The Origin of Moving Forward
Bron foto: tecnica della scuola
Earlier this month I watched an interview featuring Frans de Waal, a leading expert on behavioural studies of primates. During the show the primatologist made a compelling case on the way prominent people in our society maintain power, quite like primates maintain theirs. I was intrigued.. What other comparisons are to be made between us and them? And what can we learn about ourselves along the way?
But before we do, let’s take a closer look at us. In order to make sense of life on Earth we started analysing, categorising and naming every being on the planet. Including ourselves. The term for mankind is Homo Sapiens. In the classic taxonomy model, the genus Homo is being referred to as ‘beings with an upright position and large brains’. Sapiens means ‘wise’ in Latin. So according to this definition, we above all other living things have the ability to think.
This quality shows in our development: from the skill to master fire onto the invention of the wheel, we created tools ever since we existed. In addition to that humans seem to have a need to create meaning in their lives: the quest for love, happiness and self-expression are only possible because we can analyse our emotions and act accordingly. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, human beings have the ability to choose. Animals have a natural instinct to stay in balance with their surroundings. If we run out of food, we travel to collect more. If we are struck by plagues, we invent vaccinations to help combat the virus, and so on. In other words, humans do not have to succumb to the immediate limitations of nature like animals do.
But is intelligence really all there is to us? At high school, for instance, the only thing teenagers seem to care about is whether or not they are part of the group. At work, we answer to one manager, who often earned his right to be manager by screaming louder than the smart people. Even the reward system is structured like this: the more control you have over other people, the more money you get. The same goes for the use of natural resources. Only if you are a respected part of the community you are allowed to increase your possessions, live bigger, fuck more, and so forth and so on.
Furthermore, in this society we are not taught how to love, just how to have safe sex. We are not taught how to do what we do best, but which steps to take in order to get a job. Publicly we don’t care how people can contribute to society, instead we create bureaucratic structures that keep people in line. Hence, we accumulate personal welfare by preserving the hierarchy. And this monkey pride is aimed at one thing only: survival.
And that’s not all. According to Frans de Waal, sometimes human leaders take on their position primate style. Take baboons: the male alpha acquires and maintains his leadership by intimidating his challengers by being physically dominant. He then earns the right to mate with high-ranking females among other males, to finally show off his red parts as a sign of aggression. Any bells, anyone? Politicians are bound to the needs of Homo Animalis, simply because they are elected by it.
Along with our behavioural aspects a few things can be said about our shared biology as well. Today scientists estimate that our DNA structure is a staggering 98% match to that of our closest companion, the chimpanzee. Of course we are talking about incredibly complicated interactions between cell and organism level, so a 2% difference can have large effects. But at the very least this is an overwhelming overlap. Additionally Dick Swaab, an expert in the field of neuroscience, once said that ‘the brain is boss’. Extrapolating his theory to matter at hand, one can say that the society we have created is a mere reflection of the way humans are hard-wired, which is surprisingly animal-like.
So yes, we may have fancy machines, a new phone every two years, digital gadgets, modes of transportation, the works. But if those tools serve our primordial needs only, we might as well just live in a shiny extension of the stone age.
The leaders we elect, the needs that crave satisfaction, the society we create.. Looking at the balance sheet so far one can find that both our human intellect and animal drive are important parts of who we are. Yet despite the similarities it does not seem a natural thing to name them in our society. In fact, looking at our modern world we have completely alienated ourselves from nature, almost as if we do not want to see our connection to it. Yes, we have unique minds compared to other species. But those minds also demand interpretation. Perhaps in search of a reason why we are so different, we created one. And looking into nature forces us to look at ourselves too much. If that were true, we put our intellect first because we have to protect our fragile identity.
Not recognising our animal heritage while acting partly on those drives might be very dangerous for us in the near future.. Because without our collective notice, the world is drastically changing. So in addition to serving our animal needs it is time to resurface some of the other things that make us human, such as compassion, empathy and sensitivity, into society. We need to become leaders ourselves, inspire others around us to do the same, and start micro-revolutions towards one shared future. It is already in our minds, like a seedling waiting to be nourished. And as shown earlier, if it is in our minds it can be part of our society too.
Therefore, the greatest challenge of this time is not to neutralise rogue nations. Nor is it to prevent another World War. We do not even have to stop climate change. No, the greatest challenge of this time is us.
Joey Velberg is storyteller and founder of the Green Communicator. He supports the agent of change with a good story. Curious to what the Green Communicator can do for you? Go to www.greencommunicator.nl or call +316 22 81 31 33.