Judith Lipton | In Her Own Words

By |2019-04-02T13:19:21-07:00March 8, 2019|

How has your background in medicine, evolutionary biology and science shaped your worldview?
My family subscribed to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from my early childhood. We lived in Hyde Park, Chicago, near the University of Chicago where my parents taught, and also near the first nuclear reactor at Stagg Field. My parents were both psychiatrists, and my father (Morris Lipton, MD/PhD) taught me how to write molecular structures on dinner table napkins before I was 8. He was someone who loved science, with almost religious fervor, and I was raised knowing chemistry and physics from childhood. I played Go with Marshall Nirenberg in the 1950s. He won the Nobel Prize in 1968 for discovering the DNA triplets. I did research on serotonin receptors and LSD at Yale (before LSD was made illegal). I was a chemistry major at Reed College, but I enjoyed quantum physics and held a license to operate the nuclear reactor at Reed. As I grew up, I maintained a commitment to science, tinctured by zoophilia, love of animals. As the Cold War became increasingly ominous, “our friend the atom” didn’t look so friendly. I was raised in perpetual fear of nuclear war in the context of scientific literacy.

What is the salience of gender in discussions and negotiations related to peace and nuclear disarmament?
I have co-authored with my husband, David Barash, four books about sex: Making Sense of Sex: The Biology of Male-Female Differences (1998); The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People (2001); Strange Bedfellows: the Surprising Connection between Sex, Evolution and Monogamy (2009) and How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories (2009). Based on my knowledge of the biology of sex differences, I would have to say that the differences are more political than biological. There is no doubt that in general, critters (like people) that make XY chromosomes, or a large number of small gametes like sperm, are more violent than critters who make XX chromosomes, encased in a small number of large gametes like eggs. Reproductive success depends on whether you are male or female. XX females have a virtual certainty of making as many babies as they choose, while XY critters may not prevail. If you are an elephant seal male, your chances of being a father could be zero, while if you are female you will likely get pregnant every season. This differential reproductive success creates a tendency for males to be more competitive with one another. Females compete as well, for social success (like “catty undermining”) or access to rich males. However, in general, males tend to be larger, more aggressive, and much more violent than females.

Whether this matters at all in discussions of peace and nuclear disarmament, I don’t know. I think Missile Envy, and phallic images of missiles are overrated. I don’t think peace depends on taking the toys away from the boys. Everyone loses in nuclear war. You or your family cannot maximize your reproductive success or be fruitful and multiply if there is a nuclear war.

I don’t know if there is any good data to the effect that males have more “psychic numbing” than females. However, as I suggested in The Caveman and the Bomb (1985, McGraw-Hill), insofar as women – unlike men – are guaranteed relatedness to their children and therefore appear to be more maternally inclined than men are paternal, it is possible that we would all benefit from less patriotism and more matriotism.

Female leaders such as Helen Caldicott and Beatrice Fihn have made enormous contributions to peace, but other females such as Phyllis Schlafly helped to create the US right wing, with its sexism and nationalism. Females can be as brainwashed as males. Hopefully, with access to information, economic equality, and reproductive rights, females should be as capable of doing the nuclear math as males. Nobody wins a nuclear war.

Can you point to a particular experience or person that has most influenced your recent book, Strength Through Peace (2018, Oxford University Press)?
There was no one particular experience or person. My husband and I were living in Costa Rica, and I was intensely happy there. Then I read Nicholas Kristoff’s article about Costa Rica in the New York Times, 2010. Kristoff’s first sentence is “Hmmm. You think it’s a coincidence? Costa Rica is one of the very few countries to have abolished its army, and it’s also arguably the happiest nation on earth.”  David and I went on a long intellectual journey trying to find out whether indeed Costa Rica is the happiest nation on earth, and concluded that happiness is elusive and not easily quantified. We gave up on happiness. What we did find is that Costa Rica is perhaps the most successful nation on earth with a moderate GDP, a modest economy, and only 4.8 million people in a country the size of West Virginia. Nicoya, a part of Guanacaste, where we lived, is a Blue Zone, a place where people, especially men, live much longer than average. Costa Rica has universal healthcare, universal access to education, and low birth mortality. We couldn’t put our fingers on happiness, but we could understand health and literacy, and the big correlation is: Costa Rica has abolished its military! They have not spent a colón on the military since 1948.

In general, my life changed in 1980, when Helen Caldicott came to Seattle and stayed with me for 5 days while she did approximately 30 talks, interviews, and meetings She transformed me. She is my mentor and role model.

