All Commentary
Monday, August 31, 1970

The Denaturization of Human Nature


The 1960′s were distinguished, among other respects, by a series of best-selling books which began with African Genesis, by Robert Ardrey, published in 1961. Some­thing in this work caught the popular fancy, and it rocketed through seventeen printings. Pub­lishing houses are not oblivious to intellectual fashions. In the years since, we have had six printings of The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris; eight printings of On Aggression, by Konrad Lorenz; Ardrey has succeeded himself with The Territorial Imperative; Mor­ris has succeeded himself with The Human Zoo; there have been dozens of other workings of the same lodes.

This article is reprinted by permission from the May 6, 1970, issue of Manas. Mr. Ander­son, a Research Specialist with the California State Department of Public Health, is author of a book to be published this fall by Crowell, So Shall Ye Reap.

Despite considerable differences in the backgrounds of the authors, and disparities in emphasis and tone, this cycle of books has in common certain basic assumptions which, it would seem, may fairly be summarized as follows:

First: All posit that man is limited, “programmed,” impris­oned by his animal heritage. The sometime British gerontologist, novelist, and lyricist, Sir Alex Comfort, in a book entitled Nature and Human Nature, pursues this doctrine further than most, to assert that man “carries with him… heirlooms” not only from but­terflies, boring beetles, and ba­boons, but also “from his inorganic… past.”

Second: All these works assume that the doctrine of instincts ap­plies equally well to man, apes, reptiles, birds, fish, and insects, although some hedge with the term “drives,” and Ardrey employs the contradiction-in-terms “open-ended instincts.”

Third: All imply, and some state flatly, that not only is man not superior to other animals as he frequently flatters himself: he is lower than they—he is more bes­tial than any beast—in his sexual promiscuity, and even more par­ticularly in his predatoriness and pugnacity. As Ardrey has it, he is a killer ape.

Fourth: “Liberal optimism” and “romantic fallacies”—which is to say, any viewpoints to the con­trary—are bootless or worse than bootless. The only hope for man lies in abandoning his deluded efforts to be decent, rational, just, and merciful, and embracing the fact he is inherently irrational and murderous. The details of how this might work in practice are understandably vague, but appar­ently wars and race hatreds would end if men were no longer re­pressed in their instinctual desires to vent their bloodlust on objects closer to hand: parents, perhaps; or wives.

Fifth: These books, however, do not strip man of quite all his human qualities. He is left with a few darker, neurotic character­istics. And then, in a grand, final paradox, the bolder of the New Biologists impute these “human” attributes to other animals, just as they have already assigned “animal” attributes to man. This doctrine is articulated, for ex­ample, in The Soul of the Ape, by Eugene Marais, published posthu­mously with a “glowing introduc­tion” by Ardrey. Marais argued that chacma baboons suffer from “hesperian depression” and use intoxicants to escape from “the pain of consciousness.” Thus, in the end, man is denied even his neuroses as distinguishing quali­ties, and left with no peculiarly human nature at all.

Beyond the Apes

There will be no attempt here to review these propositions sys­tematically—or the very long, very old controversy over nature and nurture of which they are only one manifestation. Suffice it here to say that just because a Viennese ornithologist, a Trans­vaal lawyer, a British botanist, and an American playwright assev­erate that men are more animal­istic than apes, and apes more human than men, does not neces­sarily mean that these assevera­tions are true. Many alternative propositions are available, and they are not without their own forms of evidence, and advocators. The very process of reviewing alternatives, for example, and choosing deliberately between them, is wholly inexplicable in terms of instinctivism, or any other form of reductionist psy­chology or anthropology.

Perhaps one may dismiss Sartre as a mere philosopher when he contends man is by nature free and there is no exit from his freedom. Perhaps one may dismiss Buber as mere Hasidic humanist when he writes:

Man is not a centaur, he is man through and through. He can be un­derstood only when one knows, on the one hand, that there is something in all that is human, including thought, which belongs to the general nature of living creatures, and is to be grasped from this nature, while knowing, on the other hand, that there is no human quality which belongs fully to the gen­eral nature of living creatures and is to be grasped exclusively from it. Even man’s hunger is not an animal’s hunger….

