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April 30, 2008

What is “Human Nature?” And how did we get into this mess? (Personal)

The burning questions with which we humans have been grappling since different clusters of our ancestors hit independently on writing are: what does it mean to be human and why are we here? Recent studies of various “higher” mammals, most notably primates, elephants, and certain marine mammals may have cast doubt on whether humans are the only species with a language function, but that we are the only ones to record our abstract thoughts in writing now seems well established. Certainly we are the only species to use literacy to effectively manipulate the global environment.

Yet for all that cognitive prowess, we have recently been kept as busy with problems that seem to have resulted from our scientific triumphs as we are adding more triumphs. We are also shockingly far from consensus about how to manage the problems. In fact, a case can be made that despite our unprecedented ability to communicate, we are furthest from agreement at the very time global cooperation is most urgently needed.

What, you may ask, does this line of thinking have to do with pot use? The connection is really quite basic, although it requires a willingness to think further outside the box than most are willing to venture. For all our cognitive abilities, we humans are also highly evolved mammals with similar survival and emotional needs. We may now have reached a point in our cultural evolution (itself enabled only by our cognitive abilities) where it’s possible to analyze how we got here. But, ironically, because analytic ability for its own sake is rarely welcomed within established human hierarchies, correct analyses are usually  dismissed as nonsense or heresy long before they are taken seriously.

Even then, the ones that are finally acknowledged and responded to are usually watered down at first. A convenient example, one very much in the news, is how America has dealt with slavery, a national  tragedy produced by the implicit repudiation of its stirring revolutionary manifesto by those who wrote its Constitution a mere eleven years later.

In fact, it may be precisely because acceptance by whatever group we aspire to be part of is such a dominant human need that individual inductive (bottom up) reasoning is usually discouraged by human societies. In other words, a highly unlikely, but reassuringly omniscient, anthropoid “god” is still our preferred source of truth. Until we are able to shed the millstone of religion from our cognition, our ability to think ourselves into trouble may continue to overwhelm our ability to think ourselves out of it.

Do I really need add that the drug war is a nearly perfect example of top-down deductive (religious) logic? That it has survived so long as policy is a disgrace to all who have had a hand in protecting it.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at April 30, 2008 07:46 PM