Defining the Human Animal (2 of 2)

In the last post I began sketching out a plausible theory regarding the evolution of consciousness. I suggested that our phylogenetic history led us down a dead-end path of painful contradiction – the emergence of the first symbolic animal: a creature that desperately craves meaning and purpose, but exists in a physical world that has little to offer. This dilemma would be resolved by culture. Each culture can be seen as a symbolic action-system of invented meanings: to nourish our desire for purpose, order, unity, self-esteem, value, and to distract us from or deny the realities of both meaninglessness and death. In short, we create meaning out of nothingness, a psychological anesthetic, before quickly ‘forgetting’ that we were the ones that created it.

Cultural systems are the ultimate defense mechanisms that allow us to carry on with some relative sense of equanimity. We invent the symbols that contain meaning, and live by ever-changing myths that carry both. Myths are everywhere and they are often implicit: they involve an understanding about supposed truths about our existence and the nature of reality. The Western World is filled with myths. We believe, as is evident by our actions, that money and possessions will secure us happiness, esteem, and importance in the eyes of others. With science and technology we believe that we are able to harness and control nature, avoiding catastrophes, and even postpone death. We buy into vague notions of inevitable progress without ever asking what it means or what we are progressing toward. Many of us are led to believe that ‘hard-work pays off,’ and feel the frantic pressure of wanting to ‘get ahead.’ But is our work being rewarded with the correct currency, and are we ever far enough ahead to slow down?

Culture gives us a sense of meaning and purpose, so we never have to question it for ourselves; it is taken for granted. It gives us a prescription for life… we put our head down and surrender to the illusion that is civilization. However, like the positive leap from the absurd, we end up denying or distorting reality in our efforts to cope. In short, we desperately seek to escape our painful dilemma and find reconciliation by irrationally denying some aspect of man: either the symbolic self or the physical animal.

In the Western World we find transcendence through materialistic possessions that carry our symbolic worth while giving into mind-numbing distractions that prevent us from thinking too hard or feeling too much. We deny our creatureliness by avoiding uncomfortable discussions about the less glamorous functions of the human body and by spending money on surgeries and lotions that claim to keep us looking younger for as long as possible. Religion likewise offers escape into unreason, a worship of the symbolic and immortal soul, and a relative denial of the creaturely animal. Sex, masturbation, defecation, and death, only serves to remind us of our animal nature, so religion would also need to reject or avoid such things, while shaming its constituents into denying this animalistic part of the human being, as writers of the Family Guy playfully point out:

However, culture may also opt to resolve the painful human dilemma by denying the other end of the equation, the symbolic self, while trying to reconcile the human being within the physical animal. With traditional religions failing, pseudo-scientific ideologies are taking their place. Dostoevsky was right to say that freedom is a burden that man will refuse to carry. What burden could be greater than the task of creating meaning, of defining right and wrong, and of recognizing oneself to be free while taking responsibility for the life one lives? Traditional religions have assisted us by allowing us to evoke God as our alibi. We are given a prescription for living, can always ask for forgiveness for our sins, and we need not be upset or frightened about the senselessness of the world, because God loves us all, and all is part of his mysterious plan. Personal responsibility is minimized in our subscribing to something of a fatalistic religious worldview. But will the end of religion see people taking greater responsibility for their lives? This is the question that Nietzsche had in mind when he famously proclaimed that “God is dead.” He saw that people were losing their faith and saw it as an enormous opportunity for mankind. What would we do with it?

History is proving to us that this burden – for the creation of meaning, acknowledgement and acceptance of both freedom and responsibility, and for carrying the painful paradox of the symbolic animal, is just too much for the masses to bear. If we look at modern trends in society, we see growing interest and acceptance of pseudoscientific belief systems favoring a mechanistic and animalistic understanding of what it means to be human. Again we avoid acknowledging the symbolic animal that is man; we avoid carrying this painful contradiction – this time choosing not to deny the animal, but to embrace it fully. Instead of a drunken flight into irrational fantasy, we fall into numb despair. In increasing numbers, scientists are ready to tell us that our free-will is of limited capacity or an outright illusion, that our subjective minds are more-or-less controlled by our biological brains, and evolutionary psychologists are happy to tell us why we were programmed to do what we do: explaining everything from the abuse of step-children, to morality, the appreciation of art, and the nature of good and evil. The role of God is being increasingly replaced by pseudoscientific explanation. We throw down the existential burden of the symbolic self – believing ourselves to be little more than a mix of machine or reflexive animal.