Perhaps, too, one might choose to dismiss Maslow and the whole emergent field of “third force,” existential, or humanistic psy­chology as too soft-hearted and optimistic for one’s taste. But one would then still have to argue with Ashley Montagu, who first achieved eminence as a tough-minded nat­ural scientist, colleague of Julian Huxley’s, and observer of the “culture” of wild birds, who reached the mature conclusion that there is a quantum jump from other species to Homo sapiens. And one would have to argue with the even tougher-minded Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, Joshua Lederberg, who states that he has yet to find any evidence in his studies for the inheritance of human behavioral characteristics, and specifically repudiates the doc­trine of the innate depravity of man. And one would have to argue with the five-and-a-half-year-old girl who recently told me, in the wisdom of her years, “People are better than cats, because people have a sense of humor and cats don’t.”

Why Take the Dim View?

For the sake of discussion, let us say that all the evidence is in­conclusive, that the old “heredity vs. environment” controversy is still open, and that the final answer on the nature of human nature (or, for that matter, animal na­ture) is not yet vouchsafed us. Let us turn, instead, to a question which is scarcely less intriguing, but very much more modest in scope and approachable in meth­od: Why do people choose to em­brace one theory about their own natures, as against others which are at least as plausible, when they have a choice?

Why did the “killer ape” books sell hundreds of thousands of copies, while Fromm’s Revolution of Hope, for example, sold only a few thousand? Why did fashion change so drastically from the 1950′s, when the nonfiction best­sellers were Kids Say the Darndest Things by Art Linkletter, Twixt Twelve and Twenty by Pat Boone, and Only in America by Harry Golden, to works of profound help­lessness and hopelessness, point­ing toward human extinction, and indeed denying that man has ever existed as man at all?

We have available to us now, more than people have ever had available to them before, a wealth of hypotheses about who we are, and where we are going, and where we should be going, and why. Never before have men had such a plenitude of possibilities among which to choose. Why have so many of them chosen to think they are unthinking brutes? Why, par­ticularly, have people who buy and read books—the best-educated, most privileged people who have ever lived in this world—used their very freedom to deny that they are free?

There used to be a subdiscipline called the Sociology of Knowledge, which addressed such questions as these, before sociology itself be­came a reductionistic science. Be­cause the Sociology of Knowledge relied on insight, which is no longer an accepted method, and did not lend itself to the statistical survey, almost the only recognized method today, it apparently no longer has any academic standing. But if so­ciologists will not touch the im­portant sociological questions, then someone else must, for they are vital questions.

Human Qualities Recently Acquired

Here is one interpretation of the fact that a great many literate persons, during this particular period of time, in this particular social-cultural-economic-political setting, have chosen to believe a radically dehumanizing body of conjecture about their own na­tures: man does not yet feel en­tirely comfortable with his dis­tinctive condition, shorn of the instinctual gyroscopes which guide other species through most of their existence. Man does not yet feel altogether at ease with the re­quirement that he has to decide for himself what he is going to eat, what he shall wear, if any­thing, and every other event in his life, from the most trivial to the most momentous. Man does not yet feel secure with his great feelings of love, or with the fact he has a sense of honor, sense of history, and sense of humor that are better than a cat’s. He has, after all, had only a short time to grow accustomed to such char­acteristics. Perhaps, when all the evidence is in, it will prove to have been only a few tens of thousands of years.

The necessity to review alterna­tives and make choices, moment by moment, day by day, year by year, often seems wearisome. The more alternatives there are, and the more information one has about each, the more onerous it is to make decisions. Sometimes it grows agonizing, and sometimes it seems next to impossible. How much easier to let someone else make the choices! How alluring, how beguiling, how tempting to search for some force, some agency exterior to ourselves, to blame when a decision turns out to be mistaken!

Probably the most notorious ex­ample within living memory, of man’s temptation to avoid the burdens of choice and responsi­bility was the willingness of most of the German people to turn over their decision-making to Hitler. But no culture yet devised, includ­ing our own, has proved immune to this temptation—particularly in times of crisis, which is but an­other way of saying times when decision-making becomes most dif­ficult.

