Contemporary Issues Old Mammalian Mind

When All Is Politics, We Are Not Human

Thomas L. Friedman recently wrote a New York Times opinion piece in which he warned that America is becoming like Lebanon—a place where everything is politics. 

The issues Freidman raise are perfect examples of why the quadrune mind model is important in real life. What he calls “politics” is the old mammalian group/herd mentality. And the warnings he gives a society in which everything becomes politics are important warnings to us about what happens when people are not able to develop their Human minds and get stuck in an old mammalian mentality. It’s not pretty. 

Friedman starts his article with a story of attending a dinner party in 1983 at the house of Malcolm Kerr, the president of the American University of Beirut who would be assassinated several months later. Kerr’s tongue in cheek response to the speculation about what was causing the unusual hailstorms in Beirut the past two nights was, “Do you think the Syrians did it?” 

Not only is it possible for everything, including the weather, to become political, it is inevitable if we become inextricably stuck in our old mammalian minds. That is because our pre-Human minds see the entire world through their distorted lens. To the old mammalian mind, that means we only understand the world in terms of our group identity. If you are a Democrat who is stuck in an old mammalian mindset, everything the Republicans do is wrong, and every Republican is someone to either avoid, argue with, or hate. And vice versa. 

Democrats and Republicans “behave just like rival tribes who believe they must rule or die,” as Friedman says, because that is precisely what they are. Although members of a group can function from all four minds, groups themselves promote an old mammalian mindset. The goal of the group is survival of the group. And groups survive best when their members see themselves as part of the “herd” and their role as promoting the group at all cost. 

(A Human minded person who is also a Democrat or Republican would not side with his or her party if the party was not acting in the best interest of all people and the planet. For those living from a Human mindset, working as part of a group can be a helpful tool in the sense that collective action can lead to more effective communal aid. But it is not the person’s identity.)

To the old mammalian mind, the group is the thing. If the group is threatened, it feels like one’s own survival is threatened. That is why a Republican or a Democrat who is operating from an old mammalian mind can fight tooth a nail, beyond all logic1 for his or her party to come out on top. It doesn’t matter if the politician representing the party is killing babies at the border, a sexual harasser, or just a little shitty. The supporter identifies with the party, the party identifies with the leader, so the supporter must support the leader, no matter what

When our group identity is our most important identity, there is a problem. The problem Friedman calls politicization, but it is deeper and more profound in the quadrune mind model. It is a failure to reach the potential of our Human mind because we have become stuck in our old mammalian mentality. When we are not living from a Human awareness, the effect is as harmful to us as individuals as politicization is to a state. Whereas a country where everything is politics is likely to be torn apart, we ourselves are doomed to a life torn asunder from meaning and purpose, which provide the natural home of our spirit. Instead, we live half-lives, unable to fulfil our human potential and promise. 

The old mammalian mind is why face masks during a pandemic can become such a contentious, political issue. If everyone were rational, new mammalians, we might debate the science, but we would not debate the dictates of that science. If we saw proof that wearing a mask reduced the spread of COVID-19, we would all wear masks without any problem. Reason says to do it, and that would be reason enough. But when we are operating from an old mammalian mind, the question becomes if our group is wearing a face mask, regardless of the reason either for or against masking up. And if our group leaders say it infringes upon our freedom to wear a mask, then by God they must be right and we won’t wear one, no questions asked

Friedman says of Lebanon’s sectarian system, “It was a system that bought stability in a highly diverse society (between spasms of civil war) — but at the price of constant lack of accountability, corruption, misgovernance and mistrust.”

Here’s the thing about viewing the world from an old mammalian mentality—it does make the world seem clear, comprehensible, safe, and reliable, when the reality is that it is not. When society is particularly chaotic, taking shelter in a pre-Human mind, in which we do not have to deal with the world as it really is, feels reassuring. After all, you don’t have to consider as much or ask as many questions when you just do whatever the leaders of your group tell you to do. This is why many people do not want to move beyond an old mammalian mentality and why we cannot force someone to become more Human. There are intense growing pains to leaving the comfort of the pre-Human outlook for the uncertainty and unpredictability of life as it actually is. However, although it may feel good to look at the world through a pre-Human mind, it is not good. Because “good” to the pre-Human mind never matches what is good in reality, the good the Human mind alone can see. 

