The point of departure for this essay is a comment an e-mail correspondent of mine recently sent me about the German philosopher, Nietzsche. According to this comment, Nietzsche believes human nature is just a euphemism for inertia, cultural conditioning, and what we are before we make something of ourselves. A few exceptional humans are the creators, who, having subjected themselves to prevailing norms, then break with them and explore new territory, thus “raising themselves above the all-too-human mass”.
I start out with a bad taste in my mouth because of Nietzsche’s association with Nazi ideology, but my correspondent assures me he really is a humanist at heart, and that many of his ideas are important and worth considering. All right, give the devil his due, I guess Herr N, like almost everyone else, has some good in him. But I still have a bone to pick about the idea that human nature is something we have to overcome, extirpate, and replace with something better.
Humans are like other animals in just about every significant physical attribute. What distinguishes us is not the structure of our cells, not the way our metabolism works, and certainly not the way we are born, live, and die. What distinguishes us is the fact that we are programmed even before we are born to learn the language and culture of our family and peers. Other animals have traces of these capacities but we are the only species to have taken language and culture and create out of them a new form of evolution, social as opposed to biological. We are the only animals to create a new form of life, namely ideas, the creatures of the mind, mental things that spawn and proliferate according to much the same evolutionary principles as biological organisms do–except that ideas evolve on a very much accelerated time scale. We are, as far as we know, the only animals to establish self-conscious volition as a driving force behind evolution. And that makes us special.
Several of my earlier essays have examined how these peculiarly human qualities evolved, and how they work in practice. To sum up: our basic human nature was forged during the dawn of the evolution of our species, starting with that interesting period several million years ago when our hominid ancestors became a different species from their progenitors, who probably resembled contemporary chimpanzees. We can infer that those ancestors were already social animals, organized in small bands. Within the band social relations were probably not very different from those observed for chimpanzees living in the wild today. Male dominance, hierarchies within each sex, males seeking to fertilize as many females as possible, with the dominant males getting the biggest share. Externally, the typical reaction to contact with another band was hostility, often accompanied by attempts to kill the outsider males.
“Ugh,” says the average uninformed observer when first confronting this picture of our roots. “How awful. Thank God I live in a civilized society!” Well, I suppose this reaction is natural enough, but we had to come from somewhere. If we were descended from antelopes we would in all probability still be antelopes, living in daily fear of being consumed by cheetahs. But we were fortunate in having ancestors situated in a place and at a time that favored our evolving into sapienthood. Parts of the tropical rain forest our chimplike ancestors inhabited dried up and turned into grasslands. Our ancestors managed to adapt and find a new ecological niche. In the process physical changes occurred, over tens of thousands of generations, that made possible the eventual development of vocal organs and new wiring patterns in the brain. Speech became possible. These and other changes in our ancestral physiology changed the ways in which we obtained food, avoided predators, and organized ourselves socially. We were off on a new kind of evolutionary track.
Progress was painfully slow until quite recently. The hominid forebears of homo sapiens developed skills at toolmaking, and related methods of hunting and gathering, but probably did not have our capacity for speech and the capacity for abstract thought that came with it. Cro-Magnon man, probably the first genuinely sapient hominid to appear, was as far as we know the first truly talking, thinking, wondering animal. True to the tribal nature of his forebears, he turned on his cousins, the various subsets of homo erectus that still survived, and wiped them out. ( His descendants may or may not have assimiliated a little genetic material from the losers’ females; we don’t know). Then he proceeded to turn on other tribes of his own species and wipe them out too, or try to. The principle of survival of the fittest biological organism was transformed into the principle of survival of the fittest social organization, and off we went on an evolutionary track that rapidly brought us to where we are today.
An aside to feminist readers: I make no apology for using the “he” word in the preceding paragraph, as it was probably almost always the male who did the killing in our paleolithic past. The women played important roles too, but they were different. I have dealt with this touchy subject in my essay, “The Eternal Woman”.