Search for a Scapegoat

Thus, for example, the vogue of Freudianism in our society cannot be explained wholly in terms of the intrinsic merits of the doctrine itself. The doctrine is full of in­adequacies: demonstrable realities which it cannot explain, and elab­orate reification of theoretical con­structs which have no existence in fact. But Freudianism happened to become widely available at a time when old verities were crum­bling, young people were alienated and restless, older people were confused—a time, during and after the First World War, not unlike our own.

How comforting it was to be able to buy absolution from the new priesthood of psychoanalysis: absolution from the pain of free­dom and its attendant responsibil­ities. How comforting to be able to blame everything on a universal scenario in which no actor was accountable for his acts: boys couldn’t help having problems be­cause they couldn’t help wanting to go to bed with their mothers, and kill their fathers, and all the rest of it.

As America, and Western civil­ization generally, lost faith in their own reasonableness and goodness, Freudianism was by no means the only suitor for dis­placed amor proprio. Many other candidate theories entered the lists and had greater or lesser success in jousting for the favor of man’s self-doubt and disillusionment. McDougall and his school of in­stinctivism anticipated the New Biologists by fifty years. Terman and the psychometrists reduced everything to I.Q. and other stand­ardized tests. Kretschmer and the somatotypologists had their day. Hooton and the eugenicist racists had their day. And not only did Watson and the stimulus-re­sponse behaviorists have their day—their day is not done. More psy­chologists are probably still com­mitted to that form of determin­ism than to any other.

But none of those doctrines has really solved or absolved anything or anyone. The world seems to be falling apart, worse than ever. Nothing we do seems to go right. If we discipline our children, as the behaviorists say we should, they run away from home and take to drugs and the gutter. If we indulge them, they do the same things under our very eyes. The more we give rebellious students, the more they seem to rebel. The more concern we turn to the situa­tion of the poor, and racial and ethnic minorities, the more “un­grateful” and “demanding” these groups seem to grow. And hang­ing over everything, constantly, is the doomsday machine. We feel ourselves crushed by questions which have no answers, by prob­lems which do not retreat before our best efforts to approach them with reason, decency, and gener­osity. Nothing seems logical orfair, as we have traditionally reckoned logic and fairness.

Seeking a Way Out

So a lot of us are giving up. We are yielding to the old temptation. We are looking for a way to flee to some womb, some cradle, some person, or organization, or theory, which will murmur to us, sweet and low, “There, there. Don’t worry. It’s none of your doing. It’s not your fault. It’s out of your hands.”

Something of this sort must account for the spectacle of other­wise rational people turning to astrology. The vulgarized modern version of astrology offers the completely logic-tight alibi. If one has an unchecked temper, is a miser, is unfaithful to his wife, or whatever, he is blameless. He was born under the sign of Scorpio, when the moon was in the seventh house of Venus, and so forth. The understanding of Shakespeare is now stood on its head: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in ourselves, but in our stars, that we are underlings.”

Others are finding solace in equally superficial versions of Eastern philosophies which are taken to mean there is no good or evil, all questing is futile, every­thing on earth must be accepted just as it is. There are many other closed systems from which one may choose. Cybernetics, to name an example which is rela­tively “respectable” intellectually. Scientology, to name one which is not. The old warhorse, Marxism, is still available to those who find it reassuring to be able to refer every human question (including evolution) to a class struggle.

The New Biology

And now comes the so-called New Biology, offering to grant surcease from the cares of being human. But for all the colorful new phrase­ology in which it may be couched, it is actually another tired war­horse, far older than Marxism, Freudianism, or Pavlovianism. Man’s efforts to link himself with other animals have been very com­mon throughout history—as they no doubt were in prehistory—being elevated to the status of religion in many cultures. This ef­fort received its greatest intellec­tual impetus from The Origin of Species in 1859. Or, rather, from Neo-Darwinists who came later, and believed they could serve their mentor best by extending his ideas to all things, biological and social. Darwin himself was too much a scientist, and too much a human being, to claim that the processes he postulated in other species were necessarily binding upon the one species conscious of itself.

