; a craving that resides not merely in their physical system, but in the core of their being. For this kind of addict the initial seduction into addiction is not about mere pleasure or gratification — it involves an experience of transforming who they feel themselves to be; how they fit into the world. This is why I call it “profound addiction”; because it emerges from a profound experience, leads to a profound dilemma — and requires a profound resolution.
Physical addiction and profound addiction are often — though not always — woven together, and this adds to the confusion. We could say that physical addiction grabs you by the throat, while profound addiction grabs you by the soul. It is this latter mode of addiction, which has influenced the course of human history over many millennia, and presently threatens to bring that history to a tragic end, that is the subject of this book. Hereafter, the words “addiction, addicted,” and “addict” will refer to this profound version, unless otherwise specified. This soul-clutching form of addiction can be defined as follows:
Addiction is a state of mind, a belief system, a way of knowing, organized around the mistaken conviction that control, in any of a myriad of forms, is the optimal — and eventually, necessary — path to achieving viability and fulfillment.
This is the long version. For brevity, we can say:
Addiction is the conviction that control is the optimal path to fulfillment.
Albert Einstein, who was wise as well as intelligent, reportedly observed that “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.”vii Addiction, in its essence, is a mistaken belief system; a profoundly flawed frame of mind.
Good News, Bad News
The good news is that, despite the confusion about definitions, the problem of addiction can be resolved — indeed, is being resolved among us on a daily basis. Millions of sober addicts testify to that fact. The bad news is that the old stories we have been telling ourselves about addiction prevent us from recognizing the full scope and true nature of this life-destroying dilemma. As we’ve seen above, these stories include the ideas that addiction is essentially a physical dependency; that addiction happens because people lack will-power, moral fiber, or intelligence; that addiction happens because people are mentally or physically diseased. And, finally, that addiction primarily involves chemical dependencies. In fact, our addictions to alcohol and other mood-altering drugs are only the tip of a massive iceberg. This is, of course, a cliché, but it is an apt one. Almost 90 percent of an iceberg is under water — invisible, from our familiar surface perspective. Similarly, the vast presence of addiction becomes recognizable to us only as we learn how to look beneath the surface of commonplace human experience. Then we find that, as individuals, we are addicted to all kinds of behaviors, feelings, and ways of thinking — gambling, sex, eating, television, movies, shopping, work, romance, caretaking, exercise, spectator sports, violence, passivity, anger, righteousness, neatness, chaos, self mutilation, self beautification, isolation, making money, political and religious doctrines, risk-taking, lying… The list goes on and on. We could fill a page simply listing the different forms of addiction that involve the internet, itself a very recent addition to our culture.
And we are addicted not only as individuals, but as groups. Families and neighborhoods; churches and clubs; gangs; towns and cities; corporations; ethnic groups; partisans of every stripe, from sports to religion to politics; nation-states . . . Groups of every size and nature have the potential to think and act addictively (including, as we will see, groups set up to promote “sobriety”!). War is a particularly virulent and ancient human addiction which swallows up individuals and cultures alike. Today, in a classical display of the self-perpetuating spiral of addictive progression, addictions to hatred and righteousness feed a “war on terrorism” — which feeds the addictions to hatred and righteousness that feed terrorism.
In short, addiction, always a presence in human experience, has become a global force, with effects on the scale of massive natural disasters. Addictive appetites fuel our economies to grotesque and irrational excesses of production, consumption, and destruction, while addictive denial allows us to disregard the one sixth of the world’s population that goes hungry. Addictive thinking — or non-thinking — allows us to suspend our rational processes while we deplete our fuel supplies, freshwater tables, arable soils and other irreplaceable natural resources, while turning up the thermostat on global warming, resolutely oblivious to the dire consequences our children, and theirs, will face. Addictive consciousness allows us to anesthetize our moral sensibilities and our common sense while we eliminate other species at an estimated 40-50 thousand per year. In other words, we are killing off our companion species on earth at the rate of 800 to 1000 each week — over 100 species per day. And the rate is escalating.viii
Put simply, the runaway engine of addiction has caused humans to become a plague species. This is the term used by biologists to describe a species whose growth gets out of hand, radically transforming ecologies and eradicating many life forms — including, sometimes, itself. This is exactly what we have done, and are doing. Is this because we are “bad guys?” Certainly the image of a “plague species” is not a pretty notion. It makes us sound like some kind of villains — and stupid villains at that, since we’re exterminating ourselves as well as others. But we can understand our role as a plague species without having to view ourselves as demons or idiots.
