Humanities: Basic Assumptions About Being Human
Teaching Humanities, which I have been doing for the past ten years, has always included sharing three specific assumptions regarding the nature of Humankind. To my surprise and fascination some of my students are often shocked by these three key assumptions, when I teach them in class, with a few even denying that it could be true. Well, I believe that they are true, not only from my own observations and experiences, but also because anthropologist, scientists, theologians, sociologists, psychologist and other observers of human nature have supported it in study after study. The basic three assumptions include; human beings are religious by nature, human beings are social by nature, and human beings are conflictual by nature. As a way of wetting your mental appetite for further research and exploration let’s take a quick look at all three.
Human Beings are Religious by Nature.
Now, I didn’t say that human beings naturally gravitate to one religion or the other, just that they are hard wired, created, or evolved to be religious. It is a part of being human. Recently, Psychology Today said this concerning the subject, “Though we can’t prove the existence of one (or many) god(s), we can provide evidence for the power of religion. For good or for evil, faith factors into our everyday functioning: We’ve evolved to believe. Religion can help us make sense of our world, provide motivation, and bind us together. Nevertheless, structured belief has its drawbacks. So keep your mind open when dealing with dogma.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/religion (I bolded the statement to emphasize the point)
This idea proposed in Psychology Today is backed up when we take a hard look at Primal (or Indigenous) Religions that have never had outside contact with the modern world. Often their whole existence and societal structure evolve around religious beliefs, in a very natural way, which create a bridge between the natural world and the spiritual one.
Even pop culture has shown this to be true. If you can go to the Travel Channel and order the Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern Collection 4 Part 1 and watch the Bonus Episode on Kalahari. In this episode Zimmern witness what he calls the oldest ritual known to man the Trance Dance. He notes that ancient rock paintings show that it took place some 20,000 years ago and that it is still happening today. The dance, which takes place around the evening fire, is a time when the souls of the Shamans and other village leaders leave their bodies as they go into a trance and they are filled with the souls of their ancestors. When the ancestors enter the Shaman they bring the power to heal. It is a very physical ordeal, which includes the Shaman laying hands on those individuals in the village that need healing. As Zimmern watches these events he says that he is “a 20th century man losing all points of reference.” He feels himself being moved farther and farther from the world as he knows it and into a spiritual world. At one point the Shaman places his hand on Zimmern who refers to the event as “something I have never experience before.” It is so powerful that it brings tears to his eyes. He says, “I can’t explain it at all, it’s just very, very personal.” Zimmern notes that for these primal peoples the dance which concluded the next morning, “is not a rare event but part of their everyday life.”
CNN recently reported on a huge new study indicating Religious belief is human nature. Richard Allen Greene reported that, “Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings, a massive new study of cultures all around the world suggests.” An Oxford University three-year study project, that included 40 different studies, and multiple countries and people groups, confirmed what Humanities has been teaching all along.
Roger Triggs, Oxford University Professor, who headed the project, acknowledges that the study does not prove the existence of God, but does show how important religion is too humanity. “If you’ve got something so deep-rooted in human nature, thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests,” Trigg said. “There is quite a drive to think that religion is private,” he said, arguing that such a belief is wrong. “It isn’t just a quirky interest of a few, it’s basic human nature.” He also stated, “This shows that it’s much more universal, prevalent, and deep-rooted. It’s got to be reckoned with. You can’t just pretend it isn’t there.”
One thing we which we must take away from all of this is that religion and religious practice may change, but if it is in fact a part of our own make up, it will never wither away.
Human Beings are Social by Nature
Anthropologist Paula Gray posts in her blog, “Human beings are social animals. Our lives depend on other humans. Human infants are born unable to transport or care for themselves. Their survival depends on another human’s efforts. We develop and learn about the world around us through the filter of other people. Our connections to others are key to not only our survival, but also to our happiness and the success of our careers.”
She recommends reading the book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009) by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. I am going to have to read this book myself. I see it on Amazon and it looks good. According to Gray, “they delve into the social theory underlying the impact that our social networks have on our lives.”
Apparently, it expands upon the idea of our social nature and shows how our own natural instincts can be used to make us more productive in our lives and jobs. The books authors confirm the assumption of Humanities about the nature of Humankind which is fundamentally and distinctively social. They write, “While social networks are fundamentally and distinctively human, and ubiquitous, they should not be taken for granted.” How true. We should never take for granted what is basic and inherent in our own make up.
