Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What's Wrong with Us?

What I mean by “us” at the moment is the human species. After writing about the massacre at Mountain Meadows last night I began to think about a question that has occupied me for some time. There seems to be a fatal flaw in our makeup that I simply cannot really understand. It has to do with our propensity for intra-species violence, a type of behavior that seems to be lacking in any other species.

It is true, of course, that other species occasionally kill one another, usually in fights over territory or for survival, but there is nothing in the animal kingdom that comes anywhere close to our seemingly endless violence against other members of our own species. I find this rather mysterious. There is little doubt that biologically we are animals, mammals, primates, and hominids. Being mammals we share certain characteristics with all other mammals, being primates we also share many traits, as we do also with other hominids. Generally speaking there is nothing that sets us apart from other creatures. However much it may have damaged our egos, Darwin made it clear we are animals and as such part of a much larger biological universe. Some have attempted to set us (humans) apart from all other animals in certain ways, the use of tools, the control of fire, the possession of language, the ability to reason and so on. But research over the years, particularly in the last fifty or hundred years, has indicated these attributes do not truly set us aside completely from other animals. One of the most important claims for our uniqueness has been the claim of the possession of “souls,” but even this is somewhat doubtful as perhaps animals have souls as well. Besides, if you do not believe in the existence souls in the first place, this is not helpful. Biologically we remain at base, animals.

Strangely, at least it seems very strange to me, the one thing that seems to separate us from other animals has to do with our behavior. We often describe human acts as being “animal-like” or “beastly,” “wolfish,” or the like, and sometimes perhaps these are apt descriptions, but behaviorally we far transcend such comparisons. Nowhere, as far as I know, do we find animals committing genocide, for example, nowhere do animals attack and kill members of their own species in large numbers and only rarely kill each other at all. Certainly they do not torture and humiliate each other as we are wont to do. Animals kill each other for food, but they rarely cannibalize each other (although rarely in certain circumstances they do). They do not hunt heads, burn each other at the stake, cut off hands and feet and allow other creatures to bleed to death, hang them by their feet or thumbs, waterboard them, or keep them in solitary confinement. Nor do they kill hundreds and pile their skulls up as a warning to others, pillage their possessions, rape, burn their dwellings, destroy their crops, whip, brand, or otherwise disfigure them. Nor do they capture and employ slaves. Obviously there is nothing like this in the animal kingdom. But if you read the literature on colonialism you will find these kinds of behaviors commonplace. Such horrible things were done by every colonial power at some time, in Asia, Africa, Australia, Central and South America, Siberia, North America, in short, everywhere Western-Europeans expanded and captured lands and resources. It is a history so terrible we try to ignore it as much as possible. Such terrible deeds were not performed only by Western-Europeans, it is obvious that others were just as bad or worse, think of Ghengis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, some African kingdoms, Attila the Hun, and others. This intra-species violence is by no means just something that happened in ancient history. Think of the Holocaust, the Armenians, American Indians, Tasmanians, and others. And such violence still occurs daily in the form of wars and revolutions. Man’s inhumanity to man is something I find impossible to explain, especially as it has been and continues to be true apparently from the very beginning until the present. Humans seem to be little better at controlling their violent impulses now than before, evolution seems to have had little impact on our flawed human nature.

In most animal species there appear to be instinctive mechanisms that either prevent violence or at least stop it before it becomes fatal. Animals fight over mates and territory but the victors usually stop when their opponent bares his throat, assumes a subordinate position, or runs away. If a challenger is defeated he simply withdraws without being humiliated or otherwise punished. Perhaps that is where our problem lies, being without instincts we have no such built-in controls. Instead of instincts we have cultures, learned ways of behaving transmitted to us extra-genetically, but our cultural controls not only sometimes fail, they often even encourage our hateful behavior towards others. Animals are programmed to do as they must, humans are culturally programmed to do as they choose, and for whatever reason they often choose to do evil things. There is no evil in nature; evil is, I believe, entirely a human phenomena. We seem completely unable to prevent or overcome it. It’s as if the Great Mystery crafted a smoothly functioning ecological system where there was no waste, no environmental degradation, and no evil, and then, as some kind of cosmic joke added humans. Some joke.

“Huamani’s skepticism was substantial. He knew that men are a joke of the gods, sent to mortify the animals.”

Abel Posse (in The Dogs of Paradise)

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