Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Human Nature and Culture

Two quite different things have recently turned my attention once again to the question of human nature. First, I have been appalled by Republican audiences that applauded Rick Perry’s multiple executions, and those who also approved of Ron Paul’s position on letting a 30 year-old man die if he did not have life insurance. More recently there was the booing of a Gay soldier. I would not have done those things and I do not understand why anyone else would. It makes me wonder if Republicans are somehow importantly different from others with respect to their very nature.

Second, in going through some books I came across a copy of Robert Redfield’s fine book, “The Primitive World and Its Transformations.” Among other things in this work is a chapter on “Folk Societies” and how they differ from urban societies. It occurred to me that the changes that were needed to convert the former societies into the latter were so profound they must have had an impact on our basic human nature. But I don’t believe they did. I have concluded there is a basic human nature that is shared by all living humans that is fixed and basically unchangeable.

I base my belief primarily on my own experience with humans of different cultures. Obviously I have not experienced every human culture, but I have experienced ones with what have usually been described as about as “primitive” as any, as well as our highly industrialized, urbanized, and “modern” ones, and even a few that might be seen as in-between. I firmly believe that all of the individuals I have met in all of these cultures are fundamentally the same when it comes to what we think of as human nature, they are all sentient beings, thoughtful, with the ability to reason and get along with others. As they all share being mammals, primates, and hominids, with the behavioral and other characteristics that go along with being such, they share in a basic humanity.

If this is so, how is it humans are capable of such an awesome range of behaviors? Why do different people engage in such strange (to us) behaviors as circumcision, subincision, clitoridectomies, scarification, ritual homosexuality, tooth filing, neck and lip stretching, infanticide, senilicide, genocide, wars and brutalities almost beyond description? Why do some eat dogs and horses while others are horrified at the thought, still others thrive on mares’ milk and/or blood, some eat pork that others revile, and so on and on. There is virtually no behavior you can think of that cannot be found to exist either in the past or the present of the species. The easiest answer but also the most complex is, of course, culture.

Although some animals exhibit behavior that can be described as at least somewhat cultural, a full-blown cultural life-style is unique to humans. This is because the human species is unique in having no instincts, no naturally prescribed ways of behaving, no behavioral imperatives they must necessarily obey, no firm guidelines to follow. Hence the necessity for culture, those learned and extragenetically transmitted ways of behaving that we acquire during the course of maturation. Although all people have emotions even these are shaped by culture and experience. The emotions I experience when seeing a bird plucked alive, roasted and eaten, are not shared by people in the New Guinea Highlands, nor is my revulsion when thinking about eating eyeballs shared by those who commonly consume them. We share the possession of emotions even though our expressions of them vary widely. Although human life is highly valued by all humans, the definition of humans is not, and some people can kill more easily than others, taking heads, and even sometimes consuming the flesh so harvested. All people marry but marriage customs range widely from monogamy, polygamy, to polyandry and even other variations. I believe the ability to reason is common to all humans although reasoning often begins with very different premises. In New Guinea, for example, I was told one day by a man that white women didn’t menstruate, an obvious falsehood. But he explained that no man would sleep with a menstruating woman, white men slept with their wives, hence the wives must not menstruate. Similarly it was explained to me by another that the only conceivable reason I had, consulted, and needed a calendar was to know the day I would die (they planned funerals in advance of death). All of the people I knew were thoughtful, curious, and reasonably intelligent (as opposed to the ignorance they could not escape because of their isolation and illiteracy). Anyway, all in all, I cannot say I found anyone, no matter how culturally different from myself, unable to converse and deal with me basically like everyone else, no matter how naked, how dirty, how ignorant, how seemingly bizarre, or how sophisticated and well dressed. Similarly, I never saw women, no matter how said to be oppressed, without a sense of dignity and an awareness of their basic positions of influence in society vis-à-vis males. In short, I think they were all very similar in their basic humanity.

There is a curious paradox involved in human nature. There is a tendency to label individuals as inhuman or inhumane when they indulge in behaviors that would appear to be of that character. But it is precisely because they are human that they have the ability to be inhumane. The absence of instinct among humans and the dependence upon a cultural mode of life means they can be whatever they are because of their own cultural and individual experiences. You tend to become like those like yourself with perhaps a bit of idiosyncratic behavior because of your unique experiences. This is why we have sayings like, “birds of a feather flock together,” or “if you lie down with dogs you get fleas,” and also why we hear of “the culture of poverty,” or “corporate culture,” or “academic culture,” or “the culture of the FBI,” and so on. It is also why each human has the potential for extremes of behavior that can be triggered by certain circumstances, “the banality of evil,” that Hannah Arendt wrote about, the outrageously criminal behavior of soldiers, the torture and humiliations inflicted on enemies who become identified as non-human, vermin, inconsequential, expendable, and collateral damage, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” “nits make lice,” and other atrocious human actions against their fellows. As we know, these are not atrocities carried out by a few aberrant individuals but, rather, by individuals who could otherwise be considered perfectly “normal” or “respectable” humans.

What this seems to mean is that our cultural mode of existence, an apparent blessing that supposedly puts us at the apex of creation, is also a curse that also enables us to embrace the very depths of evil. It is, I guess, much like free-will (if there is such a thing) that allows us to choose good over evil but also unfortunately the opposite. I wonder is it possible, perhaps even probable, there is a “culture of Republicanism,” that compels them to despise the poor, the helpless, the needy, those who are not like themselves? You notice they are almost universally white, relatively well-off, supposedly Christian, and tend to be isolated from those who are different from themselves.

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