Oct/Nov 2014 Salon

Human, all too Human

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Tapestry artwork by Susan Klebanoff

Tapestry artwork by Susan Klebanoff

I fear that we are such gods or demigods only as fauns and satyrs, the divine allied to beasts, the creatures of appetite, and that, to some extent, our very life is our disgrace.
              —Walden, Henry David Thoreau

I've remarked more than once in print and in personal conversation that maybe our societies should be run by primatologists. I can't remember ever getting a response to this remark. Presumably it's taken as a joke or at least as a dismissible exaggeration. When I verbalize the idea in person it inevitably draws a blank stare.

I wonder sometimes what those reactions, or lack thereof, imply. Is my suggestion, always expressed in the context of a discussion of human behavior and the restraints we expect ourselves to exert over it, just not taken seriously? Is it beyond the pale of permissible thought that we who share so much with other primates genetically, socially and, if the recent science is any indication, cognitively, ought to investigate ourselves with the same objectivity we study chimpanzees?

Chimps engage in activities we consider criminal when a human behaves in a similar way, such as when a group of male chimps beat up or even kill a member of a different clan just because he's not one of their own. Bonobos use sex to ameliorate stress and live a life as free of aggression as the chimps' and our own are rooted in it. Everyone in a bonobo tribe seems to have sex with everyone else, including adult-infant sex. We study these behaviors in our two nearest specific relatives, but we don't hold them to any moral standard. Why is that?

If Darwinian evolution got it right, if we are members of the same family of mammals as chimps, bonobos and gorillas, why do we make an exception of ourselves when it comes to what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior? Why do we not shrug off certain human acts as simply what our species does, as we do when it comes to other species? Why don't we incarcerate chimps (apart from using them for scientific experiment or display) when they misbehave? Chimps, after all, are just as morally sensitive in their world as we are in ours and are quite strict about what is done and what is not done, with severe punishments for infractions. They don't dress up in black robes before they execute the sentence, but they seem to feel the same moral animus we experience.

Supposedly, we make an exception for ourselves when it comes to passing moral judgment because we believe we are a more developed, more conscious species and therefore more responsible for our actions than are other animals. Atheists believe this as well as religious people. No one would think of sending a chimp, never mind Fido, to hell for his sins, but we reserve and enforce that eternal punishment for human sinners, not to mention the temporal punishments we inflict on them in the present life.

According to one theory now in vogue, something happened about 50,000 years ago that changed our species from being merely the best and brightest among a number of humanoid species into a being of a different order entirely: a genetic mutation that occurred in one individual and that spread quickly throughout the species. The mutation made possible what we consider thought and language (according to this theory, based presumably on genetic evidence, language exists for thought, not as a means of communication, for which purpose it is actually ill-suited). Soon we were not only thinking but singing, painting, philosophizing, and inventing bigger and better weapons.

If true, this was indeed a remarkable leap forward for our species. But I don't see that we left anything behind when we took on the cognitive aspect of a modern human. It would seem instead that we layered this new mind on top of the old one, and that one on the one before, without altering what had come previously. This would explain why we still go off to kill the sons of other tribes, though we now can make movies and compose press releases about the campaign. It explains why we both engage in "rape as a tactic of war" and condemn that behavior as a crime under international law. It explains why we slaughter our fellow humans with sophisticated weapons that only a brain as developed as our own could devise, and yet we are so appalled by the results of such behavior that we cannot bear to look on it or even imagine it.

It's easy enough to see how we could develop a myth of original sin or karma or any of the other religious narratives we use to explain this bizarre dualism in our nature, which is to say in the very tissue of our gray matter. The contradictions are too painfully obvious to live with without some explanatory narrative to make sense of them for us. Most of these narratives strike a middle position, calling us a mix of good and evil. Some see us as inherently depraved and beyond any salvation except by divine intervention. At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe we could have a just and peaceful society if we only adopted the right politics. Nobody, though, seems to propose that we deal with our more primitive instincts as if they were as deeply embedded and as morally neutral as we see them in other species.