As an example, consider the organism which brought about arguably the single most destructive plague ever to afflict our planet — microscopic little one-celled creatures with a long name — “cyanobacteria” (sounds like “sigh-Ann-oh-bacteria”). Before these guys took over, the atmosphere of the earth was made up primarily of gases that would kill us, such as methane and ammonia. The first inhabitants of the earth, however, (also one-celled beings) thrived magnificently for hundreds of millions of years in that environment. But about 2.2 billion years ago the population of the cyanobacteria shot explosively upwards, and their waste product — oxygen — made the atmosphere toxic for most of their fellow beings of that time. So the other inhabitants of earth, unable to adapt to the presence of this deadly gas in their environment, died off by the uncountable trillionsix, surviving today only in cloistered environmental pockets such as sewage, the bottom of swamps, and the intestines of animals, where they are protected from atmospheric oxygen.
This world-transforming catastrophe didn’t happen because the cyanobacteria were “bad guys.” It happened because they had evolved the capacity to convert sunlight into usable energy, incidentally releasing oxygen in the process. We call this “photosynthesis,” and, in ancient stored forms such as coal, oil and natural gas, or in present-day forms such as the plants that feed us and the creatures we eat, photosynthesis is the source of the energy that sustains us, and most of the biosphere which is our home. From our perspective, then, cyanobacteria were actually “good guys,” because the environmental cataclysm they brought about was an indispensable step in making the world habitable for creatures like ourselves.
So maybe, over the (very) long run, future species will benefit from our headlong rush to extinction. Perhaps, if we stay on our current destructive pathway, we will simply prepare the ground for yet another chapter of evolutionary improvisation. Perhaps, in our careening trajectory of reproduction, consumption and devastation, we will sweep most of the pieces of the biosphere off the table of evolution like a drunken chess player, thus clearing the way for some unimaginable new forms of life and, perhaps eventually, intelligence. Maybe such intelligent beings will, then, millions or billions of years into the future, study the remains of our brief tenure on earth, learn from the evidence of our blind rush to destruction, and spare themselves, and their world, a similar fate.
Why Not Now?
But wait — that option is available to us, now! For around two million years hominids gradually evolved higher levels of cognitive abilities. Then, about 100,000 years ago — less than a minute, in evolutionary termsx — our linguistic capabilities made a great leap forward, and suddenly we went into overdrive. Language gave us the ability to think in abstractions, allowing us to use our intelligence in ways never before seen in the billions of years of life’s history on earth. With these formidable mental tools we have solved many of the mysteries of the universe, and reshaped the landscape of our world to suit our pleasure and convenience. So perhaps we don’t have to helplessly watch ourselves plunge like lemmings over the cliff of extinction. Perhaps, using our amazing capacity for thought and reflection, we can learn from the mountains of evidence staring us in the face, and chart a new and safer course for ourselves and our fellow companions on this spinning, opalescent globe — our one home and refuge in all the perilous vastness of space. Common sense would certainly recommend that we do so…
And yet, for the most part, we don’t. Despite the evidence that we are headed at breakneck speed down a very bumpy road toward a very nasty ending, we don’t seem to be able, or willing, to stop. We are, as a species, drunk behind the wheel, with billions of hapless other living beings along for the ride. If we are going to chart a new and more viable course for humanity, for our world, we need to learn everything we possibly can about the terribly human predicament of addiction — why it happens, and how it can be resolved. Reaching back into our ancient past, we find addiction intricately woven into the fabric of human nature. The very intellectual abilities that we might hope would rescue us from our dilemma are in fact at its heart. Like the cyanobacteria who, once they evolved the neat trick of photosynthesis, brought about a cataclysmic transformation of the world simply by doing what came naturally, we find that our neat trick of language, the source of so much of our cleverness, is at the root of our tendency to become addicted. We are, like the cyanobacteria, doing what comes naturally to us. And it’s killing us.
The Problem of Self
In order to abandon our role as plague species and avoid extinction, we need to learn new ways of solving what is, in evolutionary terms, a relatively new problem. Earlier I mentioned that language is at the root of our tendency to become addicted. As language came to be a prominent feature of human experience it provided us with many evolutionary advantages and opportunities. It also presented us with a problem unique to our species: the problem of self. As we acquired language and began to mentally step out of the flowing river of “now,” we began to look up and down the stream of time in our imaginations. In this way our self-consciousness — our self-conscious experience of self — was born. Without the ability to imagine ourselves in the past and the future it would be impossible to maintain an ongoing, sustained sense of identity. If you hold the question, “Who am I?” in your mind for a few moments, you will quickly see how dependent we are on language, and our sense of past and future, to establish and maintain our identity. In the next few chapters we will see how addiction is born solving the problem of self — and in the process creates a whole new and deadly set of problems.
Our challenge as individual selves, and in our various levels and forms of composite “selves,” is to cultivate a sober consciousness. The last two sections of the book address this daunting and hopeful work. Such a transformed consciousness would recognize that the summary equation of evolution, “survival of the fittest,” refers not to “survival of the most willful and bull-headed,” but to the survival of those who most harmoniously integrate within the intricate webs of relationships in which we earthly life-forms sustain one another.
