3. HUMAN NATURE
He felt the mass of mankind mighty in its numbers. They swarmed numerous like locusts, industrious like ants, thoughtless like a natural force, pushing on blind and orderly and absorbed, impervious to sentiment, to logic, to terror...
What if nothing could move them?
- the thoughts of the anarchist in The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad
As I said in the Introduction, this book is an analysis of human nature. So, what's human nature? Well, one thing it is is a phrase that we use when we don't understand why something happened, why someone did something. We say: Oh. It's human nature. But this is the same as saying nothing, as saying that we do not know. This use of human nature is particularly common when we seek to explain the things that humans do which are inhumane.
There are many ways to look at human nature, but the standard method is to describe our appearance, our physical form, in other words, what we look like. This is also the approach that we commonly use for other species, such as plants, or ants, or tigers.
Another approach is to describe what we do: how we act or behave. For most species the range of behavior is relatively limited, but for humans it is very wide. We do many, many different things.
This book will consider human nature from the perspective of human behavior. The diversity of our behavior is matched by our specialization, by the ways in which different humans segregate themselves to do different things. Also, sometimes our behavior is straightforward, but other times it seems impossible to understand. One thing for certain is that it is our behavior that is the cause of most, if not all, of the problems in the world.
So, why do we behave the
way we do?
The obvious answer is that we behave the way we do to satisfy the different needs and motivations that we have, and that different behaviors satisfy different needs. Our needs and motivations are many, and include security, food and shelter, companionship, love, creative expression, etc. Then the question becomes, how are our needs and motivations, our desire to fulfill them, actually translated into what we do? Another way to put this is: what are the determinants of human behavior?
The following model can be used to evaluate all human behavior, even the most inhumane (or saintly). It describes the determinants of our actions, and their interrelationships.
The first determinant is genetics: your unique set of thirty to forty thousand individual genes. (This number, a finding of the human genome project, represents a large reduction from the previous estimate of approximately eighty thousand genes.) These are responsible for your appearance, your instincts, many other specific behavioral tendencies, and even your basic character or personality. For example, one gene has been found to play a key role in the production of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which when present in large quantities is linked to excitable, fickle, thrill seeking and quick-tempered character traits. Another gene, the one that creates the protein NR2B, plays a critical role in learning. This protein is involved in the production of brain cell switches called NMDA receptors, which enable the brain to fire the neural networks that represent associations, such as of a face and a name. Indeed, genes have numerous impacts on intelligence, or the various characteristics of what is considered to be intelligence, and hence through it on our behavior as well.
Genes shape us in many, many ways, but their effects can be grouped as follows:
- Genetic programming is
responsible for our physical characteristics (at least at birth), and such programming
necessarily is manifested.
- Some genetic programming leads only to predispositions, and additional factors are required for the characteristics to be manifested. One example of this is the predisposition to contract a particular disease, such as occurs with some women and breast cancer. However, by regulating their behavior, such women can reduce the odds that they will get the disease.
- Certain behavioral traits are also genetically predisposed, but their manifestation can be counteracted as well. For instance, the exercise of self-control can offset the predisposition to have a quick temper.
The second determinant in the model is social conditioning, which was referred to earlier as social influences, and which can also be termed behavioral form. (We can recall that social conditioning is a form because it is the result of an underlying organization or structure.) Further, it definitely has as its purpose, or at least as part of its purpose, the imposition of control.
The basic sources of social conditioning are your parents, siblings and other relatives. However, there are manifold sources of such form, including all of the influences of your culture (and others to which you are exposed). These influences are expressed in your culture's values, belief systems and goals, and they are delivered to you, are regularly imposed on you, via its various social institutions: educational, governmental, religious, economic and media.
Regarding the title of this book, in the first instance this is the type of form to which it applies. I will provide an extensive review of social or behavioral form, and of the means by which we can achieve our freedom from it.
At this point the behavior model is what is known as Nature versus Nurture: the influences of your genes versus the influences of your upbringing and environment. Also, it is interesting to note that in the last century, following the work of such individuals as Freud and Jung, the emphasis on understanding human behavior was on the impact of environmental influences. Now, with our greater knowledge and techniques of genetics, it has shifted to this. This shift does not mean, though, that genetic factors are more important than environmental, merely that they are now the focus of much behavioral research, and also, for the researchers, that understanding them is now clearly viewed as the best route to professional recognition and status.
To continue, the third determinant of human behavior is free will, of doing what you want to do, when you want to do it, including not doing what other people want you to do. Put simply, will is personal choice. You make your own decisions. You decide what to choose, what to do, without regard to any influences. Will can cover all of your decisions, from the smallest, such as what to do right now, to the greatest, such as what course to follow in your life to become the person you want to be.
