Saturday, December 05, 2020

On Human Nature

Some time ago my faith in the essential goodness of human beings took a fatal blow.

I've long wondered what the human animal would look like, if I could divorce myself from my innate bias, from centuries of thought that strove to separate humans from other animals, to make us something special. I think I was in a symposium on neuropsychology. Researchers had shown images of faces to people while scanning their brains, and they discovered that when people saw faces that looked "different," they had an immediate fear stimulus in their midbrain. I don't recall precisely how the researchers defined "different," race was a factor, but the important thing was that everybody had an immediate, pre-rational perception of "the other" as a threat. This was followed in microseconds by activation of their cortex, which allowed rational thought to discard this feeling, which is why so many of us are not overtly racist. But the research was disturbing: at our core, humans are hardwired to view "the other" as a threat.

From this disturbing thought, I considered dogs and cats. Dogs are hierarchical and territorial. Cats have hierarchy and territory as well, but not in the same way. Cats have "time share." The dominant cat gets to sit where it wants when it wants. Sometimes, even, the overcat may prevent the other from using a preferred spot just because. But there is no question of "obedience" among cats. The undercat is free to do anything it wants, so long as it stays out of the way of the overcat. This is why it's so damn hard to train a cat to do anything. If you can get them to want to do it, they'll do it. But they won't do it to please you.

Dogs, on the other hand, are hardwired to please. They want--they need--the approval of the overdog. So dogs will obey. 

I don't think anyone will debate whether humans are more like dogs or cats. There's a reason why dogs were domesticated in the stone age, millennia before any other animal, whereas cats were only "partly domesticated" in Ancient Egypt. If humans were like cats, we'd insist that we get to spend our money first, but after we've bought what we wanted, we'd expect others to spend our money. Humans expect their underlings to obey. We like to please others. We are totally dogs, not cats. 

We are, by our nature, territorial, and hierarchical. But...

That sounds so cynical and pessimistic. That sounds like we are condemned to war and injustice.

There is a difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that everything will work out for the better. Hope is the courage to work for the good, in spite of the possibility it will not come. 

This is where I find myself. I can no longer believe in the essential goodness of humanity. But neither can I resign myself to wickedness. Microseconds after the midbrain registers fear of the other, the rational brain moves to counter. Reason is part of our nature, too. I won't surrender hope for justice and goodness. I just don't believe that it will be easy.