As Friedman states, society “dies when everything becomes politics,” because there is no more “common good.” Everything is about power; there is no objective truth. Or, as Hebrew University religious philosopher Moshe Halbertal put it, “For a healthy politics to flourish it needs reference points outside itself — reference points of truth and a conception of the common good.” 

The Human mind always works for the common good—to reduce suffering and increase healing for all. The Human mind has access to the rational new mammalian mind and that, augmented by the empathy and compassion of the Human mind, allows it to see what it truly good for all—a good based on reality and need, not propaganda and the dictates of an irrational leader. 

The old mammalian mind only wants what is good for one’s own group; and even then, what is thought of as “good” is not based on truth or reality. It would be more appropriate to say that the old mammalian mind only wants what the leaders of the group have, generally for their own self-aggrandizement, determined is “good” for the group (meaning good for them). The reason there is no truth when everything is politics is because the old mammalian mind cannot access truth removed from what the leaders say is true. It cannot comprehend that there is a truth based in fact, in reality, that might be different than what their leaders say and want. 

This is Trump’s great danger—in undermining fact and the common good, he wages a war on the new mammalian and Human minds. He makes it all the more difficult for us to develop a healthy Human mentality that puts the good of all above the good of one group or ourselves. And society already makes that hard enough. He creates a world in which reptilian and old mammalian ways of thinking are exalted as the only way. 

Friedman says that Trump’s message (“My critics are killers, and only I can protect our tribe from theirs. It’s rule or die.”) is “not only hurting us, it’s literally killing us.” He is, of course, referring to the spread of COVID-19, and he is right. (The objective, non-politicized truth is that Trump has mismanaged COVID-19 and led to the death of tens of thousands of people. The old mammalian mind would never accept this, of course, if it sees Trump as leader of the group, but it is clear when we consider fact and reality.) But there is more to it than that. This way of thinking is killing us in the sense that it is leading to fewer Human beings. Yes, many human beings are eating and breathing, but they are not truly living. The only path to a fulfilling and meaningful life—to being truly alive—is to develop our Human mind. 

If we want to grow as Human-minded beings, and if we want society to survive, we must learn to work toward the common good, even if that good is not what the leaders of our group have told us we should want. We yearn for a climate in which we are encouraged to live from our Human mind, not where the Human mind is stifled. One step is to vote for leaders who do not demean reason and the common good but uphold them as pillars of right leadership. Such leaders will be far less likely to encourage old mammalian-minded thinking. 

But beyond that, we must work to change our own perceptions. To learn to admit when we have a gut reaction that immediately says the other group (be it Democrats or Republicans) is wrong before we even consider the argument. To recognize when we make excuses for the bad behavior of our group members or leaders just because they are “one of us.” To see when our group or our leaders are making decisions or telling us something that is clearly irrational or counter to the common good. And to stand up to those in our own group when we see them acting as old mammalians, upholding the group’s dictates or values that we now recognize are harmful. 

This is not easy. There’s a reason ostracization is one of our biggest fears. Traditionally, it has been hard to survive outside of the protection of a group. And in our childish old mammalian mind,2 we feel like the child we were who really could not survive outside of our family. For a child, abandonment is catastrophic.

But the thing is, if we want our lives to have meaning, we need to do better than just surviving. We need to learn how to fully live. And we will never do that if we don’t learn to stand up to our group and see ourselves as more than just our group identity. We must grow up to understand the world from our Human mind, a mind that thinks and acts for the good of all.

  1. Remember, the old mammalian mind is pre-rational, as reason does not come until the new mammalian mind. See the Study Guide for more information on the traits of each mind.
  2. The old mammalian mind is developmentally appropriate during childhood. But if our brains are able to develop healthily, we should move out of it during adolescence. See the Study Guide for more about human developmental stages.