Now the argument shifts to a more classic and philosophical expression: Free Will versus Determinism. Some people say (they choose to say?), that nature and nurture, grouped together, explain all - determine all - of our behavior. They say there is no such thing as free will. (They must have been influenced to say this!) They further argue that even when you consciously believe you are making a free choice, in fact you have been influenced in some way to make that choice.
I would agree that in many cases this last point is true.
Earlier I asked the question, if form implies content, is anything truly random? Following from this, how can a non-random system not imply determinism? The answer is: for a non-random system not to be wholly determined, it must have at least one degree of freedom. For the human system, this degree of freedom is will. In addition, this is how we get chance. With the existence of freedom, chance is enabled. For example, two people may choose to travel along different paths, and then have a chance encounter when they intersect.
(Interestingly, in an example of a feedback loop, chance also enables will, and hence freedom, such as when you have the opportunity to act, perhaps in many different ways, following such a chance encounter. The question of which comes or came first, chance or will, is a variation of the proverbial chicken and egg paradox.)
Is there any proof of the
existence of free will? You could say that one such proof lies with inconsequential
matters over which there are no influences. And of these, we can start with
body control, such as the use of your will to raise your arm or to blink your
eye. Some people have actually achieved such a mastery of their will that they
are able to use it to control their autonomous bodily processes, such as by
slowing down their heartbeat.
As another, more mundane example, there is the question of when to go to the bathroom. You can exercise a choice simply by choosing not to go to the toilet when you feel the need. What possible influence could cause that? (The determinists would argue that it is the influence that wants you to believe that you do have a choice. Unfortunately, their arguments are circular, and as such very difficult to refute.)
You can also look for proof of the existence of free will in large matters. For instance, you can purposely plan and implement a change in your life. Indeed, this book is going to suggest one such change, even try to educate you how to make it, but only you can do it.
Will is expressed through reason, discipline, effort and courage. The influences of nature and nurture are in fact strongly deterministic. Your will must also be strong to fight them off. However, your will does have limits, such as when it conflicts with the will, or the conditioning, of another person. In addition, there are the basic limits of life as a Homo sapiens. You may, through exercising your will, follow a path that maximizes your chances of living to be one hundred, but you won't make it to one hundred and fifty.
At this point I want to suggest a fourth determinant, which is simply life itself, or what I will call the life force. This is the force that underlies the common drive of all living things. It is said that we have an instinct to survive: to avoid death. I would say that this is inaccurately phrased, that rather we share a drive simply to live, to experience the form of existence that we call life, and to do this to the fullest.
I guess I set impossible goals, and I don't know when to quit. Is that it?
- Jimmy Tomorrow, The Waitresses
I would further say that if you have a strong internal drive to push it, to push - and go beyond - your limits; to confront the unknown, and overcome your fear of it; and that if you will never lie down and give up, then you have a strong life force.
Why do we live? Simply to satisfy our senses for a while, and then to die? Why is there life? What is its purpose?
These are difficult questions, to which I will return later.
The life force is like the fourth dimension, time. Although it has a tremendous impact on our behavior, we can't actually see it, or isolate it. But we know it is there, and our innate appreciation of art, and motherhood, both the creation of new life (of new self-perpetuating forms), is proof of it.
It is the interaction of these four factors that translate our needs and motivations into behavior. However, at this point it is only our intended behavior.
Actual behavior occurs in the context of - it is the product of - the interaction of these four factors with universal chance, uncertainty and chaos. The universe is a highly complex phenomenon. We have already seen that it is in flux: never stationary, always changing. It has also been described as chaotic, because events in the universe are driven by chance, by probabilities. Such events are not preordained as through fate or destiny. Instead, they are inherently uncertain, and unpredictable.
And the inherent unpredictability is dramatic. Systems within the universe can go off on a tangent, even change completely, at any time. Furthermore, these changes can be caused by the most remote and minute events. This idea is conveyed in the famous example that a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas (that's a consequence!); that the air turbulence caused by its wings actually can propagate, and become magnified, until it affects entire weather systems on the other side of the planet.
(To be precise, I will use the term chaos in three ways, to describe: (1) the general uncertainty which affects our lives - life is chaotic because you never know what is going to happen next; (2) the uncertainty that is present at the microscopic level of existence regarding the behavior of sub-atomic particles, which is described by the field of physics known as quantum mechanics; and (3) the processes - and the mathematics used to describe them - that occur in a phase transition as a system changes from a state of order to one of disorder, i.e., of turbulence or chaos.)
Since humans are part of the universe, we are also part of, and governed by, its nature. We are also a complex phenomenon: a complex system subject to chaos; uncertain and unpredictable; and understandable only in the context of chance and probabilities.
Chaos is the catalyst for what we actually do in life. It causes the diversions of our actions from our intentions. For example, if you wake up feeling ill, you might change your plan for the day. Or perhaps you have a chance meeting with someone new, someone who ends up playing a major role in your life, actually changing your life completely. Or maybe you have a severe accident, and from that moment on must endure physical and mental trauma.