Everything changed when we started growing food instead of gathering it, and raising domestic animals instead of hunting wild ones. Population started to increase, and has continued an irregular pattern of growth until the present. Technology drove social change; life became more complex and social organizations grew larger. As the size of the largest social units increased, the instinctive sense of altruism which we brought with us from our band-sized ancestors expanded too. First the tribe, then the community, and then the nation-state commanded our loyalties. (See my essay, “The Evolution of Altruism”.) At first it was proper to kill someone from the tribe across the river; then it wasn’t any more, but it was all right to kill someone from another ethnic or linguistic or confessional group. Then that was no longer acceptable but it was just fine to kill soldiers of a country with which your country was at war. The more evolved nations are just now beginning to emerge from that penultimate state into one where it is no longer acceptable to kill anyone, anyone at all. But still, we all retain a stronger sense of altruism toward our own family than towards mere neighbors; and toward our neighbors than toward people farther away; and toward everyone who shares our nationality than towards “foreigners”. Is that bad?
No, in my opinion that is not bad at all. We had to start from someplace. You don’t take a six-year old and send him to postgraduate school at MIT. When you build a skyscraper you don’t start with the top floor. Every one of us has layers of altruism imbedded within his psyche, starting with the “hard-wired” business of loving your mama and by extension the other members of your immediate family, and going on up through the more complex, culture-imposed levels of altruism. This layering of altruistic concepts is what makes possible the sense of global altruism that we can see beginning to emerge in human consciousness: the belief that we inhabit “one world”, that all of us belong to one enormous tribe that is humanity as a whole. For the humanist this becomes an expression of the most deeply held and cherished belief. But that same humanist often decries the continued persistence of tribal, confessional, and regional impulses as base, unworthy, and even evil. They are not. They constitute essential building blocks for the sense of global altruism that is only now becoming visible. The true humanist should regard those still mired in less evolved levels of altruism as students in need of instruction rather than as renegades who need to be punished.
This “layering” process involved a lot more than just our sense of altruism. Western classical music, Islamic theology, medical doctrine, taxonomy, the abstract sciences like mathematics and physics and astronomy, and just about every other category of human knowledge, all today are the result of layers upon layers of innovative thought followed by assimilation followed by general acceptance followed by the introduction of new innovative thought. In some areas of human thought these cycles have taken a long time to complete; these days they are mostly based on a generational cycle. In a few cases, particularly in contemporary Western countries, the changes occur even more rapidly.
The layering that has occured with regard to that most basic of all human instincts, the sex drive, falls into a special category. Throughout human history, one society after another has erected elaborate social constraints to control and channel the instincts governing sexual behavior which we inherited from our chimplike ancestors. Most social systems have tried to keep women monogamous, and their mates committed to help raising the children. Some attach high value to preventing females from copulating until they are properly married, ie the virginity complex. (Cf. my essay, “The High Price of Virginity”). Others have tried, with indifferent success, to keep husbands from playing around on the side as well. Probably this effort to control our primitive sex drives has become as much a part of human nature as the language learning instinct. That is, if the sex drive itself has always been with us, even long before our ancestors became human, then later on a compulsion to control it in the interest of group solidarity may well have been incorporated into our inherited baggage. This change may have occurred during the long period when we were evolving out of homo erectus into homo sapiens, ie during the same period when we acquired our instinct for language acquisition. After all, the infant human is not “hard-wired” just for language; it soaks up its peer-group’s musical patterns, mores, and ethical standards at much the same time and in much the same way that it acquires its native language. (See my essay, “Humanist Ethics”).
I cannot prove it, but I strongly suspect that the tension between our sex drive and our culturally-dictated constraints against giving that drive free rein has constituted a major force for our development of increasingly complex and sophisticated cultures. I suspect that deep within the human psyche there is a strong underlying relationship between the urge to procreate (which is after all common to both sexes) and the urge to create. If I am even a little right on this point, then the human urge to procreate can readily be reprogrammed into a creative impulse. After all, procreation is the way all animals “make a difference” and thereby influence the future. Humans with their extraordinary mental powers have options other animals do not have to “make a difference”. In addition to parenting, there is teaching, writing, inventing, exploring–the list goes on and on. Why not assume that all these latter activities are in a very broad sense derived from that urge to “make a difference”, which in its most basic animal form is expressed through the sex drive. If this assumption is valid, it follows that all the creative thinking, all the invention, all the innovation made by individual humans since the dawn of our species can be construed as somehow arising out of the procreative instinct.
