Our Perverse, and Accidental, ‘Human’ Nature

Further ruminations on this post on our collective nature, and this post on our propensity to hate.


photo: CC0, from pixabay

I. On the malleability of our beliefs

The poet EE Cummings famously railed against our propensity to yield to our cultural conditioning and become “everybody else” — not like everybody else but synonymous with, indistinguishable from, everybody else.

When I was very young, I remember listening to adults talk among themselves, and thinking “What are they playing at? Why are they pretending to know things, when it’s obvious nobody knows anything? Is there something wrong with them… or with me? What are the rules of this ‘game’, anyway?”

I am always astonished at how malleable humans are — how easily we can be made to believe just about anything, no matter how preposterous. Perhaps that’s why, when we encounter someone who we believed thought much the same way we did, only to discover they believe something abhorrent to us, we are so shocked.

I’m also shocked each time I read something I wrote years ago, but which now seems absurd to me, and wonder: How did I ever come to believe such nonsense?

Well, I believed it because it fit with other things I believed at the time. I believed it because other people I knew and talked with and respected believed it too. I believed it, sometimes, because some writer exploited my cognitive biases and planted the idea in my head, so I never really thought about it critically.

Lately I’ve become somewhat dismissive of humans’ beliefs, all of them. They seem to me now no better than opinions, things that should be held only lightly, tentatively, and cautiously. When I get upset at the hold, and power, of what I consider destructive and dangerous beliefs (like climate change denial and conspiracy theories), I feel almost no malice or anger at the perpetrators of what are to me, obvious falsehoods. I appreciate that, just like me, they were conditioned by their biology and their cultural surroundings, and given the circumstances of their lives, to believe what they believe — what they want, desperately, to believe is true, because it’s the only way they can make sense of what is happening without totally undermining their entire belief system.

How did this destructive, confrontational, violence-provoking, uniquely human phenomenon of ‘belief systems’ evolve, anyway?

My sense is that, other than humans, animals do not have ‘belief systems’. This is not because they aren’t intelligent enough. It’s rather closer to the opposite — they thrive without them, and have never needed them. Instincts are far superior to belief systems in responding quickly to stressful situations. Our belief systems don’t actually do anything for us. They are basically the detritus of a brain furiously trying to make sense of things by categorizing, judging, and projecting meaning onto everything that the body’s sense organs signal to it.

The complicated ‘meaning picture’ that the brain creates is of a terribly vulnerable self in a terribly vulnerable body facing endless precarious situations. The brain simulates this world of precarity and uses it to send an unending stream of ‘warnings’ to the body. The body reacts both to stimuli it receives ‘directly’ and to those sent by the brain. Generally speaking, its instinctive reactions are timely and appropriate (they have evolved in our animal bodies since we first appeared on the planet), and its brain-meaning reactions are almost always late, inappropriate and useless. Still, the body internalizes them, and is affected by them.

And then, based on the reaction, the brain tries to make sense of what the body has done (which it appropriates as being its ‘own’ reaction) using its wildly flawed simulation tool, and gets upset when it cannot. The result, often, is frustration, shame, guilt, and trauma.

It’s a bit like a child who can’t get the hang of the game controller, because he doesn’t understand how it works and how it interfaces with the game, and so throws a temper tantrum and crying fit. Except that in the case of our brain’s ‘game controller’ it is actually not hooked up to the game at all.

Still, we are conditioned to pretend it is, and to deny all evidence that it isn’t. And hence my incredulity at my parents’, and other adults’, strange behaviours and avowed belief systems when I was a young child.

Of course, over time, as more and more adults told me they were right, and that my incredulity was misplaced, I gradually got conditioned to believe them, and their belief systems, with some minor quirks and tweaks, became mine. I had become, as EE Cummings put it, “everybody else”.

It is only in the last decade or so that I’ve had the time and opportunity to think again, and realize that our belief systems are totally conditioned, bear essentially no resemblance to reality, are really totally useless to these bodies we presume to inhabit, and, as I have always instinctively suspected, make no sense at all.

Our beliefs, and our ‘human’ nature, are accidents (= etym. “things that befall us by chance”) of our biological and cultural conditioning and the ever-changing, infinitely complex circumstances of each moment, and utterly misinterpreted by our overwhelmed, bewildered brains. They are, in a word, meaningless.

