new book Who Are We?
Is it possible that Lehigh University professor emeritus Nikolai Eberhardt
has found something even grander, a single theory that explains humanity, what we are, and why we are on a path to self-destruction?
, 82, has experienced a fair share of that destruction first-hand.
He came to Lehigh University's electrical engineering department in 1962 from Siemens in Germany.
was one of the last German scientists recruited by the United States government in the wake of the Sputnik scare.
But electrical engineering and physics were merely bread-winning jobs for Eberhardt
, not a passion.
"My true passion, all my life, was to understand humanity because from childhood I have seen such terrible things," Eberhardt
"My parents had to flee the horrors of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
When I was 9, the Russians took over Estonia, and we were brought over to freshly occupied Poland.
In my teenage years in Nazi Germany, I experienced World War II from the inside, which of course added to that passion."
It became clear to Eberhardt
, even at a young age, that if the human brain could produce such monstrosities, something had to be wrong with it.
found the answer not in evolution theory, or in philosophical speculation about the self - what the Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung called the "world within," or in mythological storytelling - but in his
research in robotics, during computer simulation of neural networks.
"I realized that what one should really do is avoid all this speculation, especially the belief that the 'world within' contains truth - it doesn't; that's just storytelling.
My idea is that one can avoid all that by beginning with simple neuro-mechanics," Eberhardt
separates the brain into two parts: the primitive brain, or brain stem, and the newer part, the neocortex.
The primitive brain is driven by the prime directives of survival and reproduction, while the neocortex provides intelligence, and forms a virtual model of the external world.
In early human culture, cooperation between the two brains was easy and natural, with the neocortex developing simple world models based on mythology and storytelling.
"That worked, until the neocortex feedback system began to take over, which is unnatural," Eberhardt
Over time, the neocortex kept advancing, continuously pushing technology and creating a supra-natural world, in conflict with the ancient, fixed programs of the brain stem.
The neocortex, Eberhardt
believes, is out of control.
Its once-comforting storytelling ideologies such as creation myths, heavenly intervention and guidance from some divine intelligence no longer can keep it in check.
One of the most damaging stories of all, according to Eberhardt
, arose in Renaissance Europe, with the concept of God as a "prescient watchmaker" who created us and delegated the power to us to create a new world.
"In my value system, whatever we have done and still do is our sole responsibility," he
"To wait for God to make things right is self-destructive - or immoral, if you prefer."
Yes, there is a place for morality, even religion, for bio-machines like us, Eberhardt
Far from de-humanizing us, he
really seeks to restore our humanity.
"A functional religion brings the two psychic systems back together again - most religions have at least tried to accomplish this, by encouraging compassion, condemning worldliness, inducing meditation," he
"Buddha threw away all gods and only preached self-improvement - that has the same purpose.
But it is not a God who is behind this, but the biological prime directives of the old brain that want to re-establish themselves against the overwhelming neocortical attachment to the external world."
allows for genuine religious experience, but defines it as a strictly neurobiological phenomenon.
"You feel the need to re-connect with something that is outside your neocortical world.
But it does not come from above - it comes from below.
Ritual helps stimulate this, especially in combination with chanting and singing.
It has a very positive result," Eberhardt
"But you have to throw away that storytelling concept that's behind it.
You have to understand what it is, tuning yourself to the goodness that is in you."
The old brain is not only the source of religion, Eberhardt
maintains, but also the seat for the archetypes described by Jung.
"But our neocortical storytelling part can amplify one archetype at the expense of the others," Eberhardt
"Hitler was possessed by the hero archetype, in addition to being a very gifted storyteller - a highly destructive combination."
draws a great deal from Jung's writings, there are important differences between the two.
Where Jung speaks about the mind and the psyche, Eberhardt
speaks of the brain and neural networks.
So is Eberhardt
a prophet of certain doom?
Not necessarily - call him cautiously optimistic.
"Since the neocortex is a learning organ, this human predicament can be objectively understood, and corrective action is possible," he