How do you see the relevance of psychological studies playing out in international relations? Do you think these kinds of studies can affect decisions related to nuclear weapons?
I’m not sure whether academic psychology or psychiatry has much to do with international relations. There have been important psychologists and psychiatrists whose work is pertinent to international history. Robert J. Lifton’s lifelong studies of evil, from Hiroshima to Nazi doctors, has been of ongoing, incalculable benefit. He coined the term “psychic numbing,” as well as “exterminism,” and he dilated upon nuclearism. Eric Fromm’s studies of evil, especially The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, is important, as is Hannah Arendt’s work on the origins of totalitarianism. Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and Jerome Frank’s book Sanity and Survival in the Nuclear Age are very important. The problem is, who reads these authors now?  Who cares about nuclearism?

One very important area of contribution and collaboration between psychologists, and psychiatrists pertaining to international relations is in game theory. Daniel Ellsberg notes that the theory of deterrence was derived at Harvard from the work of Thomas Schelling, an economist. For decades the Games of Prisoner’s Dilemma and Chicken have dominated nuclear scheming.  The problem is that those games do not include provisions for psychosis, evil, and sociopathy. The mental health fields could contribute to debunking deterrence by explaining the deep fallibility of human rationality.

I am more impressed by Masha Gessen and Jill Lepore, historians who write for the New Yorker, than any contemporary psychologists. I find Stephen Pinker’s optimism nauseating. Robert Sapolsky’s work on stress is quite wonderful – but he is a contemporary evolutionary biologist.

When I think of which people helped most to form my worldview, the list would contain Albert Camus, a philosopher (The Plague and The Myth of Sisyphus); Thomas Merton, a monk (A devout meditation on Adolf Eichmann) and Paul Robeson, an opera singer and athlete. Tom Lehrer, the composer and singer, and Bertolt Brecht, The Three Penny Opera. The psychologists Karen Pryor (Don’t Shoot the Dog) and horseman, Philippe Karl, have shaped my approach to training both animals and people.

Recently Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at Yale, who along with Robert J. Lifton have edited a book and promoted the use of the 25th amendment to remove Donald Trump from office. Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists who work on the issue of dangerousness and involuntary commitment have discussed Trump’s apparent mental status and unfitness for duty. They are stepping up to the plate, using their professional knowledge to try to forestall catastrophe.

Other than that, I don’t think contemporary academic psychology has much except common sense to offer international relations: there is no way that 9 countries in the north of the planet should be able to destroy the life on earth. Not as groups or individuals.

It is a ridiculous power imbalance. As Weird Al Yankovic puts it, in Happy Birthday: “It doesn’t take a military genius to see that we’ll all be crispy critters after World War 3.”

What has been one of the most controversial discoveries in your research?
Probably the most controversial finding in our work had to do with sex, not directly with nuclear weapons. But I would say this: There is no instinct, no “hard wiring” for war. There are indeed normal mammalian instincts for sex, aggression, territoriality, competition and cooperation. There are multiple examples in animal behavior of deception and cheating. People are perfectly good mammals, with one intriguing feature: we can override the whisperings within. We don’t have visible heat cycles that make us want to copulate like crazy like cats, dogs, and horses, We can make choices. When we are angry, we can practice mindfulness. We have a huge capacity for patience and deliberation, if we learn to use our frontal lobes. We don’t have to lie, cheat, and scheme. The take home message is that while violence or aggression may be natural, nuclear war is not. But given human propensities, we had best get rid of the damn things.

If you could leave our readers with one insight, whether in connection with health, relations, peace, sexuality, choice etc., what would you like to say?
Look around you at this very moment. Where are you? What do you treasure? The scenery?  The features of a building where you sit or stand or see? Creatures, great and small, near and far. Your friends, relatives, children, grandchildren, Your food. Your body, with its breaths and heartbeats? Your future? That of others?

Now try to imagine nothingness. Extinction. Everything totally gone forever. We are trying to save life on earth. There is nothing more important.


Dr. Judith Eve Lipton is a renowned psychiatrist, author and blogger who practiced psychopharmacology and psychosomatic medicine for 30 years. She, along with her husband, David Barash, has co-authored 8 books about war, sex, human nature and nuclear weapons. She is passionate about animals, peace, and the prevention of nuclear war and believes, “There is no way that nine countries in the north of the planet should be able to destroy the life on earth. Not as groups or individuals. It is a ridiculous power imbalance.”