The Nature of the Beast

This post concerns and describes situations and events that may be disturbing to some readers. 
The graphics in this post, like all original content on this blog, is covered by a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

Over the last year or so, I’ve been developing and discussing a theory about the nature of reality, and human nature, that builds on the belief that we have no free will, and that our behaviour is entirely biologically and culturally conditioned given the circumstances of the moment.

The purpose of this theory is to provide a basis to try to understand (not justify or condemn, just understand) why we sometimes seem to behave in ways that are terrifying and destructive, ways that would seem at odds with our species’ (and other species’) evolutionary adaptability, ‘fit’, and survival.

The first part of this theory, represented by the chart below, suggests how our conditioning could produce a ‘loop’ that creates an unending cycle of trauma, in which an environment of chronic stress and scarcity (inherent in our exhausting, unsustainable industrial civilization) begets violence, conditioned fear and hatred, and a resultant trauma that is passed on to others, perpetuating the cycle:

The second part of this theory, illustrated in the chart at the top of this article, holds that our behaviours and our belief systems are separately conditioned by our biology and our culture, and that, importantly, while our belief systems result largely from trying to rationalize and ‘make sense’ of our (and others’) behaviours, this is a one-way sync — What we (are conditioned to) believe has absolutely no reciprocal impact on our subsequent (conditioned) behaviours. Our attempt to make sense of behaviours in the context of our belief systems is just the “post-game” show (the pundits’ second-guessing what happened and why) after our behaviours have already occurred (the game is already over).

If this theory is correct, it has some troubling implications that did not occur to me when I was developing it. If in fact our belief systems do not affect our behaviours (including behaviours that condition others’ beliefs and behaviours), then, even if we were not afflicted with this (seemingly) uniquely human proclivity for trying to ‘make sense’ of everything, the horrific violence and destruction we see in the world today would still have occurred (and would still be occurring) regardless. We cannot ‘blame’, or account for, our behaviours as being ’caused’ by erroneous and hostile beliefs that might somehow be corrected and produce ‘better’ human behaviours in future. In short, our belief systems are completely irrelevant in terms of what we see, and will see, happening in the world, including abuse, ecological desolation, cruelty, war, and genocide.

When Trump’s UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, writes “Finish Them!” on US-supplied Israeli artillery shells being prepped to bombard, kill and maim helpless and starving women and children in the genocide in Palestine, this bloodthirsty cruelty is not rooted in any deranged traumatized worldview about Palestinians. She did this because that’s what her conditioning compelled her to do. She most likely rationalized it afterwards as being justifiable and even laudable given her hate-crazed, racist, xenophobic worldview and ideology, but that worldview and ideology did not influence her behaviour. It cannot: There is no little homunculus called a ‘self’ making decisions in Nikki Haley’s supposed brain. Her worldview and ideology are just a model of reality that her brain uses to make sense of her conditioned actions after they have inevitably occurred.

This is a deeply disturbing implication, and one that immediately made me think there must be something wrong with my theory. The thought that humans, even absent any ideology or model of the world and what it ‘means’, would still be capable of this level of utter barbarity, runs counter to my, and I expect most people’s, belief that we humans are, at heart, biophilic, caring, life-honouring, mostly-rational creatures.

The revelation that we humans might be, as a simple result of our conditioning, inherently capable of staggeringly violent, destructive, brutal, heartless behaviours is deeply unsettling. It suggests that we can be conditioned, biologically and culturally, to commit unimaginable atrocities, even when there is no rational need and when it makes no ‘sense’ for us to do so. It suggests that we can be conditioned to do almost anything, including the horrors committed during all our wars, the sadistic and repeated abuses committed by large swaths of humans against ‘other’ humans and wild creatures, genocides like those in Palestine and Rwanda, horrific torture like that committed in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and other prisons, bloodthirsty violence against helpless civilians like that committed at My Lai and now in Gaza, and all the other brutal behaviours we would likely usually characterize as criminal atrocities. And which we know, in our hearts, are happening all the time, but we don’t want to hear or read about them in the media. We don’t want to acknowledge that ‘ordinary’ humans can and do behave in this way.

Still, much as I am revolted by the idea, I am forced to admit that this is probably true. Such atrocities are probably just as likely and prevalent human behaviours as biophilic, loving, caring behaviours and responses. And that’s not because our brains have fucked us up with their extraordinary capacity for hatred, paranoid fears, revenge-lust, and chronic multi-generational trauma. It’s because that’s the nature of the human beast. We can be roused, remarkably easily, to commit horrors, just like any other animal. And our brains are able to conjure up horrors, and the technologies to perpetuate them, that no other creature would be capable of. It’s all in how we’re conditioned, given the circumstances of the moment. It has nothing to do with our ‘rational’ minds, and we have absolutely no control over it.

