The Conundrum of Human Nature
Eating "natural" foods. Living according to "natural rhythms." "Acting natural." These are all euphemisms that seem to imply that we ought to depend more upon processes that have been handed down to us by our biological heritage and are somehow better for us than "man-made" stuff. In the past, we did things differently and were less dependent upon manufactured goods, usually because we had to. The so-called Counter Culture of the 1960s and 1970s made this traditionalism the very basis for the good life, a reaction to the industrial and commercial world that sees everything in terms of technology and markets—and that was seen to be making us "less human."
"Human Nature" has always been a bit of a mystery. A couple of millennia ago, the Big Questions related to right and wrong—how one was supposed to live among others to obtain the most good for the most people. (Our people, anyway. The rules didn’t always apply to treatment of people not in our family, clan, or country.) Individual desires or impulses (from human nature?) often had to be suppressed for the sake of the community. Codes of conduct were passed on through the generations, culminating in laws that were enforced by secular rulers and/or churches. Today, however, the Big Questions often relate more to whether individual desires or impulses come from one’s genetic makeup (that is, nature) or whether they have been merely conditioned by culture and society (homosexuality, for example). Codes of conduct were now open to question and interpretation.
A pertinent example is our relationship to other species. The mainstream culture sees lower animals as existing pretty much solely for our benefit. In past ages when we competed directly with other species for survival, this was a reasonable point of view. Eat or be eaten was a fact of life. Since protein is required for continued life, eating other animals could give us that protein. A different point of view sees the various species as equally valuable in the greater scheme of things. There’s nobody who can tell us which—or if either—is really true. Is Human Nature a standard, or is it a sometimes unfortunate condition that we are saddled with and must strive to overcome?
Pinning down just what is human nature and what to do with it has been a major conundrum for a long time.
We seem to be caught between seeing ourselves as the result of continuing evolution, so that our behavior is explainable if not always excusable, and alternatively as the epitome of evolution, the apex of the "natural order," occupying a central place in the Divine Design. This epitome explanation often is expressed in biblical terms, a description compiled over several millennia before "science" became the premier arbiter of Truth.
Jaron Lanier, one of the scientists responsible for the technology known as "virtual reality," feels that the computer has inspired a point of view that sees the human mind as no more than a very complicated computer. Since computer technology has been advancing at exponential rates, some see it as potentially developing even beyond our own consciousness. While that development threatens some people, Lanier says that the real threat is in what it does to our concept of humanity—reducing us to mere algorithms [the coded statements that make up a computer program.] It disregards and discounts ideas of spirit and morals.
In turn, our ideas of how the world works are contaminated by this amoral view. Whatever works is good. The bad ideas will be weeded out because they simply do not work in the long run. A notable example is the economic principle that a free market is the best judge of what is valuable. That puts us back into the jungle, where each person is expected to protect himself or herself from "natural" dangers. The concept of evolution may help explain how we got to where and who we are today, but it does not claim that the process is better than anything else we might think of.
Paradoxically, today in our society many of the same people who claim the superiority of the free market for judging the worth of ideas, products or people, are the same people who protest that we are losing our "family values." These neoconservatives seem to want a world secure in traditional social values, but that, even so, allow people to succeed or fail in a dog-eat-dog commercial world. Or those who protest the sanctity of life in condemning abortion and stem cell research, but who are ready to take the lives of people in other countries in the name of freedom—essentially, just because we can.
Part of that paradox (that conundrum) lies in what Lanier calls the "circle of empathy." By this circle he refers to those beings that are included in how we think of "Us." Our family. Our community. Our state. Our country. Our species. Those whom we want to protect, whom we relate to. He, for example, considers cephalopods—squids, octopi, cuttlefish, etc.—as being an advanced form of life, with remarkable intelligence and physical attributes. "They have this tentacle-eye coordination that’s, in a way, more impressive than our hand-eye coordination. They have wonderful brains and sensory systems. They’re really bright. What they lack is childhood. They’re abandoned by their parents at birth. Without childhoods, without nurturing, they can’t develop cultures. . . . if they had childhoods, I’m sure they’d be running the planet." Cephalopods are clearly inside his circle of empathy. There is no consensus among most of the rest of us of where to draw that circle.
It’s civilization that has offered us the most enduring impetus toward expanding our circle of empathy. Living in cities requires tolerance and a willingness to compromise on what we consider valuable. Cities are almost by definition collections of diverse individuals. Rules and laws are virtually necessary for city living. In the modern world, a global economy requires commonly held values among people separated by culture and physical distance. This is the city expanded, dependent upon mutual respect and compromise.
There’s the conundrum again. Global commerce, uninhibited by anything more than a free market mentality, can exploit the less powerful. Nature, including human nature, is cruel. "Survival of the fittest" takes no prisoners. But just because the process is natural doesn’t mean it’s what we need to thrive as a species.
Within the human mind, at least, also lurks that subversive impulse, the circle of empathy. Where we draw the line between "them" and "us" can be our Berlin Wall, or it can be the scrimmage line. Human nature may be what we each are given to start. At least part of that startup package is a recognition that we’re not finished, here at the starting line. We can sometimes see distant consequences and, most importantly, we can feel the circle yield to our better judgment.
Lanier writes, "The clan society was the first construct to counter the general cruelty of nature. The clan created a little bubble within which there was mutual kindness, or at least tolerance, even for those at the bottom of the pecking order."
The corporation, like the computer, is soul-less. They are both tools. Both depend upon the creativity of human minds as much as upon human ambition. That creativity cannot be reduced to algorithms, for it springs from something in us that is beyond rationality. To give over our destiny to our tools would be as self-defeating as to abandon our fates to the jungle beasts, themselves amoral, uncaring—and hungry.
The conundrum can be solved only by compassion. And that’s also a gift—perhaps the greatest gift—of human nature.
Donald Skiff, May 13, 2005