Have modern Darwinian scientists localized the genes purportedly responsible for our humanity? They have not. But, they insist that it makes sense, ‘from an evolutionary perspective.’ This is nothing but another brand of theoretical bible-thumping, and the masses are buying it. Our desire to escape personal responsibility and the burden of self-creation is again stronger than our ability to employ reason. There is good cause to doubt the assertions of evolutionary psychology regarding what it was that nature selected. This is not science, but wishful fantasy of a fatalistic variety.

“It is ‘fatal’ because fate confounds good and evil without man being able to prevent it. Fate does not allow judgments of value. It replaces them by the statement that ‘It is so’ – which excuses everything, with the exception of the Creator [or in this case Natural Selection], who alone is responsible for this scandalous state of affairs (Camus, The Rebel, p. 48).”

How is the Universal Darwinian explanation much different from a pre-scientific worldview where humans were thought to be guided by an inner essence or by fate? You may have some small control over your destiny, however, the Gods ultimately have their plan for you, and in the end it will be as it will be. While the evolutionary psychologist may similarly acknowledge that there is small room for choice, culture, and learning, this is only insofar as it is activated by the ‘ultimate mechanisms’ of our genetic legacy – the invisible influences that are really responsible for our tendencies toward doing this or that. The evolutionary psychologist’s defense mechanism of biological rationalization provides us relief from the burden of responsibility and for self-creation. It is a conservative view toward our humanity, involving a subtle submission toward the inevitable, allowing us to say “it is so.” How comforting. In the end, we give up on the symbolic human project and the tension that it implies. To fully recognize the human being as a symbolically emergent self within a finite body, we must find the courage to acknowledge the meaninglessness of life while not allowing ourselves to fall into despair, to take responsibility for the creation of values and meanings of relative worth, and we must be watchful of the never-ending temptation to escape our dilemma through denial or distortion of reality. This is a tall order indeed – will we ever be up for the challenge?

10 Responses to “Defining the Human Animal (2 of 2)”

  1. Alicia Says:

    Indeed, a difficult challenge! I would argue that much of our modern world would not be able to handle the escaping of the trappings of material success, much less everything else you have mentioned that people fall into the traps of. Indeed, this challenge for these people would fall short for the materialists, much like the notion of a New Years Resolution falls short within a month of making said resolution.

    Brad Reply:

    Not a good comparison: having a New Year’s resolution implies conscious recognition of a problem. There is no conscious recognition in the process I describe here; just illusion and denial.

    Alicia Reply:

    Darn! I was thinking about the people who once they came to the realization (if they ever did come to the realization!) of the absurd condition of humans, that it would be very hard to maintain that realization. So that if we became aware of our absurd condition, if would soon “slip our minds” (or slip out of consciousness to be more correct) and that we would just fall into the same pattern of illusion and denial. I apologize if I am making absolutely no sense- I am very much fatigued by all the studying I did yesterday and the writing of exams today.

  2. Mrs. Neutron Says:

    I really enjoyed that Brad. I’m very happy I found your blog and just (hope you don’t mind) put a link to you on my blog.

    You do this stuff and consider these things for a living. I’m just a shmo who needed to understand what it means to be human. Learning what I have learned with the help of the many authors we both admire has been transformative for me. Reading your blog, I find myself saying, yes… yes… and yes. This may sound stupid, but, it’s a great feeling not to feel so alone when it comes to this absurd journey of ours…. To know I’m not looking out the windows alone.

    Thanks for another great read
    Respectfully Yours
    Mrs. N

    Brad Reply:

    Thanks for the kind words. Don’t sell yourself short – most of us academic types get caught up in our own illusions or pet-theories that prevent us from seeing the world for what it is. Most of the people I relate to on that level are dead authors and poets, which is better than nothing, but I agree that it’s nice to communicate with some flesh-and-blood human beings paddling along in that existential boat of ours.

    Oh and thanks for the link. I’ll be happy to return the favor.

  3. Mrs. Neutron Says:

    This is a defunct Blog, but, there are years of interesting reads inside. Perhaps you already know it?

    Just a thought…

    Brad Reply:

    I don’t think I have ever come across that blog – I’ll have to check it out.

