CHAPTER 16. HUMAN NATURE
It is much closer to the truth to think that humans are advanced baboons in suits than that they are beings created in the image of God. (What blasphemy! What egotism! For if God is like humans, we are all in trouble!) If more of us adopted the former view it would help lessen the arrogancy and self-satisfaction of humans. The Adam and Eve myth of Genesis is a good story in the sense that it emphasizes that man is basically weak and sinful. This is a much more spiritual approach also because it does aide in enforcing humility among humans. Self-satisfaction does not remind humans that they constantly have to struggle to be good. A view of humans as very far from perfect constantly forces them to question their beliefs, motives, and actions.
The preceding chapters make several things clear about human beings. Human beings, like all the rest of life, are chemical beings. Even our thought processes are chemical in nature. Furthermore, human beings are definitely animals with animal natures included in the human brain. As animals, humans are subject to a great many mental illnesses, many of which are moralistically called "deviances." Humans developed within a social context, and in this process developed the human tendency for self-deception. This social selection of self-deception explains much of the human ability to rationalize the most evil of behaviors, such as slavery and continued equality-of-opportunity racism. These themes will be greatly expanded in this chapter.
Chemical Nature of Thought
No matter how much racists and moralists scream in pain at the following statement, their resistance will not stop us from considering humans as sophisticated chemistry. Human beings have been able to accomplish a great deal in their rule over the other creatures (both good and bad), but humans are still chemical in nature, just as are the one celled prokaryotes.
Even the much-touted ability of humans to think is largely chemical in nature. Patricia Smith Churchland (1986) argues that the very processes of thought are chemical in nature. In the future, philosophers interested in subjects such as epistemology (i.e., the origin of knowledge) will have to build their theories on the actual physical workings of the brain. (One can say the same for all the social sciences.)
Recently a new technique has been added to the study of the brain (reported in Hunt:33). A Danish team measured the blood flow through the brain during different mental activities. They did so by injecting radioisotopes into the bloodstream and recording the varying levels of radioactivity throughout the brain. Through these studies, scientists have found that complex mental tasks call for the interaction of a number of parts of the brain, in the rearward parietal lobes as well as the forebrain. Some scholars have compared this activity to a computer program, where the main program picks up different subroutines depending on the nature of the problem to be solved. However, the brain is much more sophisticated than any computer. For instance, a computer cannot begin to match an experienced plant admirer's ability to identify certain trees at a mere glance.
The new brain research has also found that memory is a very complicated phenomena. Different types of memories (verbal, semantic, visual, aural, and so on) each have their own patterns, and each is classified and retrieved in its own way. Moreover, most classes of memories are not stored in a single area, but rather are spread all around the brain.
Mental Illness and Neurotransmitters
Precisely because man is a chemical being as well as an evolutionary being, the species is going to be subject to chemical problems of control. This is nowhere better illustrated in the problems of mental illness that beset human beings.
We are at the start of a second health revolution. The discovery of neurotransmitters ranks with the discovery of DNA in its significance for the progress of human knowledge. It is a fundamental breakthrough in the understanding of the workings of not only of the brain in general, but mental illness in particular. Indeed, humankind may have finally opened the door to both understanding the brain and the curing of mental illness.
Through the discovery of the role of neurotransmitters, humankind will increasingly reject puritanical and Freudian explanations for mental illness and realize that mental illness is primarily a matter of chemical imbalances rather than moral failings. The sufferings of millions of victims of mental illness have been made worse by the added guilt that they are somehow morally deficient or do not have the courage to "pull themselves together." And one should not forget the millions of parents of the mentally ill, whose pain has been increased by feelings of moral failure and the opprobrium of friends and neighbors.
The neocortex made it possible for man to be more rational and to gain more control over primitive emotions, instincts, and reflexes. Indeed, it is now realized that almost all the functions of the neocortex are devoted to controlling the animal aspects of other parts of the brain. There is some support for the idea that the brain does this by developing receptor sites, widely distributed throughout the cerebral cortex, that receive chemical messages, which then have a modulating effect on such psychological states as anxiety.
In healthy individuals, the neocortex does a fair job of fighting off such primitive emotions as fear and aggression. For instance, when a person starts to experience an unreasonable fear reaction to a normally non-threatening situation, the brain issues chemical messages that calm the panic feelings. However, in many persons there is a problem with the neurotransmitter system so that the calming messages do not get through and the people react to ordinary situations with fear more appropriate to the age of the early mammals.
