Article Index

A place in nature

Our knowledge of people has progressed; we recognise that as primates we are part of the animal kingdom and we learn a lot about our natures by looking at our closest relatives. This is a recent development that depended on the work of Wallace and Darwin on evolution in the C19th. It has now entered the realm of common knowledge; Desmond Morris famously used the term “naked ape” and Jarred Diamond wrote the best selling the Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee (Dimond, Chimpanzee).

An encyclopaedic round up of current knowledge about evolution and humans within it is provided by John Hands, Cosmo Sapiens (Hands).

Ourselves as animals

Our physiology refers to the chemical and electrical way in which our bodies work. This firmly links us to nature and not just other primates; some of our innate behaviour shows our connectedness to the animal kingdom ”the biology of pleasure involves the same chemicals in us as in capybara” (Sapolsky). It is a commonplace that drugs change behaviour and the chemicals involved in behaviours are often the same even across species. The person is a natural system; it maintains itself and has a clear boundary, amongst other things it has input (food), a process (digestion), outputs (urine, faeces), feedback (react to our environment, events and others). We are all aware that some reactions are difficult to control – we all blush or sneeze from time to time.

Our brains are the organs within which thought and a sense of being exists. The key thing to appreciate is that there is a huge amount of evidence that our brain has plasticity and that it that it remains capable of physical change throughout our lives. However, for my purposes the other significant fact about the brain is that it gives us self-consciousness (not only do we sense the environment we are able to muse upon that fact) and it gives us the power of abstract, rational thought.

Abstract rational thought does not free us from our natures so much as challenge us to master and overcome it. Some things we cannot change and some things we have more power over if we apply ourselves. We continue to be able to learn new skills and lay down new pathways in the brain. This, indeed, is the basis for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). It might not be easy; it supposedly it takes 2 weeks to establish a habit and 3 months to change it, but it is possible. When CBT fails it may be the other aspects of the system such as peer group pressure, lack of self belief, or a hostile culture singly or in complex interrelated ways, that are overpowering our individual efforts.