“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put in this world to rise above.” — Katherine Hepburn, African Queen.
SUMMARY: Our cultures need to be doing more to ameliorate the effects of our negative human instincts.
(About a 4 minute read)
It’s my impression that most of us these days are at least dimly aware that human nature can be out of joint with human happiness. That is, we can have a disposition or inclination to certain feelings and behaviors that more or less inevitably lead us into unhappy situations, and even misery.
Warfare is an example of that. While humans apparently do not have an actual instinct to war upon each other, we do indeed have a full set of instincts that mean war is all but directly hardwired into our DNA.
For instance, like most predators we are territorial animals. We also possess a deeply ingrained sense of tribalism — of “Us versus Them” thinking. And — perhaps most disturbing of all — an apparently natural blood lust that does not stop short of murdering our own species for what amounts to no more than sport. That blood lust has been noticed to be present even in relatively pacific Amazonian tribes.
Taken together, our instincts strongly incline us to the usually senseless butchery and destruction that is any war. To say our instincts “sometimes lead us to suffering and misery”, is about as much of an understatement as one can possibly make.
That is just as true about many other instincts as it is about the cluster of instincts that predispose us to warfare. Yet it would be a logical fallacy to reason that, because it is our nature to feel and behave in certain ways, we should feel and behave in those ways.
Of all the animals that roam or have ever roamed the earth, humans are arguably the freest species that has existed, the only species that has even approached being free of having a biological destiny. That might well be the single most significant way in which we are unlike other life forms.
One of the relatively few genuine peeves in life that I don’t mind possessing is an annoyance with our cultures for not doing enough to ameliorate our negative instincts. By “culture”, I very much mean to include most or all religions.
In fact, religions are especially annoying to me when their clergy puffs up about how they have handed down the best morals to us, without which we’d be savages. That’s because I think anyone who actually investigates that matter will sooner or later discover that all or nearly all religions to one significant degree or another condone many negative instincts.
Christianity, for instance, preaches against unjust wars, but there has perhaps never been a war in history that less than 80% of the clergy did not somehow manage to find just. To be sure, I am grateful to most religions for the gold nuggets of wisdom that most contain – I just wish they didn’t also contain so much useless dirt.
In my opinion, one of the gravest errors made by most of the world’s major religions in one way or another has been to condone — and too often encourage — the oppression of women. That’s not to say they don’t also encourage the rights and freedoms of women. Religions seldom if ever speak with one voice about the matter. But in my view, they ought to weed out their support for the oppression of women and be done with it. Humans have a deeply rooted spiritual need to be free, to say nothing about a need to be free from abuse.
Religions are not the only aspects of culture that annoy me for not doing all they could be doing to ameliorate the effects of negative instincts, but they are arguably among the most influential aspects.
Of course, many human instincts are positive and certainly should not be “risen above”. Parent/child love, for example is almost unconditionally positive in every imaginable way. So too are such things as compassion, kindness, reciprocity, and so forth. It is an even graver mistake to see human nature as one-sided than it is to see religion as one-sided.