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Five— Human Nature and Culture: Biology and the Residue of Uniqueness
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VI

In the eithteenth century, Goethe (Magnus 1949) posited the existence of a fundamental or archetypal form in plant life, a sort of key to the order of life itself in the largest sense, and perhaps even of the universe beyond the realm of the living. Indeed, he made his search for order a foil to that of Newton, which he considered too mechanical; he thought that even the fundamental ordering principles of the universe might be biological, not physical. Although in this he went too far, there is a sense in which the Urpflanze , Goethe's ultimate plant form, really does exist and in which it has become, two centuries after he posited it, as central to the enterprise of at least the life sciences as he believed it would be.

The Urpflanze is, of course, DNA, and with the scientific unraveling of its form has come, and will continue to come, a sense of order and power in the realm of biology that only a mind like Goethe's could have imagined. The extent to which the realm of behavior will also come under the sway of this intellectual order remains to be seen; but even the answer to this question will be largely provided by that order. Undoubtedly, the answer will involve mechanisms of epigenesis that include such phenomena as operant conditioning, snesitive periods, psychological trauma, cognitive maps, and symbol systems as well as diet, infection, and injury. But the way these phenomena operate—within the constraints provided by the human genome—to produce individual and collective behavioral patterns and tendencies is vastly more uncertain than the textbooks in the relevant fields allow, and the mutual contradictions of those textbooks underscore the uncertainties. That the delineation of how the environment affects the individual, beyond the hoary pieties of plasticity, remains a task almost completely for the future is perhaps the greatest discovery of the past twenty years.

Two further implications of recent advances in biology need to be emphasized. First, if neo-Darwinian principles of behavior and reproduction are even mostly correct, the fundamental metaphor of modern social science is in error. That metaphor, which is as venerable as social science itself, claims that society is an organism, with individuals as cells, specialized subgroups of individuals as tissues or organs, and conflict as a transient aberration, or pahtology, the elimination of which restores the social organsm to health. The basic weakness of the analogy is most starkly exposed each time an individual or group departs from the soci-


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ety and joins or forms another—something the cells or organs of an animal cannot do, of course—but in fact the weakness is evident in the ubiquity of social conflict even within the most intimately interdependent social relationships. Such conflict is not inadvertent friction in a system that should, by design, function smoothly but is an inherent and inevitable expression of the purposes of social life itself.

Second, the motivational portions of the brain, particularly the hypothalamus, have functional characteristics relevant to the apparent chronicity of human dissatisfaction. Animal experiments on the lateral hypothalamus suggest that the motivated condition is to some extent nonspecific, with the internal state responsive to but not geared for the particular external circumstances. A continuum between attentiveness or alertness and intense drive states ensures that responsiveness will never be long delayed but also that it will not always be appropriate and, more important, that the organisms's chronic internal state will be a vague mixture of anxiety and desire—best described perhaps by the phrase "I want," spoken iwth or without an object for the verb. This insight of physiological psychology about the internal motivational states of animals like ourselves fits well with the more recent insights of sociobiology about the conflictful external relations entered upon by the same and similar animals and also with the failure of the organismal model of societal coherence.

One consequence of these insights is that the view of life current in behavioral biology bears more resemblance to the view taken in the time-honored traditions of the humanities than either does to the canons of social science. Henry James once described life as "slow advance into enemy territory" and wrote, "Life is , in fact, a battle, Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting, but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy" (Zeibel 1951). Similar sentiments have been common in the literary traditions of many societies from the earliest religious and epic sagas to novels and plays completed this morning. Religious traditions of varied character recognize the reality of a deeply, even tragically, flawed human nature, but they exhort against it, while literary artists seem satisfied to describe it. In either case, it is viewed, sadly, as all too real, and these vividly brilliant clasic observations of it fit well with Darwin's remark to Joseph Hooker: "What a book, a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horribly cruel works of nature!"

Of course, that nature also includes an equally inherent ethical component that derives from the necessity for cooperation and altruism, the potential for responsibility, decency, love, even happiness. These capacities, too, are shared by amny other animals, and we can take encouragement from the fact that they are so widespread in nature. But for them


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to prevail requires the kind of collective attention that is possible only in the framework of human culture. In this framework, reflection on the outcomes of natural tendencies results in judgments that restrain or modify those tendencies. It is full of deceptions, but it is much better than nothing, and it exceeds the capabilities of any other animal for similar restraint and modification.

The evolutionary, biological view of human nature provides many parallels with that of animal natures and only a few clear distinctions. Traditionally and presently, distinctions between ourselves and animals have emphasized the primacy and complexity of human rational faculties. But in recent years, the development of artificial intelligence has duplicated a surprising number of those same faculties, and in the community of people who think about the implications of this fact, it is common to distinguish humans from hacines by referring to the human emotional faculties—precisely those we share in common with animals. It would seem that we are sorted to a pulp, caught in a vise made, on the one side, fo the increasing power of evolutionary biology in explaining the emotions and, on the other, of the relentless duplication of human mental faculties by increasingly suble and complex machines. So, what is left of us?

What is left is that only we combine the emotions and the life cycle drama of the animal world with a fully empowered reflective and communicative faculty. No other animal has that faculty, and no machine has an animal bodily life. Other animals can communicate, but they do not exchange views on the rightness or wrongness of their emotions. Machines can network and think, but they cannot discuss their fear of dying. What religious people think of as the soul or spirit can perhaps be fairly said to consist of just this: the intelligence of an advanced machine in the mortal brain and body of an animal. And what we call culture is a collective way of using that intelligence to express and modify the emotions of that brain, the impulse and pain and exhibaration of that body. Both the intelligence and the impulse, the communicative capability and the pain, are components of human nature, and the wy they interact is the unique feature of that nature. Without conceding the existence of human nature, without describing it as forthrightly and richly as possible, we will never fully exercise that crucial feature, which alone holds the prospect of an admittedly limited but absolutely imperative transcendence.


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Five— Human Nature and Culture: Biology and the Residue of Uniqueness
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