Most good stories have mysteries woven in them, and the story of addiction is no exception. The biggest mystery of addiction can be summed up in one question: “Why do they do it?” Why do addicts keep doing things that hurt themselves, and those they love? But wait a moment — in the story we’re telling here, we find that most of us are addicted to some extent; that we could hardly fit into today’s society if we were totally free of addiction. So let’s phrase this mystery in the first person: “Why do we do it?” Why do we keep doing things that hurt ourselves, and those we love? Common sense tells us to do one thing, our addiction tells us to do something different — and the next thing you know, there we are, doing exactly the thing our common sense warned us against!
To penetrate into this particular mystery, as our story unfolds we will need to visit three classical mysteries that have kept philosophers and scientists, poets and scholars, occupied to distraction for generations. We will not, of course, solve such intractable mysteries in this book, but we don’t need to. They are not the kinds of mysteries we can solve, in any ultimate sense. We need to live with them, contemplate them, wrestle with them, fling them away in frustration, then revisit them in the dark of night, because they are, after all, our constant companions. These are the mysteries of self, of choice, and of love. Already we’ve seen glimpses, in this Prologue, of how self and choice play major roles in this new story of addiction. We will find that love eventually takes center stage.
As with any telling of a story, then, let us begin at the beginning. Let us take our imaginations back to a time when language was new — and so was the problem of self. Let us picture a man becoming addicted to one of the earliest technologies in human history. Let us begin with fire.
Endnotes(Will appear at end of book, listed by chapter and page number. Endnote numbers are included in text above for editing purposes, but will not be included in published text, to spare readers’ distraction.)
i: The term “KT” in the “KT extinction” refers, rather confusingly, to two evolutionary epochs: the Cretaceous, which ended with that extinction, and the Tertiary, which began at that time. K is the traditional abbreviation for the Cretaceous period. Cretaceous comes from the Latin for chalk, creta. The K comes from the German word for chalk kreide, and is used so as to avoid confusion with the Carboniferous period which uses the letter C.
The scenario described in the text depicts a credible and widely-held approximation of the events which brought about the KT extinction. Though there is no serious question about the asteroid slamming into the Gulf of Mexico, details of size and velocity are best estimates. There is evidence suggesting that other asteroids, perhaps fragments of one larger body, impacted elsewhere on earth, amplifying and widening the trauma to life on earth.
ii: Strictly speaking, not all of the dinosaurs perished in the KT extinction, in that birds are continuations of the dinosaur line. The dinosaurs referenced in popular speech, however, and indicated by the origins of the term itself (from the Greek words deinos and saura; “fearsome lizard”) survive only in our imaginations, and in the artful renderings of museum reconstructions and cinematic special effects.
iii: (CBS News) This poll was conducted November 18-21, 2004, and broadcast 11/22/04 http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/11/22/opinion/polls/printable657083.shtml
iv: This is an example of how people can become addicted to ideologies, as we will see in Chapter Two.
v: Indeed, the same reasoning applies to the “bad, crazy, stupid” ways of explaining addiction, because over the course of progression addicts increasingly exhibit immoral, irrational and just plain stupid behaviors.
vi: “How many legitimate definitions of addiction are there? There are hundreds—literally hundreds.” Definitions & Characteristics of Addiction: Charles N. Roper, PhD, LCDC (Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor) — http://www.alcoholanddrugabuse.com/article1.html
vii: This quote, while widely published in several variations (“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” etc.), cannot be sourced. The variation used in the text is especially apt for our purposes here. Whether or not it originated with Einstein, the point is well taken.
viii: Don Olson, Minnesota Public Radio, Feb 1, 2005, reporting on a Paris meeting sponsored by the French Government of 1200 scientists discussing species extinction and biodiversity.
ix: The story is a bit more complicated, because for a few million years the oxygen generated by the cyanobacteria quickly interacted with iron dissolved in the oceans, creating huge deposits of rust which now provide us with the bulk of the iron ore so essential to our civilization. It was not until the available iron was largely exhausted that the levels of free oxygen began to build up in the oceans and, eventually, escape into the atmosphere. Further, not all the Cyanobacteria were able to adapt to the advent of an oxygen-rich environment, thus becoming victims of their own byproducts in a manner reminiscent of our situation today.
x: “…over the last 100,000 years or so — less than a minute, in evolutionary terms — our capacity for language made a great leap forward…” A standard comparison in evolutionary discussions is to envision the whole 3.5 billion year history of life on earth unfolding in one day. By that measure 100,000 years is about 24 seconds. The estimate of 100,000 years is necessarily an educated guess, subject to revision as research progresses. It is also assumed that language acquisition was a prolonged and cumulative process, extending over perhaps 2 million years. The 100,000 year figure refers to the epoch when language syntax and vocabulary had reached levels adequate for the kind of abstract thinking relevant to our discussion.