I’m reading an interesting book right now called Humankind—pop science, breezy, but well written—that explores the old question, whether man is inherently savage and in need of restraint (Hobbes) or only made so by so-called civilization (Rousseau). The writer draws historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, observers of apes, and novelists into the fray, in search of our core nature.
Does our undeniable penchant for violence, exploitation, etc., stem from a base animal nature that laws and police must hold in check, or have we constructed systems that induce it?
My own unscientific instinct is to disbelieve in original sin—that we are born evil and kept in line only by the whip or by being taught that it’s bad to hit our baby sister. It’s hard to believe that the species would survive without an intrinsic talent for cooperation, or that small killer bands evolved into million-man armies and thus survived by murder and rape. Guys sticking up convenience stores don’t often have long lives, and death tends to hamper reproduction. I can’t prove it: it’s just a hunch.
Nevertheless, there’s an element in the original-sin myth that I feel to be true. They ate from the forbidden tree of knowledge, it says. But what if they were expelled from the Garden not for disobedience but for getting too smart? Specifically, for acquiring a trait at the core of being human: symbolic thinking.
Animals eat when they’re hungry or when there’s food. We eat when it’s time for the meal. Animals have sex when they can. We do as well, but also build movies, ads for lipstick and automobiles, whole industries around it. Animals fight for survival. We fight for anything that symbolizes survival—be it flag, honor, or billions of bucks.
It’s natural, then, that we set up vast systems that require even yet vaster systems to protect them, leading usually to violence. Bullets are concrete.
In high school, in my depressed cynical year, I read a popular book on semantics. It suggested this: whenever you hear a speech, count the number of words or phrases for which there’s no defined referent—exactly what does “liberty” refer to? If you can’t understand it from the context, substitute the word “blah.”
Shortly after, we had a school assembly. I enjoyed assemblies, as a break of routine. Once we had a classical violinist, another time a magician, another time a woman who told the boys how to shave. This one was patriotism, and I counted the “blahs.” I made the mistake of announcing it in my subsequent class, and the teacher was not thrilled.
But I’ve persisted in counting the “blahs.” The downside is that the folks I agree with tend to score as high as the folks whose notions I hate. The upside is only to know that what you value has a solid referent: you want people to have a roof over their heads, to have food, to have a voice, to have respect.
In the long run, which is what we’re talking about, it makes little difference from what we’re evolved. I have many similarities to my dad, but I’ve lived my life in a very different way. The essential question is Who are we now?