Chaos is also, paradoxically, a form of order. It affects all of the events in our lives, from the smallest to the largest. A day is like a whole life. You start out doing one thing, but end up doing something else, plan to run an errand, but never get there... And at the end of your life, your whole existence has that same haphazard quality, too. Your whole life has the shape of a single day. (Jurassic Park, Michael Crighton, Arrow, page 171)
Chaos is the fifth determinant of our behavior:
Furthermore, the relative effects of the different determinants vary by behavior (and situation). One of the main points of this book is that too much of our behavior is driven by our genes, and behavioral form, and too little by our free will and life force.
One reflection of this is that modern psychology accepts determinism, with the current shift in focus to genetics. It discounts free will as a factor in our behavior, and does not seriously study it. Also, calling free will a determinant is a bit of a misnomer. Will doesnt determine our behavior, so much as guide it.
There is also an important consequence of all of this for our attempts to use our behavior to meet our needs and motivations. Since our environment is subject to flux and chaos, our needs - our goals - are often changing as well. And we are changing - in motion - too. A human being trying to meet his or her needs is like a moving gun shooting at a moving target.
Of course, it is not as if we don't know this. One of the main objectives for which we express free will is to achieve control over our environment. We use our will to quell the chaos of life, to steady the gun and target.
At a deeper level, though, what is happening is that over time you are changing, as is your perception of your needs, as is the environment in which you must satisfy them. It is really a moving gun, shooting at a moving target, against a moving background. Also, a further complexity is that you actually have two sets of needs: those that derive from your will, and those that society wants you to have. Over time you change, as does your perception of your needs, and over time society changes, as does its perception of your needs. For you to be in equilibrium as a system, you must reconcile your perception of your needs, and societys expectations, which is a difficult and sometimes even impossible task. Additionally, societys expectations may themselves be in conflict, reflecting the demands of its competing sectors. And, as if all of this were not enough, there is also a feedback mechanism involved. You are part of society. As you change, it changes (if only a little), and as it changes, you change.
What is involved in guiding and achieving our behavior is far more complex than is immediately apparent.
Now, another way to view behavior is to recognize that it is driven by thought. We think what we do, even if it is not always before the act. How does this fit with the model?
Our brain creates our thought, both conscious and unconscious, and our brain chemistry and structure, its nature and capability, at birth is the product of our genes. The size and structure of our brain then changes as we age, again due to genetic influences, but also as a result of our experience. Furthermore, our experience is shaped by chance, and also our conditioning, will, life force and, through their behavioral effects, our genes again.
There are many other linkages as well. For instance, your genes are the product of your parents genes, which shaped their thought and, in combination with their social conditioning and will, their life circumstances, which became your life circumstances and the sources of your social conditioning. In addition, thought expresses itself through reason and emotion, but where do they come from? Reason, as mentioned, is a product of will, and emotion, as a pattern, i.e., personality, has genetic links. Instances of emotion, on the other hand, are the consequence of form, and also sometimes of will, as when you act emotionally, with anger (or affection) and either controllably or even uncontrollably, to satisfy a deeper will-driven purpose: to achieve an end.
Another question for the model is where do the will and the life force come from? They are actual forces in determining our behavior, so they must have a source. They can either inhabit us in some insubstantial way, such as through the presence of a soul (which will be considered later), or they must reside, once again, in the genes (along with the behavioral predispositions that we have that are driven by genetic factors).
In this view genes drive our instincts, our will to live, which begs the question, is free will the same thing as life, as the life force itself? I believe it is. The most convincing proof of the existence of free will is the sheer determination and tenacity with which life works to live. Will is life, and people who argue that there is no such thing as will are effectively saying that there is no such thing as life.
(A fascinating research project would be to learn which genes are responsible for will, and how they are able to create it: how they determine something that is itself free to choose.)
At the beginning of the chapter we contrasted physical form with behavior. The usual view is that our form drives our behavior; that we behave the way we do because we are humans. This is the generally accepted theory of evolution, of natural selection and survival of the fittest. In other words, chance mutations to genes, or chance patterns of inherited genes, lead to advantages in appearance and other attributes. Individuals with these attributes are, so-to-speak, selected by nature as the fittest to survive.
But this is also the deterministic view. First we mutate, and then we behave as the mutation allows us.
There is an alternative.
The history of evolution is that life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously, but life finds a way.
- Ibid., page 160
In this view we use our will, our life force, to make decisions about how to behave, and to adapt, to compete and to win against those individuals who have greater natural advantages. Indeed, this is the proposition that life is more than just a series of chance mutations, which in any case does nothing to explain the first mutation, the creation or origination of the first life. This is the view that the individual who has the strongest life force, the strongest will to live, is the best adapted - the fittest - to survive.