Maybe they're right. Maybe we have no choice but to try to impose the morality of the new Us onto the one we lived under before that genetic change occurred fifty thousand years ago. But, if so, why do we still send up the bombers or look the other way when one ethnic group is hacking another one to pieces? Modern history is a horror story of mass killings, though one historian at least claims that the chances of being the victim of one of these rampages is less in modern times that it was a thousand years ago. We do now at least pay lip service to the condemnation of genocide, however much we still practice it, especially when the heat of war is in our veins.

But maybe sex presents the most obvious discrepancy between the exceptional way we see ourselves and the way we look on the rest of creation. What men and women do together in the reproductive act, never mind all the varieties outside it, is almost always portrayed as specifically human. What animals do, even animals very much like ourselves, is another matter, almost a different act. We invest our sexuality with all the accouterments not just of romance but of deep meaning. We dress up for it. In fact, we dress in the first place probably for the sake of looking attractive to other humans. This fetish in itself sets us apart from other animals, we believe. Imagine a world in which we all walked the earth naked. Not a pretty picture.

We talk about love and romance, experience we don't allow for other primates, certainly not with the same significance it holds for us. Even our misdemeanors, our adulteries and "affairs," are deep with meaning, the stuff of tragedy and comedy, human all too human. When we represent the human sexual act in art we depict it as decorous, even when it amounts to what we call pornography, with exceptions made for those who prefer the bizarre or the gross.

Who ever thinks of the love life of dogs as such except for pet owners? And yet, what we do sexually is identical to what other mammals do. We may do it our own way, in a slightly different position. We may be more often fertile than other animals who are only able to become pregnant a couple times a year. Our bodies, even naked, may be configured in their own uniquely human way—buttocks to make our upright walking posture possible serving double duty as sexual display—breasts, lack of body hair, etc. But we inseminate each other in pretty much the same way species have been doing for hundreds of millions of years without the benefit of Hollywood or the latest bodice ripper. I suspect the inner lives of apes and other animals is just as rich for them as our own is for us. How so, I have no idea, nor ever will. But it seems to me pure arrogance to assume otherwise. If sex plays a smaller part in their lives, thanks to their less-than-constant estrus, that just means their sexual experience is different from ours, not less meaningful.

Who is the best keeper for the kind of animal we are? What kind of knowledge is best suited to the governor of a critter that is part intellectual and all ape? We don't want to return to the bad old days of having the clergy lay down the law. But they, like their philosopher counterparts, at least had a sense for the duality that is within us, even if they misread that schizophrenia in terms that no one who prefers to keep her brains to herself could any longer subscribe to. And we certainly don't want to jump onto the bandwagon of the utopians who think a bit of tinkering with the social structure will cure all ills. In fact, we have come too far to want any keeper at all. Willy-nilly, we aspire to a state of personal autonomy and social self-governance that involves a good deal of experimentation. We have good reason to believe that ordinary folk, perhaps especially ordinary folk, are quite capable of looking after their own affairs and, in concert with their neighbors, after the affairs of society as well.

On the other hand, we are still stuck with the old human brain that seems to have at least as much sway over us as does the newer, more reasonable one we like to celebrate as the aspect that makes us specifically human. The old narratives and symbols had it right to the extent that they expressed the anxiety of what it means to be human—all too human and, to borrow another phrase from Nietzsche who got so much right without being able to offer any useful remedies, "beyond good and evil." He didn't mean beyond morality. He was describing the state of things as they stood at the end of the nineteenth century for thinking people like himself. His "God is dead" is not a confession of deicide. It's a statement of reality for the old philosophies and the old theologies, both of which were kaput in that sense and still are, despite the waves of religious revival that are sweeping some parts of the world. No one will ever kill religion, nor probably should anyone try. But there will be no new Thomas Acquinases or Renee Descarteses to buttress the belief of the multitudes with solid deduction. The faithful will have to make do with what is already available.

My current musings on this subject started with a front-page article in The New York Times. It concerned yet another religious cleric, this time high-ranking, accused of sexually abusing children. As in instances of rape, including rape as a war crime, i.e. a deliberate tactic of war, there is never any discussion either in the news or elsewhere about the underlying reasons for such behavior. The unspoken consensus is that it is heinous and requires no discussion.

