Beatrix Hamburg, David Hamburg

Learning to Live Together, Part I

VTR Date: June 9, 2004

Beatrix and David Hamburg discuss the threats humans pose to each other.


GUESTS: Beatrix A. Hamburg, M.D.
and David A. Hamburg, M.D.
VTR: 6/9/04

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guests today are friends and scholars who firmly believe that if we mortals can be taught to hate and then to die in violent conflict, one with the other, generation after generation, we can learn to live together, too.

That is the title of the incisive new study just published by Oxford University Press, “Learning to Live Together”, by medical doctors David A. Hamburg, President Emeritus of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Beatrix A. Hamburg, immediate past President of the William T. Grant Foundation.

The Hamburgs are now Co-Directors, Social Medicine and Public Policy at Cornell Medical College. Now they write that “The centuries of history and millennia of pre-history indicate the profound and pervasive nature of human slaughter. That from small societies to vast nations, from one era to another, we see human’s inhumanity and cruelty to each other.”

And they add, “Indeed, the threat to human survival does not come from predators or dangerous forces of nature, but from other humans.”

Of course, we well know that we have the ability now, not only to destroy all those we perceive as our most immediate enemies, but all of mankind as well. So what then, I would ask my friends Betty and David Hamburg, leads them even to dream that we will, instead, learn to live together? David, what leads you to this impossible dream?

DAVD A. HAMBURG: Well, first we have a sense of urgency that we hope will be contagious and we see signs … pockets here and there around the world of a similar sense of urgency. Why? The capacity to destroy is greater than ever.

Just to take an example, leaving aside weapons of mass destruction which you can’t … but leaving them aside, the world is covered wall-to-wall with so-called small arms and light weapons. Which means like all kinds of machine guns and mortars and so on. In effect weapons of mass destruction, too, but they haven’t been even counted as on the list for proliferation. So that’s one thing. We’re covered wall-to-wall; all over the world with terrifically damaging weapons in the hands of all kinds of irresponsible people … people … individuals, groups and nation-states.

In addition to that, the capacity to incite to violence is greater than ever. We see … we saw what simple hate radio did in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Everybody has radios now. There is no part of Africa so remote that there aren’t plenty of radios to hear the hate messages, if that’s what comes out.

And satellite television and the Internet which has lots of hate sites and lots of sites that tell you how to make weapons. So that the capacity to destroy is greater than ever, the capacity to incite violence is greater than ever and you put those two things together and we have to get that human intellect and ingenuity and dedication that got us to where we are through millennia of adversity, now focused at last on this problem.

This is the century in which we’ve got to get a handle on the problem of war and genocide or there’s a very good chance that in the next century there won’t be much, if any humanity left.

HEFFNER: But you know, Betty, I asked the two of you what leads to …


HEFFNER: … what is obviously your optimism and David paints a picture that is grimmer than ever before.

BEATRIX HAMBURG: Well, he’s explaining that, as rational creatures we will come to realize that we have to do it. But I like to look at it from another human perspective. I think that we all agree that there is a biological basis for aggression. That’s established.

But it’s equally true that there’s a biological basis for a pro-social behavior. And for learning to live together. And, in fact, the, the world in which the behavior patterns were adaptive was a world in which … if we … if we’re thinking of hunter/gatherers … where a genome was being created … where they needed both. They needed both. There were out-groups of maybe some human species and out-groups of other species, other primates, other, you know, mammals … big cats, that kind of thing.

So the aggression was needed and used. But human beings are relatively small, relatively weak and the thing that really enabled the species … Homo sapiens to become the most successful species on the planet was the ability to work together in groups. And to pool their resources, to pool their intelligences from the big brains and in … think back to the hunter/gatherer days that was the real value. And so those genes, which were so important in those days, have been conserved, they have been selected, they’ve been conserved.

And over time the aggressive part of that has had much more prominence other than within small groups … the family groups. Small towns within religious groups, fraternal groups and that kind of thing. But those genes are there and they’re still be utilized, but disproportionately, they’re underutilized.

And so I’ve come to the conclusion that modern mankind is obsolete and that the disproportionate emphasis in using the genetic potential … I think that we all know … the evidence is clear … that biology is not destiny. What a gene gives you is a reaction range and that’s always been the case and it’s still the case.