The terminology is different; the new biological determinists call themselves Ethologists. The evidence grows more sophisticated, as more fossils are unearthed in Tanzania and the Transvaal. But, at bottom, the appeal is the same as that advanced by other de-humanists at other times in other places: you had best jettison that sentimental nonsense about free will, and get in step with your biologically ordained destiny. You are only a very intricate machine, and by trying to be something more, you are just short-circuiting your computer program, and mak­ing yourself miserable.

Are Jews and Arabs locked in a death struggle, which may turn into World War III? Is that what’s troubling you? Forget it. They are only doing what comes naturally—acting out the territorial im­perative. Worried about the con­flict between communism and cap­italism? Forget it. Worried about a dehumanizing job, a dehumaniz­ing marriage, a dehumanizing ed­ucation? Forget it. None of these is a biological problem and there­fore none of them is real. Since there is no such thing as humani­zation, there can be no such thing as dehumanization.

The Meaning of Responsibility

Because such a world-view makes everything so simple and undemanding, it is a very attractive escape route for large num­bers of people. But its vogue will be brief, and all but the truest true believers will soon be looking for other approaches to the prob­lems of being human, for two good and sufficient reasons. First, because doctrines of biological de­terminism, applied intact to man, are false: all are helpless to ac­count for the overwhelming evi­dence which anyone can see for himself by looking inward upon the rich, unpredictable, unending dialogue which takes place within himself, and within every healthy human being, during virtually every waking moment. There is no way man can turn off his brain and plug into an instinct-board or any other kind of equipment which will dictate his actions. Every moment is a decision; the sum total of those decisions is a life. If a man acts selfishly, cruelly, aggressively, it is not because any black gene, or any misanthropic molecules wandering through his central nervous system, compel him to; it is because he has chosen to do so. If he acts lovingly, it is because he has chosen to do that.

Secondly, all the fads and fash­ions which are momentarily en­ticing because they seem to sanc­tion the denial of responsibility—all the literature of “the dimin­ishment of man,” as Archibald MacLeish called it in his Founder’s Day address at the University of California last year—all this will falter and fail, not only because it is false, but because it is so un­pleasurable and unsatisfying. There is another side to freedom and responsibility, thought and will and choice, besides the terror and pain of it. Sometimes one is bound to choose badly, no doubt, but in any lifetime one will some­times surely choose well, too. And therein the unique human joy, and the unique human glory. No com­fort which any dogma may confer can compare with the oceanic feel­ing of accomplishing something innovative and distinctive; of making a difference, even a small difference, through one’s personal efforts; of holding fast to one’s own craggy integrity; of disbeliev­ing when everyone else believes if that is what one truly feels; of believing when everyone else dis­believes, if that is necessary to keep faith with one’s self. In short, no form of determinism has ever offered or will ever offer any reward great enough to com­pensate for the loss of being a real person.

The “killer ape” and other re­ductionist theories will pass. More adequate, more humane, and there­fore more satisfying alternatives will be selected from the great smorgasbord of ideas, hypotheses, theories, which make this such an unprecedentedly exciting time to live—a time in which the perils are exceeded only by the possi­bilities.

However he may try to distract or suppress it, man has an in­eradicable hunger for authenticity, an itch to use the capacities which are his alone. Since he is capable of oceanic feelings, capable of cre­ative thought, capable of becom­ing an autonomous individual, cap-able of changing, he can never be reconciled with his own deepest yearnings unless he feels those feelings, thinks those thoughts, becomes that unique being, and then goes on to surpass himself.

Nostrums which promise relief from the burdens of uncertainty and openness give only fleeting re­lief at best. Then the itch to be human begins again.

 

***

Ground for Optimism

To take half a million laborers a year for a period of years, com­ing to us from a state of poverty, bringing nothing but their two hands, and put them on the road to prosperity was no small achievement. Superficial observers pointed to the slums of our cities and were impressed by their permanency. They did not look closely enough to see that, though the slums continued, the per­sonnel of the slums changed. The slums were like a reservoir, fed by one stream and drained by another. The reservoir seems to be permanent, though the water changes. The newly arrived immi­grants formed the stream that fed the slums. Their promotion to positions that brought greater economic prosperity was the stream that drained the slums. This ought to have been, and was to those who understood it, ground for optimism.

THOMAS NIXON CARVER, The Present Economic Revolution in the United States (1925)