To Be Human, To Be Animal

It is obvious that there are a number of fundamental differences between humans and  other animals on this planet. Humans have a language whose complexity goes far beyond ways in which animals communicate. We have writing. We use very sophisticated tools. We live in large groups made out of individuals with very different personalities.

It fills me with wonder to contemplate how it came to be that humans exist. It just feels so improbable that we came to be at all. It is so wonderful that we are made in a way which allows us to appreciate beauty and to transcend selfish desire.

However we also need to remind ourselves that we are, for the largest part, animals and beings with aspirations beyond animal desires only to a small degree.

If you ask people what is most important in their life, many will answer that it is family. The concept of family springs from nature; elephants, dolphins, wolves, they all have family just as we do.

If you we think about what drives many of us, it is desire to accumulate power; may it be in the form of money, respect from others, or control over those close to us. This quest for power is yet again of Nature; chimpanzees seek it, wolves seek it, even chicken seek it.

If we ask ourselves how many of us are truly driven by factors which originate from the part of our mind which is not equal to anything else found in Nature, I think we will find that they are few.

And this is very understandable. Most parts of our brain are shared with all mammals. What drives a goat to want to procreate? Chances are similar brain structures are involved in this than are used by Nature to guide our behaviour. And there is nothing wrong with that! We (as of yet) cannot change what we are. We cannot re-engineer our brains and take out all the lowly animal parts – and even if we could, after we would have done this, we would not be ourselves anymore.

What we must do, though, is to acknowledge what we are. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that there is a mountain of instinct within us with only a small temple of reflective self upon it.

If we do not acknowledge this, our animal self will, without our knowledge, always be the driving force of our behaviour, most likely without us even noticing. But if we do acknowledge it, we gain the opportunity to truly love ourselves, encompassing all aspects which make us who we are; and we also gain the opportunity to gently guide ourselves towards more nobler goals.

Imagine you are a young man and you and your friends are having a talk about women. You talk about the various aesthetic features of the female gender you have witnessed in women you know or don’t know. One of your friends is boasting with how many women he has slept just this year. Maybe you feel inadequate, since maybe you weren’t nearly as successful as your friend in that respect. If you have understanding of yourself, you will see that your feelings spring from your animal mind; it is a reflection of Nature’s good intention to assure that your genes are passed to the next generation; ideally in a vehicle which will provide for their best possible fitness (those features of the female gender that make you and your friends rave but which would leave any extraterrestrial creature surely unimpressed). Don’t judge yourself and don’t judge your friends; this is just the way you are made. Just don’t fool yourself that you are engaged in a noble and spiritually worthwhile quest. If you are looking for true meaning in your life, then think about starting to look somewhere else.

There are many facets to our animal nature; starting with the very obvious, such as our desire to breathe and the constant beating of our heart, and ending with the devious, where our base desires for power of procreation disguise themselves as noble goals. Unfortunately our current culture is very un-reflective of how our animal selves influence our behaviour; in fact, it is something which is often seen as something good rather than bad; especially if you are looking at commercials. Do commercials for perfume and deodorant appeal to our innate ability to appreciate the complex wonders of the world, or our base animal desire to be as attractive as possible to potential mates?  Moreover, our current culture it is taboo to even consider some aspects of how our nature influences who we are; for instance the question of whether our gender may influence our actions (with some exceptions, it’s okay to say young men are more likely to be criminals and kill themselves in stupid ways, both of which are undoubtedly statistically evident).

Thus I think now more than ever it is important to remind ourselves what we are and to acknowledge what is the strongest force in our being; to embrace ourselves as the wonder we are while also enabling ourselves to understand the limitations of ourselves; to become the best version of who we can be with what has been given to us.

Image credit: Santa3

Life Purpose in the Modern World: Beyond Family

We live in an age where there is a short supply of higher purpose. Sure, there are the world religions which might promises us a place in heaven upon proper conduct – but most of the premises these religions are based upon are difficult to take seriously in the 21st century.

Humans can be surprisingly uninsightful at times but generally we are quite smart, and I believe that the erosion of organised religion can be traced back to our collective insight that they just don’t make much sense.

However, I believe our biology programs us to seek purpose. With organised religion being not an option for many of us, we have been looking for purpose in other places.

Firstly there is the hedonistic purpose of seeking happiness for ourselves which is adopted by some. Unfortunately, pleasure seeking is a shaky path for finding true happiness – it seems we can achieve that much better by caring for others. I would say that this purpose is not very popular; sometimes sought out in younger years but often replaced with another purpose, arguably the most widely adopted today. That is the purpose to provide and care for our families, especially our children.

In our collective mind there is little doubt that this is a sensible and morally correct purpose. However, I do think that it is good to question even those things which seem self-evident to us. So the question I want to discuss here is whether this is a good purpose or not.

There are many good things about this purpose, chiefly that it is not about us but about others. I think there is much beauty in our love for our families, and we should embrace
it whenever we have the opportunity. However, we must also be aware that this purpose is rooted in our basic biology – since looking after those genetically closely related to us helps propagate our genes.

So I think an argument can be made that this might not be the best choice for being the leading, single highest purpose of our lives. That is because, not unlikely like the world religious, it does not hold up to deeper scrutiny. It is just biology to love our children – it’s what all mammals do.

That is not to say that it is bad – in the contrary, it is beautiful and holy. This is just to say that it is not more than biology. If our children survive, our genes will pass on. If we teach our children to be good people, they might spread more goodness into the world. But what difference does this make in the context of what we have learned about the
universe? We are a tiny speck of humanity and humanity is a tiny speck in the cosmos. How our genes are fairing and what part of our values live on makes little difference in the greater scheme of things and even for our family: our great-grandchildren will only inherit around one eighth of our genes and probably equally as much – if not less – of our values.

Moreover, with our love for our children comes a danger. What if you have to make a choice between their welfare and that of others. Will we not always choose our children irrespective of what is the fair or good thing to do?

Instead, we can take the love we harbour for our families and use it as a foundation
on which to grow universal love. Love for every human being. Love for every
thing in the universe. Love for what we know about and what we don’t know about.
Love for ourselves.

So we shouldn’t abandon the love for our family – we should just be careful to define the value of our lives based on the welfare of our family. Families cause problems, families break apart. If we do not define ourselves through our families, we can become stronger – in bad times and in good – and give more love to those we care about the most without compromising our ability to open our hearts to an even greater love which encompasses everything there is, has been and could be.