II. On our propensity for cruelty

I think we are going to see, starting in a week’s time after the US elections, a huge increase in politically-condoned hate crimes throughout the Euro-American empire. These crimes will be the acting out of the conditioned beliefs of an angry, bitter, fearful citizenry, across Europe and North America.

The consequences, I fear, will be horrific — this is evidence of the early stages of the social collapse that Dmitry Orlov warned often accompanies economic and political collapse [and which has also accompanied past ecological collapses]. We are, it seems, inuring ourselves to violence and cruelty in preparation for this. Not deliberately, not systematically, not in any organized manner. There is something in the human creature (and possibly many other creatures) that seems to get pleasure from meting out excessive punishment to those we either fear or have been conditioned to hate, when we get the opportunity to do so — when there is a power shift, like the one that is now occurring, or the one that occurred 90 years ago.

We see this in the zeal of hazing rituals, in the military barbarism of attacking troops (especially against unarmed civilian women), and in our celebration of the excruciatingly-detailed suffering of defeated ‘enemies’ in Hollywood films. We see it in the viciousness of Republicans’ barely-suppressed glee at the brutal attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband. We see it in show trials and witch hunts, and in porn that glorifies and celebrates entrapment, humiliation, and the inflicting of pain. We see it in torture prisons like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and the apologists for waterboarding and other tortures. We see it in the unfathomable, sustained savagery of genocides and factory farms, and in repeated acts of child abuse and spousal abuse. We see it in the dress-up antics of self-described militias screaming for lynchings, itching for a no-holds-barred fight.

For some reason, it seems, we want to see the ‘bad guys’ suffer and scream — preferably slowly. The two Davids described this in The Dawn of Everything — a kind of spontaneous collective blood-lust against a feared and strange “other”. But many also, seemingly, enjoy seeing and relating to abstract depictions of cruelty and humiliation against people who are weak, not ‘bad’. What’s that about?

Does our propensity for cruelty stem, as the Davids suggested, from (1) a lashing out, at our lack of freedom and our feeling of being unfairly, helplessly and cruelly controlled, oppressed or trapped?

Or is it (2) the double binds that society invokes, that manipulate, enrage and pervert us and make us lash out at the trauma and shame and grief of being caught in an endless, humiliating no-win-situation?

Or does our cruelty stem from one of the more well-trodden ’causes’ that psychologists attribute it to:

  1. the capacity to diminish the victims of our cruelty to less-than-human, incapable-of-feeling status, to render cruel behaviour seemingly less savage;
  2. the ‘righteous’ sense that an atrocity is so despicable that it provides moral legitimacy for cruel, vengeful punishment;
  3. a failure of ‘normal’ human inhibition such that our cruelty can be understood as temporary insanity;
  4. a sincere belief in the deterrent value of especially cruel punishment;
  5. a form of mental illness born of trauma and chronic stress; or
  6. a ‘learned behaviour’ in that “hurt people hurt people”.

In trying to sort through these eight possible reasons, I have tried to look at my own cruel behaviours, and see them through the lens of my disbelief in free will — that we have no choice, given our conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, but to behave in the ways we do.

My first instinct, as a lifelong pacifist and a believer that we are all doing our best, is to label cruelty as an aberration, an expression of severe mental illness brought about by perpetuated trauma and chronic stress (reason #7 above).

There is pretty strong evidence that humans are the only creatures that do things to knowingly cause suffering to others, and the only creatures to derive a kind of perverse pleasure from doing so.

Domestic cats may ‘toy’ with mice before they kill them, but I’m not persuaded they’re being deliberately cruel. And I doubt that wild adults of any feline species would stretch out the life of their prey any longer than absolutely necessary.

The reason for this, I think (though of course this is just my belief system!), is that wild creatures do not perceive themselves as ‘separate’ from the rest of life on earth. They would no sooner harm another creature unnecessarily than they would damage a part of their own body. That’s not to say they won’t instinctively act to protect themselves from dangers, including predators, but I’m not convinced a sense of ‘self’ and separation is at all needed to invoke those instincts.