Many things can go wrong with the neurotransmitter system. Some of the neurotransmitter travels back to the messenger neuron and reenters the synaptic vesicles, while some becomes metabolized (or broken down chemically and therefore made ineffective) through a chemical enzyme circulating in the synapse. There can be too much or too little of the enzyme, however, which then causes excesses or deficiencies of the neurotransmitter.
The neurotransmitters are involved in all four major syndromes of mental illness. These syndromes are the affective, schizophrenic, and anxiety disorders, as well as the dementias. Furthermore, chemistry is also at the basis of much of our human personalities. The second volume in the anti-racist series covered this area in depth and so it will not be recovered here. Suffice it to say that although mental illness can be inherited or can arise from abuse, trauma, or prolonged excessive stress in either childhood or adulthood, in virtually every mental illness there is involved some imbalance (usually involving neurotransmitters) in brain chemistry.
Animal Nature of Humans
Virtually everyone knows that, in humans, the neocortex became the largest and most prominent part of the brain (comprising 85 percent of the adult brain). This neocortex is responsible for man's ability to solve problems and to develop accumulated knowledge. This obviously gave man a great advantage over the other animals in the struggle for survival. However, what many people do not realize is that, just as with the other animals, this evolutionary improvement overlays the older, non-human animal parts of the brain.
Doctor Paul McLean has identified parts of the human brain that derive from the reptiles and mammals. In humans, the neural chassis consists of the medulla oblongata, pons, midbrain, spinal cord, and cerebellum. Around this chassis is the part of the brain called the reptilian complex. This consists of the olfactostriatum, the corpus striatum, and the globus pallidus. This complex supplies the need for both self- and species- preservation. The reflex circuits here account for such reptile- evolved expressions of emotion as the rage of newborn babies and the need to establish one's territory and to fight to protect it. Here also psychologists and other social scientists should seek the source of the jealousies that often poison man's relationship with his fellow man.
Over the reptilian complex is the mammalian-derived limbic system. This consists of the basal ganglia, hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus. The limbic system is the source of many emotions, including feelings of ecstasy and maternal love.
The existence of these older animal brains should go a long way to explain long misunderstood human characteristics, such as the subconscious (Strickland 1979). Most of the data that flows to the neocortex proceeds to it through the reptilian to the mammalian brain. Indeed, the older brain often solves problems without the neocortex even being conscious of the actions taken. One example is the automatic nature of blinking that keeps the eyes constantly wet. Such a division of labor is helpful to humans because the conscious self does not have to be bothered with such routine body adjustments. Another example is how the subconscious suppresses the feelings of pain when humans become involved in physical fights. Only after the fight is over do the feelings of pain become noticeable. In addition, the role of the older brain, at least in part, explains the human norm that it is rude to stare. After all, in both animal and human worlds, staring indicates some proclivity to aggression. While humans no longer conclude that a staring individual has aggressive intentions, the subconscious reacts uneasily.
In the future, psychologists and social scientists will increasingly relate observable human behavior to the inner workings of the brain. The knowledge of the human brain, as well as animal brains, should open a whole new frontier, as social scientists seek more chemical connections to human behavior.
Given the animal nature of humans, the role of social control of humans is absolutely essential for a fair and orderly society. However, much of what passes for social control is really justification for the privilege of one social group over another. It is essential that social scientists ferret out what part of human behavior is innate and which is due to social control, and how the two interact, for a fair balance of social scientific analysis.
Humans as Self-deceptors
An interesting area, and one that applies to the prejudice against sociobiology itself, is the possible evolution in humans of a genetic basis for self-deception. R. D. Alexander (1979) in his Darwinism and Human Affairs has argued that the ability to follow the lead of the group is increased if one believes in the validity of the group. Therefore, those showing more social compliance may have been socially selected because they were more likely to meet with social approval, and therefore receive higher rank and a greater chance of reproductive success in future generations in terms of genetic transmission. Those most successful in society are those who actually believe what they say and do, even if others regard this as self-deception. Humans, therefore, are naturally reluctant to believe that their thoughts and activities are the result of biological self-deception, or anything else short of the purest of motives. This tendency of humans to be self-deceptive goes a long way to explain why entire societies, such as South Africa and the United States, can engage in such massive deception that the white members of the society never see their own racism.
