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.
What makes people different?
We are also social animals operating in groups and with that comes some level of hierarchy but perhaps much less in terms of power distance than is common in our cultures. That is just a difference of degree. We seem to have evolved to the point where what we do is qualitatively different from the rest of nature, but that does not, in any way, make us superior to it.
The significant differences based on several sources (Hands p413/20), (Dimond, Chimpanzee), (Pinker, Language) and (Capra and Luisi, Ch11) are;
- we are self conscious, that is to say we know we exist and see the world - The products of mind
- we communicate via speech (a happy accident of evolution giving an advantage?) and then invent writing enabling us to teach what we observe beyond those who can listen to us, we teach our beliefs as well as what we learn - Knowledge and its acquisition
- we make and use tools, we create a culture; not unique in itself but unique in the degree of its extent and complexity - The weight of culture
A note on artifacts and culture
I use this term artifact to cover everything that is man-made from jewellery to tools, from clothing, through shelter, to cities and engineering including farming. We are both shaped by and shaping of culture, as has been shown "first we make our tools and then our tools shape us".
It is now well known that many species of animals use tools so it overlaps with nature. There is a massive difference in degree. Chimps have most likely been using twigs for as long as they have coexisted with us and in that time we have evolved our tools, reimaging and reshaping them, accruing knowledge and passing it down the generations; our twigs have evolved into computers, the chimps are still using twigs.
Cooperation in Nature and Evolution
As individuals we have a heritage of co-operation that comes from our evolution. Several sections within Hands back this up most strikingly;
“collaboration plays a more significant role than competition in the survival and propagation of life…” and later “The view that collaboration is one of the greatest problems for the biological and social sciences to explain is a self-imposed problem caused by the adoption of the NeoDarwinian model that is rooted in competition. This problem is solved by recognising that collaboration is extensive at every level of life and is the prime cause of organisms developing and surviving” (Hands).
It would seem that some altruism is innate, and some of it is learned (having environmental triggers) but it is part of our make up. Now as well as the naturally driven aspects of our behaviour we also know that behaviour is also driven by culture, ethics and beliefs.
In business the Change Management literature is full of advice that when we take people on the journey and do it with them not to them their commitment increases. What this amounts to is that when we tell ourselves a different story it will, to some extent, alter the way we behave.
Non of this is to say that there is no conflict and competitiveness; there is a lot. We know that gorillas may fight to the death and kill a rival’s offspring when there is a transition from one silverback to another. We know that chimpanzees organise raiding parties, fight and even kill. Clearly we have a propensity to behave in certain ways. However looking at other primates is not definitive of us. Bonobos are notably less violent than chimpanzees (Sapolsky, p315-327) and both they and us have continued to evolve separately from humans since the lineages split millions of years ago.
What this means for holistic political economy is discussed in Our Natural Selves - Implications