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Are We Just Naked Apes?

October 16, 2013

Environmentalism, Evolution, Humanism

Evolution of Man

While on a scuba diving course last weekend I was told, quite correctly, that in the marine world we are guests, and as over 70 percent of the world’s surface is covered by water it’s presumptuous of us to call the planet ‘earth’, rather than say, ‘oceania’. The instructional video also talked about our delicate ecosystem, a subject I am well aware of through reading David Quammen’s wonderful book : The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. Some scientists estimate that up to half of presently existing species may become extinct by 2100 thanks to the ‘success’ of a particularly predatory and ingenious ape that walks on two legs. Yes, strip away all religious pretense and we stand here as naked apes, not apart from the natural world, but an inextricable part of it.

Certainly we have language which we use to weave a cultural fabric providing us with scant protection against a world devoid of meaning. But why should this elevate us over the natural world? Literature, poetry, drama, religion and philosophy are wonderful stories which we tell about ourselves but they don’t necessarily make us happier or more content than other animals. I have often wondered about the validity of John Stuart Mill’s statement: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” If humans are so much better off than animals because we have language and consciousness, why do so many of us want to run away from the constant chatter of civilization to join them? Moreover, why in our more contemplative moments do we feel that feint but sure sense of connectedness with all living creatures. Maybe, as John Gray suggests in, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, it’s because that bond is more real than any of the cultural artifacts we have created to separate us from the natural world.

Atheists and humanists alike have discarded the religious explanation for what distinguishes us from animals, in favor of rationalism and science. Rationalists like Ray Kurzweil see Moore’s law inexorably driving humanity forward on the rails of progress, pushed by the ever-increasing pace of technological change. Technology, it is thought, is enabling us to gain control of our own evolutionary path, something no other species has been able to do. Now, as long as moral progress lags technological progress, I think there is a good chance that we will destroy ourselves,  but if we don’t, then I too am confident that we will learn to change virtually everything about ourselves, from our physical appearance to our personality. However, human nature will remain the same, with the potential to beget both good and evil. Humanists believe in secular salvation through technology and progress, but I’m more inclined to think that this ‘progress’ will still be driven by the same corrupt crony capitalists and military forces that govern science and progress today.

Scientists themselves have gone a long way in destroying the myth that they helped create of the rational individual disinterestedly pursuing the practice of science. Cognitive scientists tell us that our thought processes are riven with cognitive biases which evolved with our reptilian brain. The religious conception of free will is increasingly giving way to determinism. We cannot even control our next thought and when it arrives we have no idea where it came from. As Sam Harris writes in Free Will, “Where is the freedom in doing what one wants when one’s desires are the product of prior events that one is completely unaware of and had no hand in creating?” In large part our lives are governed by our subconscious. Most people feel they are in control but that’s an illusion. The ‘you’ that you think yourself to be is not in control of anything. We’re conscious of only a tiny proportion of what goes on in our mind. Scientists tell us that most of the time our brain initiates action and half a second later we have the experience of acting. Furthermore, in Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, Paul Feyerabend shows that the greatest scientific breakthroughs did not come about through the strict application of rationalism and the scientific method but rather by using epistemological anarchism. He also makes it clear that science does not stand alone outside of other influences such as religion, history, culture or philosophy.

Not surprisingly, in the naked ape civilization is only skin deep. Living in the heart of the beautiful and prosperous San Francisco Bay Area, it is difficult to envisage how fragile peace and prosperity really is and nobody has shown this more clearly than Margaret Mitchel in her novel Gone with the Wind, which vividly portrays the dizzying collapse of the slave plantation economy and the southern civilization that accompanied it.  Although Steven Pinker, in his learned tome, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, amasses a great deal of statistical evidence to show that the frequency of violence and war is permanently falling, I believe human nature will eventually find a way to let thanatos in by the back door. Indeed, if Freud was correct that humans have both a life instinct (eros) and a death instinct (thanatos) then thanatos has never left us.

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“Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.”  John Gray

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

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40 Comments on “Are We Just Naked Apes?”

  1. Michael Denny Says:

    Malcolm…as is often the case with your writings…a work of art. Thank you! It is a pleasure to be on your list.