There's no point in using an example that's less inflammatory than the sexual abuse of children or the rape of defenseless women. We all now agree on most of the subjects that used to be just as much off the table for discussion as rape still is, although it wasn't that long ago the topic of homosexuality drew reactions of profound disgust, if not something stronger. And certain sexual acts, even between heterosexual "consenting adults in the privacy of their bedroom," were too offensive for most people to talk about rationally. Now it's unconscionable, even for conservatives, to bash gays or to suggest that rape is the woman's fault. Some still do, but public opinion is clearly against them.

It's a lot easier to muse about these matters when we can all agree that the malefactor is despicable and beyond the boundaries of our sympathies. I myself would as soon see someone strangled in the womb as have him sexually assault a child of mine. We can all agree about rape as well, especially the kind of rape we heard about occurring in the Balkan wars of the 1990s or in the Congo in the past decade. Our moral outrage precludes anything like a zoological interpretation of these behaviors, or even an anthropological one. It's one thing for Margaret Mead to describe the mores of women in the South Pacific. It's quite another to calmly discuss behaviors that may be wired into us by evolution, however much to our chagrin, or to ask why what we consider promiscuous or deviant behavior in one species of primates, the bonobos, doesn't produce psychological damage in them as it does in us, or why we view a murderous rampage by a group of chimpanzees as morally irrelevant, while the same behavior when humans engage in it constitutes a war crime (except when our nation does it).

But, I suspect consulting primatologists would do nothing in the end to unmuddy the waters. As long as we have our new minds in working order, the old morality will be an embarrassment to us, or a sin or a psychic dysfunction. We have no choice but to go on trying to square the circle of our moral ambiguity. But recognition of ourselves as a primate with all the baggage that implies might at least clear away some of the smoke of our self-delusion and hypocrisy. Moralists have a way of making the issue of our bad behavior worse by wrapping it up in narratives like Original Sin and other myths that seem to make us out to be individually responsible for instincts that we are born with not through any fault of our own or that of our progenitors. If we undertook to understand ourselves in our objective totality with the same inductive rigor we apply to other species, we might at least have a better sense of the kind of beast we are stuck with.

We can no more escape how our brain is configured with regard to instinctual behavior than we can exceed its capacity to understand its cognitive "scope and limits." Our arrogance is such that we believe nothing is beyond our ken, but in fact, as realists from David Hume to Noam Chomsky have pointed out, we are constricted in our understanding as rigidly by the brains we have evolved as is any wombat or kangaroo. We understand the world as we experience it, a place where things fall. But we don't and never shall understand gravity any more than rats will ever understand the theory of prime numbers. We can theorize about the attraction of objects for each other, but our development as a species did not require any theoretical knowledge on the subject, any more than it required an understanding of quantum indeterminism or the time-space continuum. An infant knows that an object moves because something has come into contact with it, and for no other reason. As adults we understand no more than this, though we know there are other forces at work and we can reduce many of them to useful mathematical formulas.

I suspect our moral condition is configured similarly. We may, for instance, be hard-wired for cruelty, as we would see it today, but for good reason: the killing of another living being, even a roach, requires the summoning up of an emotion, a "killer instinct," if you will. We must have acquired that instinct very early on, perhaps back when we were ingesting other one-celled animals which might or might not be our grandmother. It's probably been standard equipment ever since.

Are we, then, hide-bound to go on repeating our past bad behaviors into the future? Should we revert to some kind of "natural man," with all the heinous results that we witnessed in the last century? Or, is a reasonable and realistic approach possible that acknowledges our worst behavior for what it is without euphemisms ("collateral damage," "ethnic cleansing") but also without self-flaggelation? We already do so to the extent that we distinguish between the "ideal" and "reality." We may send our sons and daughters to religious or educational instruction for the sake of teaching them they must stay within the bounds of acceptable morality. But those bounds disappear when the "real world" is involved. "Thou shalt not kill" becomes "Kill as much as possible and we will honor you for doing so." "Thou shalt not steal" becomes something very different when the stealing involves resources we consider vital to our national interests. No admonition that we believe on the sabbath morning, whether it's "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" or "Ransom hostages" is relevant when those interests or those of our employer or our family is at stake. It's as if the chimp within has veto power over the philosopher of our cerebral cortex.

I don't know the answer. I just would be happier if we stopped pretending our behavior were consistent with some morality specific to our kind and so different from that of the "animals" we so much despise.


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