HEFFNER: But it seems to me that in a sense you’re almost saying you find optimism in the notion that biology is destiny only we have not understood what our biology …

BEATRIX HAMBURG: No, no, I’m not saying it’s destiny.

HEFFNER: … can present us.

BEATRIX HAMBURG: I’m saying it’s not destiny.

HEFFNER: No, I know.

BEATRIX HAMBURG: … It’s potential. Well, there’s a big difference. It is potential and we have not utilized that potential.

HEFFNER: And you’re saying … we can learn to live together … we can use that …


DAVID HAMBURG: Yeah, that’s …

BEATRIX HAMBURG: We, we absolutely … if we didn’t have that genetic potential, if it hadn’t been so important in our early history, when the genes were being selected and conserved, if it hadn’t had the major importance that it had, we wouldn’t have that recourse.

But it’s there and it’s prominent and it is being utilized … underutilized, but utilized. And, you know, David was talking about the media, the exhortations to, to violence. And the games, you know, the computer games, you know, “Mortal Kombat”, etc. The media, again, is an unused potential.

HEFFNER: For the other … going about it the other way.

BEATRIX HAMBURG: Absolutely. And I had the occasion to get in touch with the people at Annenberg School of, you know, Communications and you recall that we, we actually met across this table once before, when I had written a book on violence in the American schools. And the evidence … and in the course of writing that … the evidence of the media impact on the expression of violence was, was powerful.

And then when I was thinking about it, I got in touch with the Annenberg people and I said, “What about the studies for the impact of pro-social behavior?” Well, there are thousands and thousands of studies on the impacts of the aggressive behavior, but there were less than a dozen for the pro-social.

But one of the things that was interesting, and it still needs to be pursued, is that when studied in, you know, systematic ways, it looks as though the impact of the pro-social was more powerful than the impact of the aggressive.

HEFFNER: But the pro-social I think and, and David’s involvement with efforts to strengthen our institutions of cooperation, international cooperation, would indicate this, there doesn’t seem to be a pay-off there. There may be in your terms and in the terms that the two of you would pursue. But what is there in our society today, except as you would say, ultimate survival, and it’s a funny kind of exception … that would indicate that we’re going to make use of these instruments for pro-social …

DAVID HAMBURG: Well, Dick, I don’t know whether we’ll make use of it. I don’t know whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic. We are capable of it, but we may miss the chance. What Betty and I are fundamentally saying is that largely what got us here through the long course of evolution was our capacity to learn, particularly to learn in cohesive groups with a mutual aid ethic. That was very fundamental an adaptation. And those capacities can be turned to learning to live together. Instead of being focused so heavily on the in group, out group distinctions which made invidious assumptions about the out-group and prepares to hate or even to kill the out-group.

We don’t have to go that way, we can go the other way. I don’t know if we will. But in terms of the … it is interesting because the last time we talked about these larger institutions of cooperation as you characterized them very well, there have been some very good things happening.

There’s a kind of a prevention movement that’s been generating considerable steam in the past five years. And there are a number of concrete things happening in, in the European Union, in the United Nations and a number of governments, particularly in Europe and in Canada. A number of important non-governmental organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations at the Woodrow Wilson Center for National Scholars in Washington. And network universities like Harvard, Stanford and Columbia and some in Europe.

I’m saying that in, in governments, in non-governmental institutions, in inter-governmental institutions, institutions of potential cooperation, there’s a great deal of concern. Partly the concern has to do with the killing that’s going on right now in Iraq and Sudan and other places. But there is, there are a lot of bright people thinking about this. There are positions being created, divisions within, say, the European Union and, and the UN being created that will, for the first time, have people thinking full time.

Do you realize until now the UN has not a person, anywhere in the world thinking full time about prevention. Kofi Anan has just designated such a person to be appointed in the next few weeks. It’s astonishing. But there’s no reason why there can’t be one or a hundred or a thousand in the UN. And so, too, in the European Union. The European Union is emphasized because there’s both a moral commitment growing in those countries and, and the intellectual capacity, the technical capacity and plenty of money to implement prevention measures if they care to do so.

