Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

All The Happy Creatures…

with 5 comments

Jem wants to know when the whole thing about “man is just another animal” started, and thinking about it, I ended up wondering what is meant by “started.”

The simple idea has been around at least as long as there have been literate societies in the West.  It pops up here and there among one individual or another at random intervals.

As an idea with a significant social following, it seems to arrive around the middle of the nineteenth century, not just with Darwin–although Darwin was useful for people who wanted to hold this particular idea–but with the rise of the pseudo-sciences in general:  sociology, anthropology, some forms of psychology. 

Given the tenor of the times, their stated purpose of treating various aspects of human life and behavior “scientifically” meant treating human beings as essentially material–of treating them as if they exhibited laws of nature just as rocks and atoms do.  

To the extent that human behavior cannot be explained this way–to the extent that the decisions to eat too much, go to war, cheat on your wife or turn down antibiotics because you think God will save you are NOT capable of being described as illustration of fixed laws of nature, to that extent the pseudo-sciences not only are not actually sciences, but never can be sciences.

It was a scientific age.

What interests me in all this, though, is the fundamental self-contradictions of most of the people who have put forward this particular definition of the human.

The Marxists always liked it a lot, and most of the heirs of the Romantics did too–but both Marx and the children of Rousseau started out by describing the “human animal” in a way no other animal could possibly fit.

Man is just another animal, but he’s an animal born–unlike all others–tabula rasa.  His behavior, her temperament–all of it is socially constructed.  It’s all a matter of responses to social cues and social structures.  If the social cues and social structures were changed, the human being would be completely different.

None of the people who spout this nonsense would make the same mistake about their dogs, or their cats, or even their fish.  Anyone who owns a pet knows that, although environment does play a role in how that animal’s genetic inheritance is exhibited, it does not change the inheritance.   Dogs and cats are not born tabula rasa.  They have inborn temperaments and instincts, and no amount of training will change them.  What’s more, anybody who used the extremeties of training necessary to even try would be arrested for cruelty to animals.  Dogs are born dogs.  Their innate “dogginess” cannot be changed by any amount of “education,” no matter how radical.

People who today spout the “just an animal” line tend not to go to the extremes of the tabula rasa.  It’s been largely discredited outside schools of education, and besides, it’s become useful.

Rather, they pick and choose among possible “innate” aspects of human nature.  The human being, they say, has an intense drive to procreate (not suprising, really, and probably true enough) and therefore an intense drive to have sex.  Therefore, attempts to get people to have no sex, or less sex, or sex only under certain conditions (say, marriage) are bound to fail almost universally, and therefore such efforts are at best misguided and at worst dangerous.  Sex is natural to the human being, and trying to get him to stop it may do him long-term damage psychologically.

The same people who give me this, however, also tend to expect to be able to train human beings out of other things–say, the “us vs them” mentality or competitiveness–that give every evidence of being just as fixedly innate as the sex drive.

Man is just another animal–but unlike other animals, his need to mark and protect his territory is not, and can be trained out of him.  We can therefore get rid of war forever, and get rid of all that hierarchy stuff in high school while we’re at it. 

Man is just another animal–but unlike other animals, his need to acquire and protect his access to resources is not.  We can therefore get rid of acquisitiveness and greed.

In other words, most of the people who propound the idea that “man is just another animal” and that man’s differences from other animals are differences only of degree and not of kind also tend to treat entire areas of human behavior as if they are, indeed, differences in kind from the same behaivor when exhibited by other animals.

The distinction is made between those areas of behavior the speaker wants to indulge or encourage and those he wants to eliminate. 

Conservatives tend to assume that competitiveness is so innate it would be ruinous to try to change it, while sexual drive is perfectly amenable to being controlled and directed, if not nearly eliminate altogether.

Liberals tend to assume that sexual drive is so innate it would be ruinious to try to change it, while competitiveness is just a matter of how you’ve been brought up, and if you’d been brought up differently, it wouldn’t be there.

Reality is probably somewhere in between–that all human behavior is innate, but that we can channel it (not change it) in was that are more advantageous to us than simple indulgence would be. 

High levels of personal competitiveness, high levels of tolerance for risk, the need for physically expressed violence and for marking territory are all innate in most adolescent males, which is why the vast majority of violent crime in any society is committed by males between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five. 

You won’t get rid of any of that behavior–but if you can channel it onto the football field, the young men and everybody around them will be much better off.

But here again is evidence that the difference between human beings and other animals is a difference in kind, not in degree–no other animal conceptualizes the problem and then theorizes about it and then produces a body of work explaining itself to itself.  A sociology that takes as its premise that the differences between human beings and other animals are differences in degree and not in kind has proved itself wrong by simply existing.

Part of what is goin on these days with this particular idea is that many of the New Atheists find it necessary for their atheism–that is, they think that if it were to be proved that there is a significant difference in kind between human beings and the rest of the animals on this planet, then that fact would make the possible existence of God more likely.

This seems to me to be no more sensible than saying that the fact that there are both  inanimate and animate things on the earth makes the existence of God more likely–there are lots of examples of differences in kind among the various things that exist on the earth.  It’s not an unusual circumstance.

I also think we don’t take seriously, as much as we should, the need of many people to relieve themselves of the pressures of the expectation that they “make something” of their lives–that they do things that are hard and unpleasant to them in order to become better people. 