    Reply

  2. Mikels Skele Says:

    “Where is the freedom in doing what one wants when one’s desires are the product of prior events that one is completely unaware of and had no hand in creating?” If that’s the case, you’ve been programmed to write this post reflecting an “opinion” that’s just as deterministic. As is this response. Yet why do I feel otherwise? If it’s all so mechanistic, why have consciousness at all?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Mikels, thank you for this. I agree that we certainly feel like we have free will and that the conscious part of ourselves that experiences choice is the author of all our decisions. Indeed these feelings are the strongest argument for Free Will but they are just feelings, not arguments. There are myriads of things that actually cause us all to act one way rather than another so as NicoLite says, choice and actions still matter in a deterministic world. The point however is that we can be free agents only if somehow we are authors of our acts but this isn’t the case. You can’t control what thoughts pop into your consciousness, they just appear there. We can’t choose our thoughts before we think them because that would require us to think them before we think them. Consequently, if you can’t control your next thought and you don’t know what it will be until it appears, where is your freedom of will?

      Reply

      • Mikels Skele Says:

        It’s in your response to these thoughts, which are generated by your subconscious mind, and so do not really appear out of nowhere. It’s true that feelings are not arguments, but analyzing why the feelings exist can generate a strong argument. Logically, there is no reason for these feeling to exist in a deterministic mode. Stimulus, response, no need for deliberation. It’s just a waste of energy, and so should not exist.

        Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “… which are generated by your subconscious mind, and so do not really appear out of nowhere”

      Mikels, it does not matter where the thoughts came from it only matters that we don’t know where they came from and so cannot claim that we had the freedom to think them.

      “Logically, there is no reason for these feeling to exist in a deterministic mode.”

      Evolutionary biologists are always arguing about why a particular faculty or behavior evolved the way it did but the fact that they can’t agree does not mean that the faculty or behavior did not emerge in the process of evolution. The feelings of having free will could have evolved to connect our thoughts and actions which stem from unconscious processes. Maybe our ancestors could not thrive in small, harmonious groups if they didn’t feel responsible for their actions. Sociological studies show that if people’s belief in free will is undermined, they perform fewer pro-social behaviors and more anti-social behaviors.

      Reply

      • Mikels Skele Says:

        The last argument only holds for people as they are today. The fact remains that there is no logical reason for the illusion of free will to have evolved in a deterministic model; it just complicates things (cf. Occam’s razor). Of course, if we have no free will, your sociological studies are uninteresting byproducts, as is my response, and yours as well.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          “The fact remains that there is no logical reason for the illusion of free will to have evolved in a deterministic model”

          Mikels, thank you but I gave you two possible logical reasons and you have just repeated the original question.

          “Of course, if we have no free will, your sociological studies are uninteresting byproducts, as is my response, and yours as well.”

          Not true. There is no logical incompatibility between determinism and rationality. Decision, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as you believe. Rather, it is free will that presents the paradox. Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors. But what would influence those things that influenced you? More influences? Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them. There are no other options.

          Here is Sam Harris arguing that determinism allows for more control over one’s life not less:

          “Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can — paradoxically— allow for greater creative control over one’s life. It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood; it is another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings: A bite of food may be all that your personality requires. Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).”

        • Mikels Skele Says:

          I repeated the question because your reasons are vague and unconvincing. There “might” be some socializing benefit? Such as?

          I also take issue with the assertion that one must be omniscient to have free will. Why? Suppose that your determinant has improbably led to two possible courses of action, equally plausible, and suppose further you haven’t the foggiest how it arrived there. You still must choose. You would say that choice is totally dependent on your experiences up to that point, and that that constitutes determinism. If so, ipso facto, it is simply mechanistic. Simply put, any possibility of choice, that is to say, undetermined activity, what you call steering, equals free will.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Mikels, I already gave what I thought was a reasonable explanation for why the feeling of free will might have evolved. I said that sociological studies show that if people’s belief in free will is undermined, they perform fewer pro-social behaviors and more anti-social behaviors. As a result I suggested that our ancestors would not have thrived in small, harmonious groups — the conditions under which we evolved — if they had not felt responsible for their actions. Now, it’s no good arguing about this because it’s all just speculation on my part that the feeling of free will is an adaptation. It could, for example, simply be an epiphenomenon of having complex brains.