Dr. Dan Erwin, a specialist in performance improvement for executives and business, would agree. He reminds his readers in a blog post of a very famous study done in the mid-fifties by Harry Harlow, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who produced a series of influential studies involving baby rhesus monkeys, which became the basis for Humanities teaching on the subject. I take the liberty to quote his post to acquaint you with the study if you are unfamiliar.
“Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.
Children provide the clearest demonstration of this fact, although it was slow to be accepted. Well into the nineteen-fifties, psychologists were encouraging parents to give children less attention and affection, in order to encourage independence.
He happened upon the findings in the mid-fifties, when he decided to save money for his primate-research laboratory by breeding his own lab monkeys instead of importing them from India. Because he didn’t know how to raise infant monkeys, he cared for them the way hospitals of the era cared for human infants—in nurseries, with plenty of food, warm blankets, some toys, and in isolation from other infants to prevent the spread of infection. The monkeys grew up sturdy, disease-free, and larger than those from the wild. Yet they were also profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves.
At first, Harlow and his graduate students couldn’t figure out what the problem was. They considered factors such as diet, patterns of light exposure, even the antibiotics they used. Then, as Deborah Blum recounts in a fascinating biography of Harlow, “Love at Goon Park,” one of his researchers noticed how tightly the monkeys clung to their soft blankets. Harlow wondered whether what the monkeys were missing in their Isolettes was a mother. So, in an odd experiment, he gave them an artificial one.
In the studies, one artificial mother was a doll made of terry cloth; the other was made of wire. He placed a warming device inside the dolls to make them seem more comforting. The babies, Harlow discovered, largely ignored the wire mother. But they became deeply attached to the cloth mother. They caressed it. They slept curled up on it. They ran to it when frightened. They refused replacements: they wanted only “their” mother. If sharp spikes were made to randomly thrust out of the mother’s body when the rhesus babies held it, they waited patiently for the spikes to recede and returned to clutching it. No matter how tightly they clung to the surrogate mothers, however, the monkeys remained psychologically abnormal.
In a later study on the effect of total isolation from birth, the researchers found that the test monkeys, upon being released into a group of ordinary monkeys, “usually go into a state of emotional shock, characterized by . . . autistic self-clutching and rocking.” Harlow noted, “One of six monkeys isolated for three months refused to eat after release and died five days later.” After several weeks in the company of other monkeys, most of them adjusted—but not those who had been isolated for longer periods. “Twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially,” Harlow wrote. They became permanently withdrawn, and they lived as outcasts—regularly set upon, as if inviting abuse.
The research made Harlow famous (and infamous, too—revulsion at his work helped spur the animal-rights movement). Other psychologists produced evidence of similarly deep and sustained damage in neglected and orphaned children. Hospitals were made to open up their nurseries to parents. And it became widely accepted that children require nurturing human beings not just for food and protection but also for the normal functioning of their brains.
Fascinating reminder of what it means to be human.”
Fascinating it is!
Human Beings are Conflictual by Nature.
I have found that this third assumption about human nature seems to be more controversial than the first two. Last semester I was given a class at Woodbury University on the subject of Conflict. Of course, I taught the class through the lens of the Humanities and how conflict related to the nature of humankind. As I did my research in preparation to teach the class I came to realize that there is much debate about this subject. Is conflict a part of human nature?
Well, I don’t think that any person would argue that conflict is certainly a part of the human experience, but is it an instinctive part of our nature? Are we hard wired for conflict as we are for religion or social contact? There are many propositions given to answer this question. Let’s take a look at a few that might direct our thoughts to some viable conclusion as to why the discipline of Humanities would hold this assumption.
Sun Tzu the ancient military strategist whose work, The Art of War, is considered the holy grail of military strategy even in modern times, certainly believed and proposed that humanity was conflictual by nature. Jan Willem Honig, professor at the Swedish National Defense College and senior lecturer at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London write this about Sun Tzu, “War, or more broadly, conflict is viewed as a never-ending process in Sun Tzu. ‘Winning’ is never defined in the treatise or even identified as an attainable, conclusive state of affairs. Because no end state, no final peace, is ever reached, there will always be an opponent with whom to contend.” (The Art of War Barnes & Noble Signature Edition pp. xxiii)
Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA and author of the book Gun, Germs, and Steel (which I highly recommend you read or at least watch the National Geographic special by the same name) writes this about ancient New Guinea society, “if a New Guinean happened to encounter an unfamiliar New Guinean while both were away from their respective villages, the two engaged in a long discussion of their relatives, in an attempt to establish some relationship and hence some reason why the two should not attempt to kill each other.” This desire to kill an unknown person has been confirmed in many other primal societies by anthropologists and missionaries alike. According to Diamond, people have to learn not to be conflictual which for the New Guineans began with the rise, according to Diamond, “of chiefdoms around 7,500 years ago, people had to learn, for the first time in history, how to encounter strangers regularly without attempting to kill them.” Part of the reason that this natural instinct changes with the rise of chiefdoms was that the chief was given the power to decide if and when force would be used. (Guns, Germs, and Steel Jarod Diamond pp. 260 – 262)
In other words peace not only had to be learned but there had to be an intentional control of the natural inclination to use violence.