But maybe that’s an issue for tomorrow.

I have tea.

Written by janeh

March 30th, 2010 at 6:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'All The Happy Creatures…'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'All The Happy Creatures…'.

  1. While I agree with what you say here, and also generally agree that there are people who want (or need as you say) to escape the pressure to do hard things to become better people, I think there are also people who are destroyed by – or barely escape destruction from – the pressure to become what they cannot. This is probably yet another example of the way human nature varies over a range of possibilities, and I think both extremes are not much acknowledged today. They work in tandem, too, probably because we have to, what’s the word — make concrete? conceptualize? — what it means to be a ‘better person’ before we can pressure our children and relatives to become one. A shy child will go through hell being pressured to become a great leader (under the mistaken idea that the only way to be make the most of one’s ability to relate to others is to become a leader); and a child pressured to become a great academic might be capable of becoming a great mechanic – maybe even a great mechanic with a love of great literature or music – but never an academic.

    I’m not being relative, here. We all do need to learn to treat other people as well as possible, even if we don’t feel like it and it’s inconvenient and possibly very unpleasant. We all need to learn some kind of skill to earn our living (if we are physically capable) and exercise our brains. But when these aims don’t work out, it’s not always the laziness or weakness of the individual that is at fault. Sometimes it’s the conviction of the individual – or of people around him/her – that to be ‘better’ means achieving something that is impossible.

    ‘Know thyself’, one of the Greeks said, and that’s a fine aim, but I think it takes a lifetime, during which you can go down a lot of wrong pathways without ever trying to avoid the unpleasant and difficult.


    30 Mar 10 at 8:26 am

  2. Thanks, Jane. Just one thing, though. In my previous post, I asked about the origin of the idea that man is just another animal. I wanted to know where rather than when. That being said, I agree with the following from your post above: that animals, cats in particular, are going to be cats with innate behaviours no matter what. My cat, no matter how much I hold him etc, will still for no discernable reason bite or scratch me (not causing a great deal of damage) from time to time; that sex drive (not necessarily connected to procreation) is so strong it cannot be controlled. Bull. I was taught that sex before marriage would send me to hell and unlike many of my friends I bought into it as a young person. I had two aunts who never married and I am positive neither of them had sex, ever, and one was 89 when she died and the other was 91. The idea that man is not just another animal means that God must exist baffles me. Although I do believe in God, I don’t see the connection. Perhaps I don’t know enough about evolution to see this. Evolution is fact and maybe my belief in God contradicts that but there you go. Also, I agree with Cheryl that making something of yourself depends on your capabilities. Someone with a borderline i.q. may be making something of himself just by living independently. Someone who does not succeed in college may do quite well in a vocational school and succeed in his chosen trade.


    30 Mar 10 at 11:23 am

  3. Jem, I think the people who believe that accepting the idea that man is not just another animal means God exists don’t really understand (or perhaps have faith in) their belief in science. That is, they seem to think that to acknowledge that there are aspects of human nature that cannot yet be explained by evolution, and especially if those aspects are ones that seem to single out (‘privilege’ as a verb probably comes into the argument about here) humans from the rest of the life on this planet would be to accept the possibilty that the explanation is ‘God willed it that way’. They could instead say ‘Our scientific knowledge isn’t great enough to explain why, but we can collect data to show that this difference exists’, but they don’t.

    The whole evolution/religion thing has been argued ad nauseum, and seems to me to be a big fuss over nothing, since surely the Theory of Evolution (as a proposed mechanism) is consistent with the idea of a creator God to all but the most literal of the Biblical literalists. Maybe the people from the most extreme of ‘you’re a speciest if you don’t acknowledge that dolphins are as intelligent as humans’ movements are so scared of the influence of religion that they’re unwilling to state the obvious about humankind – that we don’t understand ourselves and our origins perfectly, but observation alone tells us that we are qualitatively different in some pretty major ways from our biological relations.

    I must get back to my jigsaw puzzle. I can’t concentrate on much else because I keep thinking that the carpenter working on the back porch is going to call me again to look at some other nasty little thing that was lurking in the walls of my back porch. Or go off for a few hours, or tell me about his personal problems.


    30 Mar 10 at 12:33 pm

  4. As I recall, Plato once defined Man as a featherless animal with two legs. One of his critics started bringing a plucked chicken to Plato’s lectures.

    As for the tabula rasa, my grandmother used to point out that she had begun marriage with no children and three theories of child-rearing. After a time she had three children and no theory. Could a rising belief in malleable cildren be related to declines in family size? Troublesome with Marx, but it works nicely with Rousseau.


    30 Mar 10 at 4:28 pm

  5. I must have attended a very avant garde Faculty of Education all those years ago when I did my BEd, because I was taught that the tabula rasa theory was discredited. And I lost all respect for Rousseau’s views on children and child-rearing and education when I found out about his personal life and the fact that his practical experience in such matters was entirely lacking – worse, he packed off his own children, who could have been his guinea pigs, I mean, the first examples of children raised according to the most modern beliefs, off to an orphanage where I’m sure his ideas were not in use.


    31 Mar 10 at 7:36 am

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 592 access attempts in the last 7 days.