How Does That Make You Feel?

Bodhidharma by Yoshitoshi (1887)
We all face questions of meaning.

On a daily basis, most of us don’t think of ourselves as primates. If we think about such things at all, we habitually see ourselves as collections of thoughts and ideas. It’s such a common experience that there are entire schools of thought which are, at least in part, designed to get us past such thoughts. (Zen Buddhism comes to mind.)

Yet many of us struggle with larger questions of meaning, and sometimes just plain wonder why we do what we do. When we work on these questions without understanding the realities of being animals and primates, it sometimes makes what should be simple much, much harder.

Accepting that we’re animals, primates, and human beings — all at the same time — isn’t just possible, it’s downright necessary for us to understand our own humanity.

I’m No Animal!

We people like to think of ourselves as somehow separate from other animals. Oh, we (mostly) know (intellectually) that we’re animals. We eat, we sleep, we mate. But we often focus on the differences that set us apart from other animals, rather than the commonalities that could bring us deeper understanding.

In Gombe Stream National Park-- Pan troglodytes
Are we truly all that different?

Part of the challenge here is that we often have only a limited idea of what it means to be an animal. We know that animals don’t have beliefs; instead they have drives. But in our own minds we don’t distinguish between the two. But it is clear that we’re both people and animals. With that in mind, we can have beliefs and drives.

As animals, we have needs that we are bound to seek to fulfill, or struggle against. As primates, we’re given to hierarchy, territoriality, and protecting our kin groups. As humans, we have language, culture, and beliefs.

In the West, the idea that we’re separate from animals is best expressed through the traditional, and very old, Great Chain of Being. We believe that we’re somehow separate from animals. Close, honest examination tells us that this is not true. If we think of ourselves as humans, primates, and animals all at once, much of the messiness of the world becomes clear.

This pattern isn’t some failing unique to the West. Most, if not all, cultures distinguish people as something separate from other animals. Their myths reflect such differences.

There’s no doubt that people are different from other animals. But that doesn’t mean as much as we’d like to think.

Understanding People

Da Vinci's Vitruvean ManIn the West, we have entire professions that revolve around figuring out why we act the way we do. I’m referring to anthropologists, yes, but also psychologists and — if we’re honest about it — priests.

We have other professions whose jobs revolve around getting people to do things. Marketers, politicians, and salesmen represent some of these jobs. They rely not only on their own theories and techniques, but also on the research of the above groups, to understand people better.

But while the first groups, call them theorists, might make such subtle distinctions as “cultural” and “biological,” the second group, more pragmatically, isn’t so much interested in careful ideas as accomplishing a specific goal — controlling other people. When we’re looking to delve deeper and understand ourselves, these are not the people we should be listening to.

Being Human

So does it benefit us to widen our understanding of what it means to be “people”? Can we understand ourselves and others better when we see people as complex creatures instead of collections of beliefs? Yes.

When we recognize that other people are sometimes driven by aspects of themselves that are quite beyond their control, we’re more likely to be forgiving, seek common ground, and admit that sometimes we’re not being rational, ourselves.

In other words, admitting you’re an animal doesn’t make you a dirty, unthinking creature. It actually makes you more human.

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