BEATRIX HAMBURG: Well, let’s talk about the European Union now. For most of the prior century we … you know, we’re now in a new century … Europe was the bloodiest continent on the face of the earth.

There were wars going on all the time. And yet something has propelled them to form a European Union. I think that a while back if anyone had said, you know, “I really think that people will move towards some ways of working together. Some nay-sayers might have said “Never. Look at what’s been happening.”

But they did move that way. When the Cold War was, was going on, it was the negativity … that it was mutually assured destruction. But they worked together. They had hot lines, they had ways to prevent these bombs from accidentally going off and they, they talked.

There was a time when Eleanor Roosevelt talked about “We have to address the whole issue of and adopt some codes for human rights. For respect. For empathy for other people. For working together as one species.” And she was laughed at. Nobody thought that would happen. And so I think if you just look historically, I initially started by looking at an evolutionary perspective. But …


BEATRIX HAMBURG: … this moving now … historically we are making moves. We are making changes, we have the European Union, we have an African Union. We have the UN and if you just take now current events … on this timeline, George W. Bush had to move to working together. It was not his inclination initially. And he said so, that, you know, he was going to have a pre-emptive war and he was going to do it alone. Or with his own coalition. So I think that we are moving in this direction. And I don’t believe, and we don’t state in the book that it’s going to happen overnight.

HEFFNER: No, you don’t.

BEATRIX HAMBURG: And I, and I don’t think it is. On the other hand, these curricula have been adopted very widely. Here right in the city of New York there is a program that’s in about 120 schools on conflict resolution; that has been adopted in Europe and all over.

HEFFNER: Betty, when, when you … let’s take an expression “no more killing fields” …

BEATRIX HAMBURG: Yeah, I’ve heard that.

HEFFNER: [Laughter] You’ve heard that … in David’s book. What has moved Europe and it’s such a interesting point that you make, that you think of the greatest killing field of all, for so long …


HEFFNER: Was Europe.


HEFFNER: And now we find something having changed.


HEFFNER: What was it? Enlightenment?

BEATRIX HAMBURG: I think … no … I think that there’s another way in which we learn and there’s a whole cognitive field … sciences. But I really think that one important way that we learn that’s not in any of the descriptions of the cognitive scientists, is learning by disaster. And I think that the Holocaust was so terrible, and it wasn’t the first Holocaust, there had been …

HEFFNER: Hardly.

BEATRIX HAMBURG: Yeah. Right. But I think that the enormity of it, the, the images of it, the media, you know, all of these that … it was a learning by disaster. And I think that it was not only the Jews who said, “Never again.” I think it was Europe who said, “Never again.” And one interesting outgrowth, of course, quite specific to Germany was that they began an education for, for tolerance, respect and to raise a new generation and generations which would never do this again.

HEFFNER: I want to …

DAVID HAMBURG: That was West Germany.


BEATRIX HAMBURG: West Germany. It was West Germany.

HEFFNER: But I want, I want to ask this question; I want to ask it of David … do you feel that the people who have moved, the non-governmental agencies, the UN now, moving in the direction that you want them to move in, in terms of teaching us to survive … learning to live together. Do you find that they are the same people who are doing these things that you would have expected, or that you are … you have literally recruited other people … opened other eyes … that we are learning.

DAVID HAMBURG: I think we are. I think there’s a slow but significant recruitment into the company of those who are seeking ways to teach our children how to grow up in … on an axis of pro-social behavior. You see it …

HEFFNER: Recruitment? By whom and of whom?

DAVID HAMBURG: Well, people like us. I mean we go around, we’ve gone all over Europe and the United States, and, and universities and government ministries, foreign ministries, defense ministries, development ministries; various segments of the UN, prominent NGOs (non-governmental organizations). We’re not the only ones, but there are there are, there are a good many others. Betty mentioned here in New York there’s some activity in the schools.

Martin Deutsch, a professor at Columbia University has been a pioneer in theory and experiment on conflict resolution and then with colleagues on the application of that in the New York schools. That has been a very important development. I hesitate to say there are a small number of us, undoubtedly a larger number than I know and indeed, everywhere we go people sort of react, you know, as if to say, “Well, that’s kind of been in the back of my mind, but I haven’t got it into focus. Now I begin to get it into focus, what can I do?”