  4. JF Says:


    I’ve really enjoyed the last two blog postings. Your last two paragraphs (bordering the Becker quote) in part one are the most succinct arguments I’ve read for the non-existence of the God most people believe in, even if that’s not how you meant it. “The invention of meaning”, delicious.

    After reading part two and your final words, “will we ever be up for the challenge?”, questions inevitably come to mind. I think some of us, few and far between it would appear, are up for the challenge because we desire to live an authentic life. One which does not involve the invention of absolute meaning. How do we as individuals even have a chance to live authentically when clearly the Establishment and the vast majority of people have zero desire to deconstruct the false meaning and would rather live in denial. It’s like swimming against the strongest tides in the world while trying to convince people that yes indeed, the world isn’t flat. Then there is trying to truly accept our fate of being so outnumbered yet continuing to live in a world that is so far in denial that clearly nothing will change in our lifetimes. Any thoughts for the minority trying to perservere through such daunting opposition? Dead authors and poets sometimes aren’t enough 😉

    Brad Reply:

    I am not sure if you would agree, but I am not convinced that any of us can live ‘authentically’ for very long without risking our sanity. I think it is something that we can only take in small sips. Some of the time, the best of us give in to illusion – perhaps only smaller ones, but illusions nonetheless. I agree – it is like swimming against the strongest tides in the world… and if you struggle for too long, you will almost certainly drown. Better to move at times with the currents and under the waves. Maybe the best we can do is poke our heads up from time to time to see where we are going… to choose which currents we will follow.

    At times we can rebel against the Establishment, and perhaps we should, but we must not seek to replace it with another, for that might imply the illusion of salvation and yet another absolute – where ends pardon unjust means. The world has seen enough of that. We need to fight for the uncomfortable middle ground. Too much hope can be a dangerous thing. It can drive a person crazy and cause us to abandon the burden that comes with lucidity. This means to be without hope; but that is not the same as falling into despair. In short, I agree with all the great writers who expressed the necessity of living with our ailments.

    Life it seems is like walking a tightrope until either the line breaks or you fall. There is no salvation, only suffering, and anxiety for those who know it. But (relative) meaning can still be found in life, in human connection, and the dignity that comes with lucid awareness. I also find it helpful to allow myself to be in awe not just in HOW things are, but THAT things are. It puts things in perspective and makes the day-to-day easier to digest.

    I don’t know of anyone who has described this dilemma and remained true to its terms more than Albert Camus. I strongly recommend reading any of his works… the plague is an excellent piece of fiction. The Myth of Sisyphus is a good intro to his way of thinking… the Rebel is his best, but also his most challenging. It’s sad that few people have taken the time to read his works.

    JF Reply:

    Thanks for the response. I actually don’t disagree with anything in it. Perhaps I should have said, “live as authentically as possible” due to the compromises one must inevitably make. I think of it as the balance between being true to yourself (your needs, values, relative meaning) and actually surviving in this world. I too agree that it is a necessity to live with our ailments versus fooling ourselves with delusions (truth vs. myth). Unfortunately it seems the majority would rather have their myths (religion, justice, the American Dream, whatever). The question then becomes how to practically balance relative meaning (truth to yourself), absolute meaninglessness and actually living in a world that is hostile to even the discussion of these ideas.

    Where I struggle is in trying to find (relative) meaning in a population that predominantly isn’t like me, isn’t welcoming to even discussing these types of ideas and never will be, certainly in my lifetime. I often think of the Beach Boys lyric, “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.” Like you said, you can fight and struggle but eventually drown while swimming against the tide or you can try to move with the currents. Going with the flow of the current is easier said than done. There are many willing to point out that, “you’re different”, “why can’t you be more like…” etc. I am and I can’t. Some days it’s too hard to fake it, besides faking it leaves me feeling untrue to myself. It’s difficult to both relate and find (relative) meaning when you feel hopelessly outnumbered and that makes it difficult to make a real-life human connection and find meaning that isn’t fleeting. In my thirty-plus years I can count on one hand the number of people with whom I’ve felt a connection. Personally I’m looking for more than discussion boards, online acquaintances and dead authors although there is some comfort in knowing I have company out there. I find your suggestion to be in awe not just in HOW things are, but THAT things are to be somewhat comforting, so thank you for that.