I don’t want to believe this. It is so much easier to say that human atrocities are due to the extraordinary and unhealthy stress we live under, or to our complex brains being uniquely capable of imagining and hence doing terrible things. And that ‘most people’ would never commit them in any case. Surely I, and the people I know and care about, could never do such things.

Well, I think there’s lots of evidence that we could. We just don’t want to acknowledge it.

Suppose we lived lives devoid of stress, scarcity and precarity. Would humans then behave more peacefully, more generously, more altruistically, less selfishly, and be less likely to commit violence and atrocities against others? That’s the thesis promulgated by researchers who have studied how the behaviours of rats confined in overcrowded cages with insufficient food differs from that of those in less stressed environments.

I think the only answer to this question that could be proffered with confidence is: It depends on their conditioning. Many animals can be conditioned to be violent and even to commit murder, despite not living in exceptionally stressed situations. I would doubt that Nikki Haley lives a life of particularly great stress, scarcity and precarity. I would even suggest that it’s not a matter of empathy, or a lack thereof. If your empathy causes you to feel especially awful and distressed about a friend who’s been abused, that empathy might actually condition you to want to strike out more violently to avenge the abuse, rather than consider whether the abuser was just acting out their own conditioned trauma.

I’m beginning to come around to a view of human nature that is, while not exactly negative, not the very positive view that I have held for much of my life. John Gray and Ronald Wright, the two writers whose views on collapse have most influenced me, have a decidedly negative view of our ‘inherent’ human nature. John calls our species homo rapiens, referring to our history of destructiveness. Ronald describes human society-building as steeped in violence, genocide and savagery, and says our evolutionary ‘success’ has been proportional to our readiness and willingness to exterminate or subjugate ‘competitors’ (plants, animals, other human cultures and members of our own culture) with deliberate, zealous and ruthless barbarity. The consequence, he says, is that human evolution has self-selected for savagery and bred compassion out of the gene pool.

Well, I’m not ready to go that far, although I’m willing to admit that there is evidence to support their views.

I would say, instead, that we are no more homo rapiens than we are homo benevolens, and that there are counter-examples (such as in the Davids’ The Dawn of Everything) that support the argument that our evolutionary ‘success’ is not really due to our savagery, but rather more to our diversity.

My view of human nature, now, I would say, is rather more neutral. For now, I believe that human nature is whatever our conditioned behaviours, given the circumstances of each moment, has led it, and us, to be. Not the crown of creation, nor the scourge of the last million years of the planet’s history. Not inherently kind, or cruel, or generous, or selfish, or creative, or destructive. Nature rolled the dice, and this is what has resulted.

Only she knows how it’s all going to end, and she’s not talking. She’s indifferent.

This entry was posted in Collapse Watch, How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Nature of the Beast

  1. Joe Clarkson says:

    What we (are conditioned to) believe has absolutely no reciprocal impact on our subsequent (conditioned) behaviours.

    This is a problematic statement and entirely at odds with your views on free will.

    First, it separates “belief”, a function of the human brain, from the physical world, much the same way religious believers separate out a human soul and some philosophers separate out human agency (free will). How can a belief be structurally different than any other function of the brain, like sensory inputs or neurological signals to the rest of the body? If all there is to the universe is matter and energy, any human thought must be a part of that reality. If I believe in unicorns, my belief is real, even if unicorns are not.

    Second, your statement also neglects the complicated way that conditioning is affected by feedback from results of prior conditioning. If I am conditioned by caloric scarcity to be hungry, conditioned by that hunger to seek sustenance and I then eat something that easily provides enough calories, I develop a belief that what I ate is good for me. That belief will condition future food selection behavior. It has become part of a conditioned brain.

    Third, your statement denies the ability of language be part of what conditions us. I suggest that human language exists and that language has consequences in the real world. If my suggestion has any validity, neural output in the form of an expression of belief has consequences in the real world, not only for the hearers of the expression, but also for the speaker (self-conditioning).

    I short, beliefs, and the language expressing them, are some of the myriad things in the world that condition us. How can they not be?

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Joe: The purpose of my article, and the previous one on conditioning, was to explain how and why, counter-intuitively, our beliefs do not condition our behaviours. I can’t address your concerns properly in a comments thread, but I appreciate you expressing them and will try again in a future article to articulate them more convincingly. I’m still sorting this out in my own mind and, as I say, like a lot of things about free will, it is very counter-intuitive.

  3. Joy says:

    Nature is NOT INDIFFERENT. The violence of Storms and Heat are responding directly to HUMAN Thoughts and ACTIONS. If the world population were to accept and support LIFE in all its expressions, there would be No Weather Crisis or Global Heat excess. Personal Self-Interests are at the root of TRUMP and his ILK, mega- Billioneers, who cannot live long enough to enjoy their excessive wealth, but are not willing to share and restore a General sense of wellbeing for the masses. Either SOCIAL and SHARING OR PERSONAL ED ANTAGE AT THE EXPENSE OF EVERYONE ELSE, is TRUMP’S character. Momento Mori

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