          “Suppose that your determinant has improbably led to two possible courses of action, equally plausible, and suppose further you haven’t the foggiest how it arrived there. You still must choose. You would say that choice is totally dependent on your experiences up to that point, and that that constitutes determinism.”

          Well let’s go with your example. I ask you to think of a book, any book. Immediately you think of two books. Did you make the choice of those two books? No, they just popped into your head and you were in fact just witnessing the act. What about all those books that you were aware of but which just did not pop into your head when I asked the question. Were you free to choose those books that simply didn’t occur to you at the time? Let’s say you picked Gone with the Wind and The Swerve and you finally decided on Gone with the Wind because you once had a girlfriend who was a redhead. But you could just as easily have gone with The Swerve for the reason that your book club had just selected it to read. It’s a mystery why you chose one over another. Sure you have a nice story about your former girlfriend but we know that people’s after-the-fact stories about why they did things are invariably wrong. In the lab you can manipulate people into making one decision rather than another but their stories as to why they acted as they did have very little to do with the actual reasons that influenced them.

          But even if you chose Gone with the Wind because of your redhead girlfriend you can’t explain why it was that reason. Why didn’t Gone with the Wind have the opposite effect. Why didn’t you think “I broke up with my girlfriend because of her temper so I’m not going to pick a book in which one of the main characters is a redhead?” Again, you are not making the decisions, just witnessing them. You picked the book but the process was the same as if I had picked the book for you. If we can’t control our next thought and when it arrives we have no idea where it came from then where is our free will?

        • Mikels Skele Says:

          I seem to be programmed to end this discussion, still convinced that your programmed arguments fall well short.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          An enjoyable discussion nonetheless. Each of us influenced each other with our arguments so the fact that we were ‘programmed’ as you say, did not detract from the usefulness of the exchange.

        • Mikels Skele Says:

          Programmed as *you* say. 😉

  3. Jon Sharp Says:

    Excellent Malcolm!
    I particularly like this line: “…we have language which we use to weave a cultural fabric providing us with scant protection against a world devoid of meaning” I have often wondered why we are so in need of a sense of purpose that we are compelled to invent supernatural stories about our history, our lives and what happens when we die? Why do we expect the physical world to reflect values like fairness and equality because we as human beings think they are important? And yet we seek to insulate ourselves from, or even destroy, the natural world around us with which we share perhaps the only real connection.
    Yep, Great post Malcolm!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for this Jon. Clearly I agree with you but the point of the post was not to knock our religious stories but to point out that humanism and science tell their own stories which are frequently just as illusory as stories about the supernatural.

      Reply

  4. NicoLite Великий Says:

    I’ve read Sam Harris’ Book “Free Will”, and found it fascinating. He also writes, that even though our will is not free, our choices and actions matter, on whatever scale. And I may be driving according to very stringent rules, but I’m still in the driver’s seat. I once had the impression that I was being pushed out of that seat, a few years back. So, control is relative, but not purely an illusion. It all depends on your frame of reference (-> relative)

    Reply

  5. unfetteredbs Says:

    Dear Malcolm,
    You always make my brain hurt and for that, I thank you.
    Audra

    Reply

  6. Michele Seminara Says:

    Bravo Malcolm, a fabulous piece. At the moment it seems to me that not only is moral progress lagging behind the technological, but that the later is contributing to the former; if only because we are losing the skill of relating to each other in the flesh! Of course it doesn’t have to be this way, but I think going forward it would pay to be more conscious in our relationship with technology – and of course with each other! Not only are our choices and actions dependant on a vast array of factors, but once performed, they themselves become factors which influence others choices, and impact on our collective reality. I love the way you have drawn together some interesting augments and example here, and used them to highlight the interdependence and transience that characterise the human experience – are you sure you’re not a Buddhist? 🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Michele, thank you. You raise a good point about losing “relating” skills. Also, I’m not sure I’m not a Buddhist. My philosophy seems to combine Stoicism with Impressionism, a potent cocktail which comes pretty close to Buddhism!

      Reply

  7. Steve Says:

    As always, your post was so deep enough and thoughtful that I had to read it twice not to leave any nuggets behind. And part of your first paragraph (“…up to half of presently existing species may become extinct by 2100 thanks to the ‘success’ of a particularly predatory and ingenious ape…”) reminds me of the history I’m currently reading: on Andrew Jackson, the western expansionist impulse, and the demise of several hundred distinct Indian cultures.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thanks Steve. This post was a little dense and long. I usually like to keep them to three or four paragraphs but that’s sometimes a tough order when you’re attempting to answer the really big questions in life :-). As to Andy, well, as you can see from my post I don’t have a very high regard for the human species.

