Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Animal Within

I’ve only seen Temple Grandin’s New York Times review of The Inner Ape and some online description by the author, although I have read some of Frans de Waal’s other work. De Waal is one of those who have been studying primate and other animal behavior without the limiting prejudices of earlier science. Scientists need a theory to guide them, but they can be so entranced by that theory that their observations are incomplete or inaccurate. For example, it was an axiom that humans are the only species to use tools, and so for generations scientists missed the evidence in front of their noses of many other species using tools.

They also became captivated by a particular interpretation of Darwinian evolution and the individual organism’s struggle for survival, later even more restricted to the single-minded behavior of the “selfish gene.” They devalued the role that the group plays in the lives of social species, such as primates.

So they missed obvious if somewhat subtle kinds of behavior that ran counter to their theories, especially of struggle. They missed, in particular, examples of altruism, empathy and conciliatory behavior, and important rituals of conflict avoidance and resolution. These turn out to be very important for animals whose health, mental and emotional stability, and survival depends on being an individual with roles and relationships in the group.

De Waal and others wrote about this in a volume De Waal co-edited called Natural Conflict Resolution. In The Inner Ape, he writes specifically about two ape species, the familiar chimpanzees and a species studied only recently, the bonobos.

In the wild, chimp society is a male-dominated hierarchy. They hunt for meat and will kill members of rival chimp bands, even chimps they’ve known for a long time, if they become members of another group. Male chimps sometimes kill infants sired by other males.

This was the template for most ideas about primates, and therefore about “primitive” humans and basic human nature before the social controls of civilization and reason. But that’s partly because nobody knew much about the bonobos.

The bonobos are nearly opposite to chimp society: matrilineal and peace-loving, they make love, not war. They are also skilled at conciliation and have been known to exhibit compassion, even for other species (a bonobo in a zoo was seen tending to an injured starling.) Within their species, they take care of frail elders rather than let them die or kill them when they can’t keep up.

The old model of human nature attributes our violence and extreme passions to our instincts and animal natures, while our conciliatory or altruistic behavior or even self-controlled behavior to the education and moral instruction---and the police controls--- of manmade institutions.

But De Waal’s two species shows that both sides of human behavior are part of our natural heritage. We are as close genetically to the bonobos as we are to the chimpanzees.

De Waal’s research also suggests, as does Jung and “The Enemy Within,” that both lines of this heritage are useful if not crucial to us. When Berlin was bombed in World War II, all the gentle bonobos in the zoo died of heart failure. All the chimps survived.

There is another aspect to de Waal’s research that bears on the Star Trek view of human nature. While we have both sides within us, we all have a natural ability to learn a better way. He writes of an experiment involving two species of monkeys, the aggressive rhesus and the gentler stumptails. Young rhesus monkeys raised in stumptail society picked up their more peaceful ways of settling disputes. They continued to use these skills even when returned to rhesus society.

It’s important to add that chimps, like many other species, also have a gentler side. Much of their group activity is grooming each other, playing and learning from each other. Since chimps have been trainable and even domesticated to a degree, they aren’t only violent.

The message of "The Enemy Within" is the same as the message of Jungian psychology: our dark side is essential to who we are. The message of de Waal’s book is that our nature is not only dark, but also consists of natural goodness, compassion, and a kind of moral responsibility.

What all three have in common is the message of choice. De Waal’s book suggests that if chimps can be taught a different way of dealing with conflict, so can we. As conscious beings, we have the power of decision. Once we accept our darker side---the shadow, the great unknown of the unconscious--- and the power it has over us, then we can choose. It’s not always easy, and it’s not successful every time, but we can keep at it.

Kirk recognizes this in another original series episode when he concedes that “we are killers---but we aren’t going to kill…today.” He is more explicit about the dynamic at the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, when he talks about what V’ger took from the merging of machine and human it so desperately wanted and needed: "I think we gave it the ability to create its own sense of purpose," Kirk says, "out of our own human weaknesses, and the drive that compels us to overcome them."

It's also important for us to remember our dual natures when we feel compelled to divide the world into the virtuous and the evildoers. Apart from the human habit of projecting elements of ourselves we are ashamed or afraid of and attributing them to the Other, the alien, the enemy without, we must recognize that we all share the potential for evil and for good. Star Trek carried this approach forward in various ways--for example, by giving aliens their reasons for doing what they were doing, or feelings and reactions we can recognize in ourselves.

Yes, there are evil acts, and everyone has a right to defend themselves against violence and subjugation. But only those who stand to gain from violence will refuse to look for underlying causes that might be addressed. The great breakthrough in U.S. Soviet relations arguably occurred when President Kennedy recognized the similiarities, and that "we are all mortal."

We don't have to apologize for the negative side of ourselves, because even it has positive effects: our appetites are part of our drive to survive, and our aggressive energy is part of our ability and momentum to strive, explore, solve problems, to focus our intuitions and knowledge to make decisions, to experiment, and even to shake things up with pranks and audacity. It also helps us marshal our physical energies for a purpose.

Yet recognizing the capacity for evil in ourselves is also a step towards compassion, just as recognizing the good in ourselves is a step towards honoring that compassion.

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