How can we distance ourselves from Man as Animal? So much of what we do, the choices we make, our opinions, our aspirations, have in fact nothing to do with our individual personalities. They are instead reactions to primal instincts, ingrained in our behavior from the time we were not just hunters but hunted. If we are conscious of these internal, genetic, and biological influences, can we escape them? Would we be happier, calmer, more fulfilled if we did? Or would the friction between ourselves and the society around us be too great? What would a society built on this knowledge look like?
We now know a great deal about the psychology of our minds and emotions, the irrationality of our economic choices, the genetic causes of our addictions, the scientific negation of our racism, the universal human creature beyond national, cultural, or spatial factors. We are learning more every day through genetics, epigenetics, psychology, statistics, economics, and increased cross-cultural communication. We can speak instantly to any human on any point of the planet through satellite communications, making understanding common. We can translate nearly any language, making knowledge universal. The internet holds the entire wealth of human knowledge since the beginning of time, making knowledge accessible. The more information we have, the more we understand just what makes humans tick, and at no other time in history have we had so much information.
And yet… despite all that knowledge, must of us remain ignorant. We cling to folklore and “common sense”. We take the word of previous generations over scientists. We listen to people who make us feel good, or right, or strong, choosing the package of the message over the message itself. We abhor dispassionate information, especially if it requires us to spend time dissecting it. We want sound bites, not the whole meal. And even this, we have discovered, is normal. What can we accomplish when we take a step beyond normal?
We have adopted such new ideas as Democracy, something non-existent throughout most of history. We accept that the earth is round, that gravity holds us to it, and that humans are equal (however poorly we practice it). Much of the products we use in life descend from the scientific method, something in which evolutionary thought is embedded whether we like it or not. Will it be that difficult to accept that we now know ourselves?
For example, we know enough about our emotions, now, to be able to factor them out of rational decision making. I’m not asking for the dominance of rational thought over emotion. Emotion has a place; it is the spice of life. But emotion, especially on issues of life-or-death importance, must be understood for what it is – an impediment to making the correct choice. We see this on a global scale with nuclear proliferation, energy insecurity, the existence of global warming, the decision to start wars, the pricing of health care, and international trade. We see it in our daily lives with our poor time management skills, dissatisfaction with work, inability to manage our finances, and broken relationships.
In short, humans are controlled by instinctive, bodily events which are usually the cause of our emotional perspective. This emotion is what gives us our legacy systems – the perpetuation of ideas unsupported by facts, yet nevertheless far more pervasive and influential even when those facts are brought to light. Those legacy systems, such as morality, the sense of right and wrong, were established when we had no empirical evidence of what is actually right or wrong. The more we rely on those legacy systems to lead us, the longer we will remain astray.
My favorite example is sex before marriage. This is traditionally considered immoral, or wrong. In ancient times, there were two very good, rational reasons for it being wrong. The first was the likelihood of a single, unwed mother. Not only would this be a hardship on the woman herself, but in many societies the woman would never marry and thus deprive her entire family with both a male income earner and further children. Second, women in pre-medical societies had a 25% chance of dying in childbirth – meaning premarital sex was tantamount to attempted murder/suicide!
Enter modern society: proper prevention such as prophylactics and birth control pills make unwanted children a near impossibility. Add in social welfare systems, changing family patterns, antibiotics, and proper medical facilities, and you’ve eliminated 99% of the downside of premarital sex. Modern advances have changed the playing field, yet our legacy system of decision making has barely budged. We still look down on pre-marital sex, even punishable by death in some societies. We still feel a twinge of shame in the midst of it, or refrain from telling others of it. That moral legacy still haunts the activity.
So why does the practice persist despite moral condemnation? Because we are not in control: the body wills it. Consider this: it wasn’t too hard to hold back on pre-marital sex in the old days. Couples married when they were biologically ready to bear children, at age 12. Educated, upwardly mobile, career minded modern couples marry much, much later, meaning the time they would need to deny their biological impulses might equal the entire average lifespan of pre-modern humans (age 33). That’s asking a lot, even on moral grounds.
So we have several factors at work – morality trumping scientific change, and the body trumping morality. No wonder such discussions are rife with conflict! Couldn’t the whole issue be solved by abolishing the legacy system in light of our understanding of the underlying forces both mitigating and perpetuating the practice?
So how can we reconcile ancient wisdom with scientific facts, legacy with modernity, morality with reality? It won’t be easy. Legacy has it’s grip very deep in our psyche. One can’t overturn a lifetime of prejudice with a sudden new scientific insight. In fact, as with other major social changes like racism and women’s rights, the only way forward might be through the slow expiration of prior, resistant generations. Each successive generation adopts the best practices of their time. For thousands of years, there were few changes in that information. With the entirety of human knowledge at their fingertips for the first time in human history, it will be interesting to watch today’s children grow, and see the resultant humanity.
The best way to proceed is to promote the scientific method in children, the belief that something is true only when it has measurable, replicable results. The more this way of thought is advanced, the more efficient, prosperous, and correct are the outcomes. I would be remiss without addressing the primary opposition to this process – faith based systems. In the example above, faith dominates the perpetuation of this moral legacy. To many people, faith and morality are synonymous. So it must be mentioned that the pursuit of a more scientifically correct society need not occur at the cost of faith. The majority of scientists, and those working in scientific fields, are men and women of faith. This should not be a battle between our gods and ourselves. This must not be a battle at all. It should be, instead, a quest, an adventure, the pursuit of our ultimate potential.
If you think life is good now, wait till you see what we can become! Without the legacy systems of war, disease, prejudice, and philosophical perception, we can create a world in which each person finds the best life for him or herself rather than have that dictated to them by their forefathers. The solution doesn’t require money or power, politicians or pundits, sacrifice or struggle. It only requires that we each learn why we think what we think and then pause to consider our next step forward.
We often define the difference between humans and animals as our rational ability to make a choice that transcends instinct. In some ways, this will be the first time in our lives, in history, we’ve ever made that choice.