Not only is there the idea that peace has to be learned, because it is not natural, and violence must be controlled, because it is natural, we see in the premise for the book Strategic Nonviolent Conflict by Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler. (Another book I would recommend if you are interested in pursuing more about this topic.) peace can be created with the same strategies as conflict. So peace can also be intentionally pursued in strategic ways that can overcome conflict. Ackerman and Kruegler examine strategies and case studies that support their premise particularly in the nonviolent movements that have been successful and not-so-successful. An interesting point that they add is that to be successful in peace a nonviolent movement needs to build, “broad external support for nonviolent struggles” which can be done when that struggle has “core objectives that are of value beyond the fight itself.”
I agree with Ackerman and Krueglers added point as most theologians would. Peace is not only learned, but is also possible through change that has come from some value beyond the fight itself. Although Ackerman and Krueglar don’t address this directly theologians certainly have with the idea that a higher power, or other moral authority, can change human nature; including the inherent tendency to be in conflict. Take for example, the Apostle Paul who certainly felt human beings are conflictual by nature. He wrote that, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” (II Corinthians 5:17 I bolded the statement to emphasize the point)
Of course, St. Paul made the statement “a new creature,” he would have too, because he was well aware that humans can’t possibly act in some other manner than what they are naturally. According to St. Paul, if humanity is to find peace, it is more than just learning; humanity must change its very nature. He goes on to teach that this change occurs through Christ who changes people from naturally conflictive to a completely new being of peace.
The point is that St. Paul saw people as naturally conflictual and in need of change.
Mahatma Gandhi was different according to the book, The Social Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, by K.S. Bharathi, who writes that Gandi, “knew that man at the present state of his being was not perfect, but that did not negate the theoretical possibility of further development which amounted to his perfectibility. Different than St. Paul, but at the heart similar, particularly in the idea that humankind can change and be remade. Bharathi writes, “And this belief (the perfectibility of humanity) logically leads to the conclusion of conversion and remaking of man.” Gandhi told the story, “When I was a little child, there used to be two blind performers in Rajkot. One of them was a musician. When he played on his instrument his fingers swept the strings with an unerring instinct and everybody listened spell-bound to his playing. Similarly, there are cords, in every human heart. If we only know how to strike the right chord, we bring out the music.” Bharathi analysis of Gandhi’s teaching is the foundationally it is a process of “the depraved, being reformed under humane and skilled treatment.” (The Social Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi K. S. Bharathi, Gandhian Studies and Peace Research Series, No 4 South Asia Books April 1992 pp. 108) So although Gandhi did not believe that human beings were by nature conflictive, according to Bharathi, there was still something “depraved” that needed
to be “reformed.”
My final thoughts on this third assumption in the Humanities are the possibility that conflict can also be positive. A little known paper by M. Gene Aldridge, President of the New Mexico Independent Research Institute and Associate Professor at Troy State University in Alabama, makes the case that conflict is one way that can bring about positive change in culture and people.
In his paper, What is the Basis of American Culture, Aldridge discusses the importance of language and its use in the equality of American citizens. He brings out the fact that the civil rights movement in the 1960’s was related to the incongruences between the use of language in our founding documents, where we are told “that all men are created equal,” with the opposite cultural experience for African Americans. This incongruence was, according to Aldridge, what led to our cultural conflict and the civil rights movement. And although there was intense conflict in the United States during this time the results that came from this conflict was positive and the culture was forced to move forward. For Aldridge cultural evolution happens in conflict, and if there is no conflict the culture will stagnate and there will be no innovations.
I think Aldridge would agree, human beings are naturally conflictive, and although it can go terribly wrong as history has shown, through Aldridge, we can also see that conflict is wired into human nature as a way of bringing innovation and progression.
Hopefully this quick review of the three basic assumptions, has spurred your interest and enthusiasm to more research and exploration into who we are as human being and what makes us tick. After all that is one of the reasons I teach Humanities in the first place. If you have something you would add, or you would approach this topic differently I encourage you to write it up, post a blog and send it to me.
John M. Scholte, M. Div.