Back to Basics

Thinking monkey
“The brain is the most important organ you have. According to the brain.”

It’s easy for us to remember that we’re the descendants of the great philosophical traditions of culture. It’s harder for us to remember that we’re also primates; we’re animals, with animal drives.

Science, mathematics, poetry, philosophy–and all abstract thought, really–seem to be the hallmarks of humanity. But separating out these accomplishments, seeing them as somehow apart from the rest of human experience, is intellectually dishonest. We haven’t accomplished great things as a species despite our animal natures. That nature is part of who we are.

Nature Vs. Culture

In Western Culture, we have a pretty skewed idea of what “animals” are. Specifically, I’m referring the everyday cosmology of the West, not the beliefs of scientists.

Graphic (1895) Spearing Wolf on Horseback in India
Does Culture really dominate Nature?

Here in the West, we believe that animals wholly belong to Nature. Further, we believe that Nature is somehow opposed to Culture. Separated from Culture, we see nature itself is, as Tennyson wrote, “red in tooth and claw.”

By placing animal nature in opposition to human nature, we’ve assigned a brutality to that “lower” animal nature. We forget, perhaps, that these two natures (intellectual and animal) aren’t actually in conflict, but working together to make us who and what we are.

In the common Western conception, human nature has been glossed as somehow less violent than the animal nature. Sometimes, we even complain about the brutality of people’s “animal natures” while chowing down on hamburgers made from a cow killed in a mechanized slaughterhouse.

I’m not some Luddite arguing against slaughterhouses and hoping that we go back to living in roaming bands and killing our protein sources with sticks. However, we could stand to open our eyes to both sides of ourselves, and recognize that we’re not as divorced from Nature, or our own natures, as we’d like to think.

Human Nature Isn’t Peaceful

We’re not really these beautiful, peaceful, ordered cultural beings who are somehow held down, or back, by our chaotic “animal” natures. Humans are social primates who use organization and hierarchy to keep us working together.

Recognizing our “animal” nature means going beyond seeing it as some violent, bestial urge barely held in check by our “higher” nature. We’re primates. We’re social animals. We’re territorial and competitive.

Everyday Western cosmology, influenced mostly by religion and philosophy, tells us that our true selves are separate from that animal side. Science, by contrast, tells us that we’re often slaves to it. The truth is somewhere in between–that it is our nature as humans to be both.

We’re not somehow caught between Culture and Nature. We’re part of both at the same time.


2 thoughts on “Back to Basics”

  1. Great post. I think humans have a great talent for self-deception. We can justify slaughterhouses and animal experimentation, but those same practices overlaid on an alien culture in a sci-fi movie are portrayed as utterly barbaric (War of the Worlds, for example). We are just as “red in tooth and claw” as any animal, even if our hands are superficially cleaner.

    1. Yeah, we could get moral high-horse, or even wax Marxist, about this self-deception. But you’re right, it’s neither only Western not only modern. There are whole religions, as well as schools of thought, that revolve around confronting self-deception.

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