Friday, January 7, 2011

The Duality of Human Nature

"The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
Humans have two basic identities or natures.  We are herd animals but at the same time we have developed sufficient intelligence to see ourselves as individuals and to begin to think and act like individuals.  These two conflicting identities flow directly from the fact that evolution has essentially given us two brains--one on top of the other--attempting to work as a whole

For the vast majority of our evolution, we were simply animals living in a herd.  (Or, perhaps, as primates, we should be said to have lived in troops.  But, it should never be forgotten that the portion of our evolutionary history in which we were primates is quite small compared to the whole of it.)  A great deal of our innate behavior and thinking still reflects that history of living as herd animals for our own protection.

As we achieved higher cognitive functioning, language, the ability to manipulate and make tools with our hands, we began to see ourselves as individuals--whose interests were not always the same as that of the group.  Yet, because evolution did this by slowly adding more layers to our brains, we did not shed those more basic and instinctual behaviors even though the new thoughts and behaviors were often directly at odds with the old ones.

This conflict between our more basic instincts and behaviors and our more intelligent selves is our curse and explains much of the tragedy that we call human history.  Of particular note are the tragedies caused by individuals who have learned to use the herd instinct of the majority to control others and use them to further his or her selfish interests.  This is religion in a nutshell.  Such heinous actions are at the heart of any great human tragedy--whether religion was the vehicle used to control the herd or not.

I suspect that divergent attitudes and abilities in the human species are there largely because nature doesn't make us all the same both by "design" and by pure happenstance.  Our reproductive process contains a significant element of randomization.  This process results in a more varied population, which is an advantage in terms of ensuring that the species will survive in the face of unknown future changes in its environment.

Consequently, one sees both extreme conformists and extreme non-conformists in the same population.  Each group has characteristics that help its members overcome some of life's obstacles but can cause it to stumble over others. 

As herd animals, many of us conform mindlessly.  Many even consider nonconformity as a form of stupidity.  From their perspective, they are often correct on that score.

As a sentient species, we also have individuals who are on the cutting edge in terms of advancing the knowledge and thinking of the species--our greatest gift, which has made our global dominance possible.  Such individuals often see conformity as a form of stupidity.  Again, from their perspective, they have a point.  If we all conformed, mankind would still be living in caves (if not extinct).  All traits can be valuable in one circumstance and deadly in another.

This dichotomy between our more primitive selves and our higher brain functions is probably the most important thing to keep in mind when attempting to understand religion and its interplay with our politics and society.  Likewise the divide between those of our species who are examples of the more primitive man and those who seem to be dominated by higher brain functions.

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