Human/Nature

Nature is essentially and unapologetically pro-life. It “wants” life to live. From dandelion beings to human beings, Nature equips all its creatures with the tools they need to survive. These tools consist of biological drives, such as hunger and thirst, plus the means to satisfy these drives. In non-human animals the means to satisfy these needs comes in the form of a full set of survival behaviors — installed. Humans, on the other hand, come with a full set of needs, but must look to culture to provide strategies to satisfy these needs. In other words, human needs are biologically determined; but how we satisfy them must be culturally constructed. In order to survive, human nature is biologically determined to construct and be constructed by culture. It is this single characteristic which distinguishes the human animal from the non-human animal.

And why would Nature choose to create a species which is biologically determined to be culturally constructed? Because, although depending on extrinsic rather than inborn patterns of behavior to meet our basic needs for human survival is pretty risky (it significantly widens the margin for error in the game of life), our reliance on extrinsic sources of information increases our species’ ability to survive through adaptation (by providing generalized cultural patterns, rather than specific, locked in biological programs).

Take our biologically determined need, hunger. In terms of satisfying this need, members of the human species have improved their chances for survival by developing a broad range of cuisines which are adapted to the part of the world they find themselves in — from whale blubber to yucca. Although these food choices may be geographically influenced, they are not biologically determined. No one is biologically determined to eat egg rolls in the way that a horse eats grass or vultures eat carrion. However, we are biologically determined to eat something and to look to culture to tell us what that something is. Today, culture is falling down on the job, as it is telling us to eat stuff which may look like food, but is really a collection of chemicals a mile long. But, I digress.

We are also biologically determined to look to culture to tell us how to get access to the necessities of life. Do we conquer other peoples? Do we corner the market on arable land and other natural resources? Or, do we find ways to share the water hole? We are not biologically determined to be bellicose or diplomatic. The choice is cultural and pragmatic. It is based on reason – or should be. That is, ideally it is based on what makes the most sense in terms of survival. When reason no longer prevails and nothing is making sense any more, it is time for a change.

In terms of how we understand our relationship to the source of the necessities of life (nature and the earth), do we cherish nature? Or do we exploit its riches until we have completely used them up and fouled our nest in the process? Our cultures decide for us and tell us what to do. When we are getting bad information, it is time for a change.

Because humans are biologically determined to need cultural constructs, and because our survival depends on these cultural constructs, they have hooks deep within our psyches. So powerful are they it is as if different cultures construct different kinds of human beings – a sort of culture-specific human nature. The result is that each culture assumes its survival strategies – its “values” — are right – and everyone else is wrong. We even go so far as to judge the actions of other peoples as “going against human nature” when they differ significantly from our own. We even go so far as to go to war with people.

Understanding the fundamental and deep-seated nature of our differences should help us recognize why it is sometimes so difficult to accept other peoples and other cultures. They are not just like us – only dressed differently. They are different. Really, fundamentally, different. And so are we. Recognizing and honoring our differences, we should take the time and trouble to understand each other. It is both demeaning to other cultures – and dangerous to us — to believe they are “just like us.” (This does not mean that we should accept or condone practices within other cultures which are cruel and work against the well being of all, any more than we accept those practices in our own culture. For example, honor killings or corporate greed.)

But the fact that our human natures are culturally constructed means we have a way out if our culture is leading us down the path of destruction. If we have constructed a culture (which in turn has constructed us) whose values and strategies no longer make any sense in the world we live in, nature has given us the latitude to construct a different culture which will in turn construct a new human nature. As I said at the beginning of this essay, Nature is pro-life, she is on our side. She wants our species to survive. In spite of everything we have done to her. We, like the rest of the natural world, have a strong advocate in our corner.

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