Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Observing Apes In Order To Understand Human Nature

My book project is "Divine Primates: How Human Nature Has Gotten Us Into - And Can Help Get Us Out Of - Our Global Crises." Basically, I propose that we need a more grounded understanding of our own human nature as primates in order to deal with our global sustainability crises. Currently, we are trapped in a distorted paradigm that sees humans as some sort of divine race of super-beings. In fact, science shows us that we are not all that different from other species. The vast majority of our decisions involve lower order needs and desires that have nothing to do with our highly developed intelligence. Perhaps if we were less impressed with our creativity and scientific accomplishments, we would stop messing around with our global ecosystems.

Two recent news items serve to illustrate the proposition that we are not nearly as intelligent as we might like to believe. First, the Seattle Times, November 1, 2007, reported the death of a person named Washoe at the age of 42. Washoe was a chimpanzee. In fact, she was a world-famous chimpanzee who was probably the first of her species to learn American Sign Language. She could use around 250 signs from American Sign Language to communicate with people. However, what may be more remarkable is that Washoe taught sign language, without assistance, to another chimpanzee, named Loulis.

Second, Dr. Laurie Santos, a Yale Psychologist, has been conducting cognitive research on monkeys that is breaking new ground. Dr. Santos is studying aspects of human congnition that relate to our unconscious behavior. This research reveals our nature as humans, rather than the nature of the constructed intellectual worlds we like to inhabit. Dr. Santos has found that monkeys make the same kinds of poor economic decisions as humans do, over and over again.

For me, these two views of the similarities between human and non-human primates confirm that I am on the right track with my book. Humans, indeed, can be trained to do many amazing things. We can become doctors, researchers, baseball players and entertainers. Yet, we still appear incapable of living sustainably on our planet. This isn't about our intelligence, but rather about how our nature manifests. We choose to be entertained rather than educated, very often. We are often inclined to view or interact with members of the opposite sex we find attractive, rather than more productive activities. We are drawn to shiny objects rather than books or conversation, very often. We are drawn to SUV's rather than bicycles, etc., etc. We sometimes get angry, rationalize and/or make excuses rather than face up to our problems and our failings.

There are ways to help us construct a healthier, more sustainable culture and I address these in my book. While there is plenty of room for non-exclusive spirituality and diverse traditions in the future, a new look at human nature will probably indicate that old-fashioned "my way is the only way" religions need to be replaced by interspirituality that respects all traditions.
To read more on my book project, see my other blog entries at or go to my website, Your comments are welcome, right here, right now, on this blog! You must have some reaction or opinion on this topic!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...