Self-deception also ties in with other, nastier human tendencies, such as prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice comes so naturally to humans because it consists of negative opinions given sanction by the larger society. And the larger society sanctions prejudice because the dominant social groups perceive prejudice and discrimination to be socially advantageous, at least in the short run, in the competition between various groups in society.
A hierarchy of self-deception that faces humans. They are least objective about themselves, then their families, followed by their society. They can be most objective about phenomena not involved with their own personal, group, and social affiliations. For instance, American social scientists can clearly see the racism at work in South Africa, but have great difficulty in seeing the racism in their own society.
This biochemistry of self-deception obviously makes humans very poor social scientists as far as their own social groupings are concerned. Dissenting thoughts do not come naturally to even the most brilliant of humans. An example, of course, is the failure of American and foreign thinkers to recognize fully the key role racism has played in American life. Naturally, the society also discourages dissent through myriad and ingenious forms of punishment. It is much easier, both innately and socially speaking, to go along with group opinion. This social blindness should also alert social thinkers to the folly of assuming that an idea is valid just because an idea is thoroughly accepted in one's own society. Most social scientists, however, just like most of their fellow citizens, are not able to be objective enough to evaluate fairly their own society. While social scientists praise themselves for being liberals, and therefore not believing what the common citizen believes, he or she is still fooling themselves because they believe in the appropriate liberal sentiments, which are socially permissible beliefs. In other words, controlling perhaps for a higher average intelligence, most social scientists are as unoriginal as most of their fellow citizens. Often the only really creative social scientists are those from social groups that are socially abused, which makes them skeptical of the social proclamations of the larger society.
The real difference between human beings and the other animals -- and a difference that will not be overthrown by further research -- is that humans have the ability to justify their own social hierarchies in glowing terms of myriad philosophies and ideologies. But it must not be forgotten, that no matter how humans praise themselves in their own self-excusing idea systems, they are still animals. When humans forget this basic fact, they start to take themselves too seriously which only leads to further self-corruption and delusion.
It is actually healthy to think of human beings as baboons in business suits. In spite of all their self-praise, most of what humans say is really just a series of justifications for various forms of social injustice. And this statement applies to an American president as well as to an Egyptian king. Those speakers who claim otherwise are those for which one really has to be watchful, for they are probably involved in covering up or actually committing some of the greatest social injustices. Indeed, as a general rule, it can be said that the greater the ideological stress on the role of idealism over against materialism in a society, the greater the possibility of the existence of substantial social injustice that the society is trying to be conceal.
The Biochemistry of Self-Deception
The biochemistry of self-deception has not been worked out fully, to say the least. There are, however, some promising leads. J. Z. Young (1978:86-88) in his The Programs of the Brain has worked out a simplified model of memory that can serve as the basis for a discussion of the biochemistry of self-deception in humans. This model is also a model of psychological conditioning modified by additions from innate sources.
Humans, like all animals, have neural circuits in their brains designed to detect various features of the environment. Each feature detector with its associated neurons constitutes a unit of memory. Each feature detector records the occurrence of a particular type of event (say the best response to an expression of the dominant opinion of the social group, such as equality of opportunity racism). There are two outputs for each feature detector, in this case, agreement with or dissent from the dominant opinion. Most American agree with equality of opportunity racism and reject any dissenting view. Any consideration of dissent may actually be biochemically blocked. Young (1978:91) believes that the small neurons, the amacrine cells, produce inhibitory chemical substances that block the unwanted pathway. (In this example, dissent from the equality of opportunity racism). This is certainly not a permanent blockage. Brain biochemistry can be modified by social experience. Social inequities and mistreatment by the group of the individual can cause a change in the biochemistry of the brain, so that the normally inhibited dissent pathways become disinhibited by biochemical changes caused by the trauma of social abuse. In members of the dominant social group, however, the agreement pathways are heavily reinforced through experience which further invests the agreement pathways with reinforcing neurotransmitters.
Through social evolution, there is a biochemical bias in favor of agreeing with the dominant opinion, and this usually results in the person aligning with group opinion. The dissenting branch from the feature detector is heavily invested with inhibitory neurotransmitters that block this pathway from being taken. Therefore, in most cases, dissent from the group on key social values does not occur.
Just as there is a physiology of group approval and agreement, so there is a physiology of dissent. Compared with social consenters, dissenters from key aspects of the social group's values probably have a different brain biochemistry. There is probably a different balance of chemicals wherein the side branch discouraging dissent is not as heavily invested with inhibitory neurotransmitters.