There is a sense that, that the situation is so dangerous and, and getting more so all the time, that we really ought to bring our capacities to bear on it. And so we tried to sketch out from the existing research as far as we can, what you could do. If you want to go that route.

If you want to the route of pro-social behavior, of mutual accommodation, of social tolerance, how do you do that? And so we start with pre-school children and we do some things about elementary schools and things about, about high schools and things about colleges and universities and graduate schools. In addition we throw in some things about religious education and education and community organizations and the use of the Internet and the potential of the media.

What we’re saying in effect is that the situation is getting to be grave enough in the course of this century that we, as human beings, need to look at all the institutions that have a powerful shaping influence on what children and adolescents believe and feel about other groups. What shapes them to think badly or well of other groups. What shapes them to think they might find other groups interesting, compatible. How do they learn the skills of, of coming to terms with other groups?

If you want to go that way, there are concrete things that can be done, many of which are supported by research to a certain extent. Much less than we would wish, but in a few of the democracies there’s been a very serious effort to find out “Yes” if you want to bring up pro-social children and adolescents … here are some paths that will lead you in that direction. And I think we’re seeing at least some migration in the education community, the scientific community and, and to a modest extent in the political community.

Well, I shouldn’t say that. I’d say in Europe and Japan and Canada, to a considerable extent in the political community interest in this approach.

HEFFNER: And they think of it in terms of “conflict resolution”.

BEATRIX HAMBURG: Well, I also want to add a personal … at a more personal level … I think that a lot of the people that you’ve been talking about are policy makers and are people who mold opinions at a higher level. But coming back to the book I did, I think that when it began to be apparent to the American public that children were massacring their school mates …


BEATRIX HAMBURG: … and that it wasn’t happening in the ghettos, it was happening in Springfield, Washington where … and it was happening in, in Columbine that was viewed as a wonderful, model community for affluent people. It was happening in Pearl, Mississippi which was a very religious community. It was happening all over. And you know, it’s continuing to happen.

And I think that’s when the schools and the parents who make a lot of the decisions about what is and what isn’t going to be in their schools are demanding that we begin to do things. And, you know what … I went around and I talked to a lot of the people, especially the young people.

The young people were spontaneously getting together and saying, “Something has gone badly wrong in our school. What can we do about it? I’m going to sit down next to the people who look isolated and lonely, etc., etc.,” and so that I believe there was a grass-roots, grounds-up movement as well as this more, you know, top-down. And that with this convergence I think that it is really making a difference.

HEFFNER: Has that happened in the schools of Europe as well?

BEATRIX HAMBURG: Yes. It’s happened, surprisingly after I wrote that book, I got calls from all over the world … I got as many calls from out of the U.S. as within [laughter] … and …

DAVID HAMBURG: Interestingly … a lot from Japan.

BEATRIX HAMBURG: And that was what I was just going to mention. Very interesting. Because I said, “Oh, I’m surprised that you’re interested in this” because I thought that the Japanese culture was to commit suicide, not to harm others. And he said, “No, we have a very big problem and a part of the suicides are the bullying and the aggressions that are being perpetrated on kids. But they also are harming other children. And so the international interest …


BEATRIX HAMBURG: In Norway had a national movement to stop the bullying and the violence in, in the schools in Norway. And, and I think that it’s this combination of it hitting home quite personally at the school level. And I think that the other thing is that the schools have learned is that when you change the school environment, you change the classroom environment, that there’s enhanced learning and that the academics improve as well.

DAVID HAMBURG: Bear in mind, we’re saying there’s a basis for hope, but we’re not assuming that it’s actually going to happen. We’re saying if you want to go in …

BEATRIX HAMBURG: Or any time soon.

DAVID HAMBURG: … the direction of hope, we offer some guidance in this book.


HEFFNER: That we can learn to live together.


HEFFNER: And thank you both for joining me together on The Open Mind, Drs. Hamburg.

BEATRIX HAMBURG: Thank you. It’s a pleasure

DAVID HAMBURG: Thank you for having us.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.