Sunday, April 26, 2015

Human Instincts

One of the things that I've noticed for a long time is how people deal with their instincts. This is a complex topic that I can hardly explain in a blog post, but I still think it's worth discussing. Thinking about it can tell you a lot about how unspoken stresses can play out in individuals and how society is organized to deal with them.

Looking back, I felt something was wrong when I was growing up, though I couldn't put my finger on it until much later. Before college I lived entirely in suburban towns, and my exposure to natural environments was limited. I spent little time in rural areas and never experienced a wilderness. Unbeknownst to me, it wore on me that I did not belong to the Boy Scouts and didn't go away to camp during the summer as some of my friends and acquaintances did. I recall endless boring summers living in a paved neighborhood with little to do outside. The monotony was broken somewhat by the nearby swimming pool, but that never felt adequate. My family took few vacations - only three in total from 1957 onward - and by the end of high school I was ready to escape to a new location for reasons beyond my dislike of family dysfunctionality. My college was located in a rural town where it was possible to walk out into the country or the woods, which became my first experience of being alone in the outdoors. That is when I developed a taste for natural environments.

I now think that my appreciation of the outdoors is something instinctive over which I have little control. Despite not having grown up hunting and fishing, the way many rural people do, I probably would have preferred that if it had been an option. I am not unique in this, and urban planners have long recognized, for example, that cities need green areas. Thus large parks such as Central Park in Manhattan were constructed in the nineteenth century and early highways near New York City were intentionally made scenic. Throughout my adult life I've had contact with both rural and urban people, and the differences have always intrigued me. Rural life comes closer than city dwelling to the lives of our ancestors. In this sense, cities breed a certain dissatisfaction. Consequently, as the population has increased, those with the resources have tended to move out to the suburbs, which offer a rough facsimile of a natural environment. Even so, there are resolute city dwellers, and cities have attributes that satisfy some instincts. There is a certain security and feeling of safety in cities that may relate to being in a group and that at some level may be similar to being huddled in a cave with one's clan.

Other instincts are so integral to our lives that we take them for granted without much thought. Among those is the instinct to eat and enjoy food. I have always noticed the effect of food and alcohol at social events. If you don't offer any, not many people will show up, but if you offer both, be prepared for a crowded and boisterous party. Fortunately in the developed world there is an overabundance of food and the problems associated with it have more to do with obesity than with starvation. Food surpluses have led to a different problem, overpopulation, in developing countries, which I won't discuss now.

Sexual instincts are as strong as any other, and they play a more problematic role. Going through puberty is an enormous personal shock when it occurs. At the time you may not understand what is happening, but if you ever have children yourself you have the opportunity to observe firsthand its powerful effects. In the matter of a few months those cute, docile little creatures may be transformed by hormones into uncontrollable monsters. A chaotic, often unconscious mate selection process ensues, with parents and society scrambling to channel it as best they can. It is difficult to know the full extent to which adult male behavior is concerned with attracting females, but my impression is that it is significant. Not being an ambitious person myself, it has never made much sense to me that so many men are obsessed with becoming or appearing wealthy or with attaining positions of leadership. Because it is possible to live a good life without those elements, I am inclined to associate that kind of behavior with an instinctive attempt to attract the opposite sex. A similar process can be seen in women, who are often obsessed with their physical appearance. Women also influence male behavior by signaling what kinds of things will impress them the most about men: money and power are often high on the list. One of the big mistakes of the feminist movement in the U.S. was that it ignored most of the biological motivation behind male dominance, encouraging many women to be successful in positions that they might never find satisfying. Society is interwoven with the process and steps in to minimize the potential damages caused by rivalry and infidelity, with limited success. The expectation here is that there will be one husband and one wife, till death do us part, and this is not necessarily a feasible strategy for maintaining order. Both husbands and wives have had roving eyes since the dawn of mankind, and when people only lived to age thirty, fifty-year marriages rarely occurred.

Another major instinct is the will to live, and this is in the process of adapting to new options that have been created by medical technology. In the past you just got sick or old or had an accident and died, but now your life may be extended by several years. It is conceivable that we may soon be able to become immortal. Such a change would be a radical discontinuity from our biological past, and I'm not sure that it will be possible for us to understand it as mortal organisms. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are about being born, reproducing and dying. If you take the dying out of the equation, living takes on a new, unrecognizable meaning.

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