(Note: I am working on a separate essay examining this relationship between the sex drive and creativity, which I hope to post in the next update).
Altruism and killing, creativity and sex, it seems to me that our noblest attributes are intimately tied to our basest instincts. The former arise from the latter as the flower arises from the dung heap. This layering, this taking basic human nature and adding to it, over and over, is what has brought our species to its present estate. Who is to say that the time has now come when we must root out and extirpate the very foundations of our success, if we are to progress further, out of our present problems into new ones? I would argue rather that we need to keep on adding new layers, while regarding the conditions through which we have already passed with pride rather than guilt. Scrap Nietzsche. Human nature is emphatically not “…just a euphemism for inertia, cultural conditioning, and what we are before we make something of ourselves.” It consists of the basic building blocks of what we are. We had to start somewhere. The task ahead is to improve on what we are, not knock down the whole structure and start over.
Nietzsche is not all wrong, however, when he says that progress is achieved mostly by a few exceptional humans who, having subjected themselves to prevailing norms, then break with them and explore new territory. Beethoven took the formal musical patterns of his day and broke the mold, establishing new patterns that dominated the romantic classical music of the rest of the nineteenth century. Nietzsche himself broke a few molds, but some of the new patterns he helped create were infelicitous in the extreme, establishing as they did a philosophical basis for Nazi Germany’s foolish notions about Aryan superiority.
There is another half of the story here, that as far as I know Herr Nietzsche doesn’t cover. The creative genius cannot exist in a vacuum; there must also be a climate of peer group opinion that is receptive to change. When the environment is stable, human society tends to rock along; the creative impulse is unwelcome and may even be socially punished. This probably was the situation during much of the paleolithic for most of the scattered tribes of humans that thinly dotted the more favored parts of the earth. The neolithic ushered in a period of unrest that reversed the former equilibrium, and increased public receptivity to individuals who claimed to provide solutions to the turmoil of the times. The Second Millenium BC was a period of exceptional confusion and mayhem, with tribes wandering around clobbering each other as never before, thanks in part to the introduction of new metals and more efficient methods of waging war. It is no accident that this was also a period, as recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible and elsewhere, when messiahs flourished. If you felt creative and thought you could lead your people out of the current mess, many tended to follow you.
The Second Millenium AD has also been a pretty busy period in the history of human civilization, particularly in the West, and more often than not the episodes marking the turning points have been ugly. But we have learned a lot during this period, and messiahs now attract less than a majority following. The prevailing mood is one of scepticism rather than any overt search for a magical formula ending contemporary confusion.
Nevertheless, in these uncertain times it is especially important that creative individuals appear on the scene who are capable of articulating new ways of coping with our emerging social, political and economic problems. To be credible to their peers they must have their feet firmly planted on the traditions from which our present society grew. You cannot add a new layer to nothing, and we are talking here about nothing less than a new layer of understanding and ethics, a new mindset or global view that can be grafted on to what our western society was using when it started out on this busy century.
There are plenty of competitors seeking to lead the way to a new global synthesis, a universal way of looking at life that is at one and the same time ideological, religious, and philosophical. There is a real competition of concepts in this arena, and a battle royal is raging as to which ones will come out ahead. Progressive humanism is one of the late-comers, and it is still only a small voice in the wilderness. But who knows, perhaps it will catch on. It has a singular advantage over many of its competitors: it is optimistic about the future, and this optimism is based four-square on a benign view of the past. Our species had brutal beginnings, to be sure, but it has emerged gloriously from them, and is still acquiring new layers, new attributes of greatness. The progressive humanist is thus unencumbered by guilt and shame. Our so-called “baser instincts” can be seen for what they are, the foundation blocks upon which the entire human edifice, past, present and future, is based. If you have shucked off the old superstitions and are looking around for a new world view to replace them, which do you prefer, one that leaves you feeling confident and upbeat, or one that lays a heavy burden of sin, guilt and shame on you from the outset?
Win, lose, or draw, the progressive humanist is engaged in the most important game in town, the competition to determine the world view that all humanity is seeking. Personally, I would rather be a small player in this game, than a bigger one somewhere else.