Poll of a Billion Monkeys

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Nature of We Human Animals, Strange As It Be

This post is a response to a speech written by Neil Postman, in which he is offering advice to the congregation on how best to live their lives. For instructional purposes, he describes the civilizations of the Visigoths, who were brutal marauders, and the Athenians, who were artistic, democratic, and noble. Naturally, he sides with the Athenians.

From what I can tell, Neil Postman has managed to isolate natural and instinctive tendencies within human beings and separate them from characteristics that were derived through social evolution and the correspondingly advanced senses of empathy and passion. He entitled the former Visigoth and the latter Athenian, after two ancient societies that largely embodied these characteristics. He then proceeded to cast one in a particularly negative light, and the other in a particularly positive light; a stark contrast which is valuable for the sake of rhetoric but not necessarily profound or enlightening in any worthwhile sense.

Human beings are animals; we did not evolve from animals to some sort of privileged level of existence, nor were we created above animals by a cosmic deity. We simply are animals, be it in terms of genetics, biology, or ancestry. Like all creatures that inhabit our planet, we evolved over the course of billions of years through a series of random mutations within a nonrandom system of natural selection. We, like all of our co-inhabitants, are direct ancestors of the winners of the ultimate battle of survival. Fortunately for many of the extant species on this Earth, survival is a game that can be mastered through many different strategies.

Some animals, for instance, excel at avoiding the detection of predators through natural camouflage or evasion techniques; others take the ethos of ‘keeping their enemies close’ to the extreme and quite literally take up residence on a potential predator through the formation of a parasitic attachment; and still others rely on brute strength and brawn. The human animal, on the other hand, survived in an entirely different way; through the arguably unique formation of intelligence and the capacity for abstract thought. We learned how to outsmart both predator and prey; construct tools to increase efficiency; and establish agricultural skills for the purposes of cultivating food. These, among many other similar advancements, allowed us to formulate cities and towns and abandon the nomadic wanderings of our ancestors and close genetic relatives. Such a drastic change in environment, from small, nomadic communities to large, stable cities, necessitated an equally drastic shift in the social interactions between fellow human beings. Language and morals developed, along with rules of law, systems of government, and codes of polite conduct. Complex emotions such as empathy, friendship, and passion were given titles and definitions. Thus began the social evolution of human beings.

Think of it as an incredibly large and complex wedding cake. The chef begins with the base, which is boring and relatively bland. This base is the animal and instinctive nature of humanity. The chef proceeds to add layer upon layer of different colored and flavored frostings and decorations until the underlying structure of the cake can only be revealed through the means of a knife. These decorations represent social evolution. The combination of the two completes the wedding cake, which would cease to be such in the absence of either of the essential elements. A plain cake is too boring and bland, and the frosting and decorations are powerless to hold themselves in place without an underlying structure. A random poll of the guests at the wedding, however, would undoubtedly result in an overwhelming majority favoring the complex flavors and aesthetic appeal of the frosting; very few would proclaim the blandest portion as their favorite.

Such is the nature of the perceptions of the underlying qualities of our natural instincts as compared to our socially evolved systems of language, order, tradition, and expression. There exists a distinct revulsion of any outward sign of our animal heritage—one of the principal reasons, it can be argued, for the inability for many to accept evolution as scientific fact. The average human animal would rather persist in the delusion that we are better than the rest, favored above all else, due to our heightened moral sense or capacity for abstract thought. Few consider the fact, however, that our socially evolved senses are worthless and impossible in the absence of our animal nature. It may look and feel nicer, as the frosting looks and tastes better, but it is no more essential to our existence. At our core, we are simply animals—animals that have fortunately evolved incredibly complex systems of morals that allow us to coexist peacefully and happily—but animals nonetheless.

Which brings me full circle back to Postman’s speech. His general point is that certain characteristics are inherently better than others, and I certainly agree. I would much rather a poet as a neighbor than a marauding raider, a musician over a killer. Even given this fact, I still have a hard time justifying his overwhelming contempt for qualities that are, at their core, essential to human existence. I cannot help but feel that instead of denying our animal and instinctive nature outright, we should seek to understand it. After all, it is as much, if not more, a part of us as our admittedly more palatable social evolution.

I am not advocating a reversal back to an openly animalistic society in the least. I am, however, advocating an understanding of our animalistic core; I advocate asking ourselves why we feel jealous and aggressive and lustful at times, so that we can better understand how to constrain such emotions and funnel them into more productive ends. Furthermore, when most people consider our instinctive nature they only consider the worse characteristics, such as the capacity for aggression and jealousy, and neglect to consider the positive. Consider the instinctual nature of parents to protect their children to the point of committing altruistic self-sacrifice towards that end. Or our societal herding instinct, which causes us to desire the company of our fellow human animals, and forged the way for complex and advanced societies. Few would argue the nobility or utility of such acts.

Simply put, we are all Visigoths at our core; we all have instinctual reactions to situations, especially ones where the risk of serious injury or death are present. Some of the instinctual reactions are aggressive and negative, while still others can be altruistic and noble. Luckily, however, there is hope, as we also all have the ability to recognize that, while some instincts can be positive and should be encouraged, still others can be negative and should ultimately be suppressed. We can and do build atop this primitive base an evolved and sophisticated sense of morality, rule of law, tradition, and emotion. We can and do transcend our instinctual natures to ultimately reach a more peaceful and agreeable world. In essence, we can all be Visigoths and Athenians, all at the same time. Such is the nature of we human animals, strange as it may be.


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