The dissenting pathways in most humans are so naturally blocked by inhibitory neurotransmitters, that the possibility of dissent never occurs to them. In fact, if confronted with a new idea, such as that of the fundamentally racist nature of the United States, they virtually have a reflex action with no thought or reflection involved at all. They literally dismiss the dissent out-of-hand, so to speak, as the feature detector automatically blocks the dissenting idea from ever reaching cognition. They immediately reject the dissent with objections such as "that's ridiculous" or "that's idiotic."
Speaking in terms of evolution, the inhibition of unpleasant thoughts was crucial to human survival. The world is a frightening place, and fear is a highly destructive emotion, both emotionally and physiologically. But fear is also very necessary for survival. The solution to this dilemma of needing fear receptors, but also needing to discourage the effect of these fear receptors, led to the ability of the brain to employ the psychological technique of repression. The brain keeps its ability to respond to fearful situations, but disinhibits the fear receptors under normal circumstances. One vivid example of the natural repression capability of the human brain is provided by a situation that occurred in one of the concentration camps. One of the inmates, who the Germans forced to help operate the gas chambers, recognized a woman from his hometown. He told the woman of her impending fate. The woman became hysterical and started screaming to her fellow inmates their collective fate at the hands of the Nazis. The reactions of the inmates was to disbelieve her. They dismissed her as a crazy woman or a person spreading irresponsible rumors. What was actually occurring, however, was the evolutionary evolved rejection of ideas too unpleasant for the brain to handle. The non-Jewish German population used similar techniques to deny the stories about the existence of the concentration camps.
The importance of suppression of unpleasant thoughts and ideas is shown in the sufferings of depressed individuals (Restak 1984:192, 290 & 224). Individuals suffering from serious depressions are often plagued by memories of past failures or inadequacies, even if many of these are only imagined. In depression, there is an inability to keep the normally repressed unpleasant memories from coming to cognition. The hippocampus and amygdala are crucially involved in memory. GABA is the neurotransmitter responsible for governing inhibition, while glutamate is responsible for excitation. Furthermore, the chemical vasopressin enhances memory and oxytocin inhibits it. Undoubtedly, the chemical imbalances involved in depression unhinges the system that normally inhibits unpleasant memories.
Inhibition of social dissent is a key part of social control, so the unwanted responses to social agreement become suppressed. Social control reinforces the innate circuits biochemically biased for social agreement. In humans, this innate inhibition is largely the job of the frontal lobes, one of the latest parts of the human brain to develop in terms of evolution. Brain lesions in animal subjects can result in failure to inhibit reactions that are normally suppressed.
Are Humans "Good" or "Evil?"
Hopefully this chapter has already shown that the question of whether humans are basically good or evil is a misleading one. It is better to see humans as animals with an animal's weaknesses. Like animals, humans are quick to anger and slow to cool as it takes a while for the effects of adrenalin and other chemicals to wear off.
Compared to non-human animals, humans do have a considerably improved capacity to think. Therefore, they do try to act by a higher code of ethics. This is important in controlling some of the baser behaviors of humans. But it never truly eliminates the basic animal nature of humans. And, it must be stressed, through most of man's history, the "higher" values of humans have been more often used to justify the destruction of enemies and competitors than to promote greater human understanding.
P.S. I am writing this quite a few years after I wrote the above. Now, June 1, 2006, I am much more convinced than ever that human beings are almost completely liars. I have learned that most social scientists, as well as others, politically cannot accept a version of life that is closer to the truth than their current version. It is not only that they cannot handle the truth, but actively reject it. They don't "like" the truth, so they make up a nicer version of reality, one that is politically acceptable.
Rather than recognize just how limited humans are in their thought and how limited our right to freedom of publication of controversial ideas, which is too hard for them to acknowledge, they think that they already have the truth. Is there anyone as arrogant and self-satisfied as a university professor? Feeling satisfied that they already have the truth, they don't ask the hard questions. Don't they realize that all current thought is still far from the truth and that the thinkers of any current generation will be regarded as mistaken by future generations? That's what progress means. But the academics and other intellectuals, don't ask themselves such uncomfortable questions.
I would recommend reading my article: SOCIOLOGY AS POLITICALLY ACCEPTABLE LIES
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