It is also a radical idea, because if we adopt it we have to apply it to other species. Can a bird will itself to grow a longer beak to reach the nectar in a particular type of flower? How does a plant develop a seed that will fly with the wind? And what about single-celled organisms? They are alive, too. How do they manifest will?
Perhaps the answer, or at least part of it, is that both processes, natural selection and the exercise of will, are at work, and that their relative effects vary with the specific case and circumstances.
To summarize, in many cases it is in fact behavior that drives physical form, and this has a consequence for the model, as follows:
However, I want to make it clear that I am not repeating Lamarcks discredited idea that we can influence our genes through our behavior: that acquired traits become hereditary. Rather, with our will we can negate genetic behavioral predispositions, and also, through our behavior we can insure that our genes, instead of those of other individuals, are passed on to successive generations.
A more detailed presentation of the latter would be as follows:
Of course, since will interacts with - it is actually often in opposition to - both the influences of the genes and behavioral form, the model can also be represented as:
Still, even this is not the complete solution to the puzzle. We began with our needs and motivations, but where do they come from? The answer is that they come from life. They are the requirements, and goals, of living things. A final restatement of the model can therefore be given as follows:
There are a number of important consequences of this model. The first is that when our behavior changes, our physical form will change as well. Humans are evolving now, perhaps quite rapidly, into a new species, and it is our behavior that is going to get us there.
Secondly, as was said, we are a complex phenomenon. We can be understood, but not predicted (at least with certainty). Our potential behavior can only be viewed in terms of probabilities, and our complexity is such that even a short time into the future the probability of any specific action or behavior occurring is so small that it approaches zero.
Thirdly, since control requires the ability to predict, we must conclude that humans cannot be controlled. As the introductory quote from Conrad says, we are a natural, uncontrollable force. The only way to control a human is to kill him or, as in a totalitarian state, to take away his will, his freedom to exercise his will, by turning him into a caged animal, or through extreme behavioral manipulation, as in brainwashing. Also, any lesser attempts at form, such as by institutions trying to persuade us to help them satisfy their needs, will necessarily have unexpected side effects.
Lastly, since humans cannot be predicted or controlled, we also cannot - even if you could envision such a thing - be perfected. You cannot build a better human. Any attempts to construct one, or a perfect human society, will run head-on into our complexity and the effects of chaos.
To conclude this chapter, then, we must still face the issue that we are responsible for the world's problems. If we cannot be perfected, how can we possibly improve things?
One approach, the obvious approach, is to try to understand the behavior that drives these problems. Perhaps there is some way to block the behavior, or to convince the humans involved not to exhibit it, some way that is not inconsistent with the above basic conditions.
The majority of people engage in a significant amount of naughty behavior.
- Industrial Society and its Future, #26, Ted Kaczynski
One of the consequences of our lack of perfectibility is that it is impossible to be good all the time. It is an unachievable goal. Even the most ethical people sometimes act badly. (Similarly, even the most intelligent people often act stupidly.) For example, sometimes we act inappropriately from reflex, before considering the consequences. (This is one reason why love will not solve everything but, conversely, it is an excellent reason to turn the other cheek.)
Also, life is hard. When you get away with small things, things that you may have done the first time by impulse, it can become a pattern. This is particularly a problem if the pattern forms in childhood, when the behavior may not be recognized or, even if it is, not corrected. If the pattern survives until adulthood, it can easily become entrenched.
At other times life is so hard that people transfer their pain, and the frustration that they have with their lives, to others.
In some cases the cumulative effects of all of this are so powerful that people become just plain bad: hateful and spiteful creatures with no conscience whatsoever, who commit terrible crimes whenever they get the chance, and who revel in the pain that they inflict.
Of course, since the universe is in flux times change, and the definition of what is bad changes as well. Behavior that historically was acceptable becomes unacceptable. For instance, before the introduction of the police if someone committed an offense against you, you had to seek justice yourself, on your own or with the help of family and friends. Now, the actions that you formerly would have taken, such as punishing the wrongdoer, are crimes themselves.
Lastly, sometimes you will find yourself in a position where, including through no fault of your own, all of your choices have, or may have, negative effects. For example, consider a situation where someone loves you, but you do not love them. Instead, you love another. The first person is going to be hurt, but no one is really to blame.
Now, of all the above determinants, which are responsible for the wealth of bad behavior that humans exhibit? Is it genetic - we are born bad; or will - we want to be bad; or is it the consequence of form, of other people and society somehow persuading us to do these things? This book will argue that it is indeed form that is the cause of most of our real naughty behavior, and most of the problems that we create around the world. For instance, form is regularly the cause of hate, and while love readily dies, it is almost impossible to eliminate hate. Once a tradition of hate is established, it takes on a life of its own, an existence that is seemingly eternal.
© Roland O. Watson 2001-2005