      Reply

  8. makagutu Says:

    Nice read. I think we are just naked apes who have moved away from their nature, whatever that is!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Makagut, although I see no evidence that our nature has changed. We are still predatory and ingenious apes. The only difference is that we have more powerful and deadly tools.

      Reply

  9. becwillmylife Says:

    Geez, Malcolm. Sometimes I think I understand where you are going with your post and then you make another reference and I can’t keep up! Clearly, I need to read more:)

    Reply

  10. dalo2013 Says:

    Wonderful writing Malcom, and great discussion in the comments. There is a term in Chinese yuan-fen, and it is a mix of fate/destiny controlling us to some point, but we are the sole bearers of our actions (either taking opportunities as they come or letting them pass us by). Best line, as simple as it may be: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”

    Reply

  11. kateshrewsday Says:

    Malcolm,fascinating article. Recently the New York Times featured a post about a groundbreaking set of experiments where dogs were trained to have MRIs. What came out was that they experience exactly the same responses as us, with electrical activity indicating pleasure at relationships and experiences, and so on. Time to redraw boundaries.

    Reply

  12. swabby429 Says:

    Like American exceptionalism, is it time to let go of human exceptionalism?

    Reply

  13. The Savvy Senorita Says:

    As usual, a fabulous post!! I question free will, although I like to think I exercise it as often as I can! I suppose this is another one of societies perpetuated myths that we as humans daren’t admit is true! I suppose we are products of a million layers of humanity gone and achieved before us. None of us can reinvent the wheel, none of us can think, truly think, out of the box. I think the box is actually life in general anyway; we are all confined to that box, that reality others have given us, built around us and sold us as truth, as some bland, but far from nourishing food for thought!!

    Reply

  14. pauladkin Says:

    Great essay Malcolm. We are homo sapiens who have been told that we are divided into a myriad of sub-species of, mainly naked apes, that depend on our position in the economic/power hierarchies, as well as race, nationality, religion, sex, etc.. If we were all told from our infancy: “you are homo sapiens kid, now use your brain and go out and make a better world”, it would be the first step to overcoming the problems outlined in your post.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Paul thank you for this comment. Animals act the way they do because of who they are, not because of what they have learned. Certainly humanists believe that we are making a better world, both because of technological progress and because we are learning to behave better, but they forget that the lesson of evolution is that real change only takes place through the mechanism of survival.

      Reply

  15. pauladkin Says:

    Thanks for replying Malcolm.
    I prefer to use the term necessity rather than survival, necessity by itself instigates changes (the classic example of the frog in the incrementally warming water, adapting to the changes but forgetting to jump which would have been the best survival mechanism). Survival, which is an absolute necessity, should create more radical changes than other kinds of necessity.
    Humans however can be distinguished from animals by our use of technology to make changes: whether necessary or unnecessary ones; which may be useful for survival or geared towards internecine destruction.
    In any case we could change our advice to our kids to: “Remember you are homo sapiens. Use your brain. Remember that you are certainly going to die one day, but by using your brain you may find ways of prolonging your life and even improving its quality. The human race, and all homo sapiens, will certainly become extinct one day, but if we use our brains and direct our thinking we may be able to prolong our existence in the universe. The universe will die one day, but if we survive long enough in it, perhaps we will be able to create a new universe and go and live there.” In short, kid, if you are homo sapiens, do what homo sapiens are meant to do: use your brain.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Paul, thank you for this thoughtful reply. If I understand you correctly the best we can hope for is that we find ways of prolonging our life and maybe even improving its quality. Maybe at some point (when we have destroyed our own?) we find another universe and “go and live there”. Life can be prolonged without necessarily increasing the sum of human happiness. Similarly the quality of our life might improve but at what cost in terms of other species, moral advancement or environmental degradation? In short I don’t find much to disagree with you here. We do contain within us the seeds of both civilization and barbarism. What I tried to argue against in the post was the assumption of humanists that technological advancement will lead to an automatic amelioration of the human condition.

      Reply

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