There is some evidence that some large apes ‘bully’ others, which Robert Sapolsky has studied in detail. Whether they get pleasure from doing this, and why they do it, is anyone’s guess. Junkyard dogs that are ‘trained’ (ie abused) to attack strangers are conditioned to do so, but I would argue this conditioning is based on fear, not on hatred. So I am inclined to believe that ‘deliberate’ cruelty (deriving pleasure from causing suffering) is an almost uniquely human quality. (I could change my mind on this.)

In my article on our propensity for hatred, I argued that while anger and rage are instinctive, we have to learn to hate. By that I mean we have to be repeatedly conditioned to hate. For example, we aren’t born racists; we have to witness racism being condoned and encouraged and justified to become that way ourselves, though that conditioning is unfortunately not that hard to perpetrate. As I say, we can be conditioned to believe almost anything.

I think hatred is a necessary precondition for cruelty. Any one — and any creature — can commit an act of violence in a fleeting moment of extreme rage, but to inflict cruelty over a protracted period of time requires, I would guess, a well-entrenched, repeatedly conditioned hatred for the victim, or at least for what the victim ‘represents’.

My sense is that what underlies a lot of the conditioned hatred that leads to cruelty is a sense of powerlessness, entrenched as trauma. Those that show cruelty to others have most often been subjected to traumatizing cruelty themselves earlier in their lives. (‘Hurt people hurt people’.)

I think that sense of powerlessness, and the helpless seething anger and hatred it can instil, is what the Davids were talking about when they speculated that systemic cruelty might have its source in severe oppression and the feelings of helplessness and anguish over the loss of one’s fundamental freedoms that that oppression triggers, and/or in the crushing humiliation created by double-binds (causes 1 & 2 in the list of 8 above).

And then looking at the remaining ’causes’ in that list, they mostly seem to me to be rationalizations for cruelty, rather than causes of it.

So this would suggest that our perhaps uniquely human propensity for cruelty stems back to our conditioning, and is sustained only because of our brains’ capacity to believe almost anything — including things that might provoke cruel behaviours — once we are so conditioned.

I have often argued that our human sense of having a separate ‘self’ that is responsible for and in control of what our bodies do and for what our too-smart-for-our-own-good brains think and believe, is a kind of disease, a disconnection from being a part of the ‘oneness’ of all-life-on-earth, and a huge evolutionary misstep.

Perhaps a consequence of that misstep is the evolution of trauma, hatred, chronic anxiety, shame, guilt, envy, jealousy… and cruelty.

If so, we are indeed a sad, tragic and pathetic species. All the more so because it’s not our fault that we evolved this way. Nature decided to try something different, and here we are: ready to believe almost anything, and, as a result, to do almost anything.

That means, sadly, that as collapse deepens, this could get ugly.

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1 Response to Our Perverse, and Accidental, ‘Human’ Nature

  1. Hilary Neilson says:

    Hi Dave, and thanks for this reflection.

    I agree with much that you say, but I feel that I allow myself a little more wriggle-room, maybe of necessity because I find myself more judgmental that you. I therefore perhaps see my own blaming behaviour as within the bounds of my rationality. I think there may be more of a continuum of free will, which would also be true of my own understanding of ‘truth’. Some ‘truth’ is more ‘true’ than other, some actions are more ‘free’ than others, though I can’t count myself among the completely enlightened!

    On belief – I have seen this as pernicious since childhood, when I clearly didn’t believe in the god of my parents. Thus other erroneous or ill-founded beliefs became apparent early for me. On meaning – what Mark Solm’s calls the ‘seeking’ instinct, which also generates narrative meaning, may have been perverted by the mutation in centrosomal NDE1 which allowed the human cerebral cortex to increase in size, resulting in our disastrous ability to over-think, maybe the cause of our finding meaning where there is none? On cruelty – may this not arise almost spontaneously in a world of scarcity and ‘othering’?

    I am just now finishing ‘The Dawn of Everything’. I thank you profoundly for your recommendation: it explained a great deal about bias in anthropology and archaeology to me. In particular, it appears to me that the Woodland Period of North American prehistory may represent how people lived in a landscape of plenty. Maybe simple population increase (especially in Europe) caused the expansion, justified by false beliefs, of various peoples into lands they viewed as un-peopled. Whatever the ‘truth’ and contingencies, it is unlikely we will be able to turn the clock back.

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