01 December 2007

Man as ape

Various schools of thought look upon man primarily as a "rational being", or as a "spiritual being", or as an "economic actor" (depen-ding on which school of thought it is), with our biological nature being secondary. I look upon man as fundamentally a primate; specifically, one of the five closely-related species collectively known as the great apes.

Rational thought is a learned skill, rather like typing or driving, necessary in certain situations and called upon when those situations arise. It's also hard work, and even those who are very good at it don't generally do it much except when they actually have to. For establishing what is true and what is false, rational thought is essential, and any attempt to address such questions without using it will produce results similar to trying to navigate a car down a busy street without using any of one's knowledge of how to drive. But dealing with such questions occupies only a small fraction of a normal human's time or attention, and man is no more fundamentally a "rational being" than a good secretary is fundamentally a "typing being".

Spirituality, as best I can assess it (never having been a spiritual person), seems to be a learned form of anti-rationality; if rational thought is analogous to typing or driving, spirituality could be said to be analogous to drunkenness. There are times when a person wants to suspend the capacity for critical thinking and simply let the gusher of emotion and response flow freely, unencumbered by judgment (or embarrassment); for such a purpose, I suppose either form of "spirit" will serve. I see nothing wrong with this, so long as it does not intrude into areas of life where normal thinking and behavior need to be free of its interference. Since the majority of humans claim to have some sort of spiritual side, I can only assume it must serve some function for them, even though I don't understand it (just as a person who has never drunk or wanted to drink alcohol can probably never understand why some people enjoy being drunk). Pushing my analogy to the breaking point, trying to produce rational thought while under the influence of spiritual beliefs would be like drunken driving, and the results are usually about equally good.

Economics describes an important subset of human interactions, but not a very large one. I have dozens of significant interactions with other humans every day, and no more than two or three of them involve any sort of exchange of value for value. It certainly makes sense to think of humans only as economic actors when analyzing that class of behavior, as much as it makes sense to think of the man at the chessboard as just a chess player when one is considering his strategy at the game; but no more so.

But the constellation of instincts, feelings, and responses we share with our great-ape cousins, inherited from common ancestors, is with us at all times. In particular, anyone who has seriously studied our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, can only be astonished at how closely their mental life, behavior, and social interaction resemble our own, revealing the true origin of our own. The subtle interplay of cooperation, aggression, friendship, rivalry, and so forth that one sees within established human groups; the tendency of males to organize into dominance hierarchies and the ways in which they interact within them; the very strong tendency toward territorial social-group solidarity (operating at many levels, from the nation-state to the street gang) which unites even rivals within the group against strangers from without; the development of the mother-child relationship as offspring grow up; in all these ways, our species is still very much like its chimpanzee cousin, though our interactions are somewhat more complex due to our greater intelligence.

One can even see in them the roots of those faculties which we have been accustomed to believe elevate our noble selves above the rest of the animal kingdom. Rational thought? Members of all four of the other great-ape species have proven capable of solving surprisingly complex logical problems. Economics? Obviously apes do not use money, but among chimpanzees, fairly explicit cases of males offering females food in exchange for sex have been observed, suggesting that the world's oldest profession deserves its title. Spirituality? Well, like humans, the other apes are smart enough to wonder about things which they are not smart enough to figure out; but as far as we can tell, they do not possess the specialized brain functions needed to conclude that anything which baffles them must be the work of a cosmic super-ape, much less burn each other at the stake over disputes about which kinds of fruit that super-ape prefers them to eat. But chimpanzees have been observed to stare raptly at spectacles such as waterfalls and sunsets. It is hardly implausible to think that these creatures, so neurologically similar to ourselves, have a sense of awe.

Our ape heritage has its dangerous side, of course -- and we have largely learned to control that aspect of ourselves and channel its expression into fantasy rather than actual behavior, otherwise we could not build and maintain the sophisticated civilizations we have today. But that heritage is also at the root of most of what makes life worth living. It is not something we can "transcend" by reciting platitudes or offering mindless devotion to a (less-hairy) cosmic super-ape. It is what we truly are.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Ute said...

I consider myself a very spiritual person. I meditate regularly and reach of stage of conscience that is really quite amazing and peaceful. That is what I call spirituality.

I also like to hike in beautiful place and completely let go of everything that life throws at me on a daily basis... and just enjoy the trees, the flowers, the people around me. That is spirituality. :)

As for the chimp... I'm probably as fascinated by them as my kids are. We can watch them for hours at the zoo.

Ooh ooh aah aah to you, fellow ape. ;)

01 December, 2007 08:09  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

The word "spiritual" is used to refer to such a huge range of different things that it's very hard to pin down. In this posting I'm using it in its religious or quasi-religious sense.

I've watched the chimpanzees at the Oregon zoo a few times. They have a better environment there than apes in many zoos do. Knowing what I know about them, though, it just feels wrong to see them held captive and displayed like that -- as if they were mere animals:-)

Thanks for stopping by.

01 December, 2007 09:00  
Blogger John Evo said...

I'm fortunately close to the San Diego Zoo (in fact, my brother-in-law lives about 5 minutes from it) so I have the opportunity of taking a good book and spending the day with the cousins. I have the same mixed feelings you do. As long as they are held captive, I want to be near them.

01 December, 2007 23:41  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

As a followup to my response to Ute, I should clarify that my comments on spirituality were not meant to disparage the natural human appreciation of aesthetics, or meditation for that matter. I myself am often captivated by flowers; none but the very greatest human artists can use color with such striking blends of vividness and subtlety. The word "spiritual", as I said, is used to mean many different things. What I disparage is the spiritual in the supernatural sense -- the notion that the human mind is some sort of mystical, "spooky" entity which inhabits a human being, as opposed to being a set of processes carried out by the brain, or that other such supernatural entities exist in disembodied form (spirits, ghosts, deities, etc.).

Lady and gentleman, thank you for stopping by.

02 December, 2007 10:37  

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