Adam and Eve without the guilt: explaining our battle between instinct and intellect
The following article was originally published in The Irish Times on May 30, 2016.
Click image to read article on The Irish Times' website.
Adam & Eve without the guilt: explaining our battle between instinct and intellect
Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith offers a new biological understanding to the human condition – linking ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to our evolved consciousness, not our animal past.
When the psychologist Maureen O’Hara observed that humanity is either standing on the brink of “a quantum leap in human psychological capabilities or heading for a global nervous breakdown”, she was recognising the end play state the human race is now in where we have to find the reconciling, psychologically healing understanding of our “good” vs “evil” riven human condition – or perish in a horrible agony of terminal psychosis. In Bono’s words from one of U2’s songs, to save ourselves we have to “kick the darkness” of the mystery of the human condition “til it bleeds [the] daylight” of understanding of it.
Bob Geldof accurately pleaded our species’ plight when, in his aptly titled album Deep in the Heart of Nowhere, he sang, “What are we going to do because it can’t go on…This is the world calling. God help us”, and “Searching through their sacred books for the holy grail of ‘why’, but the total sum of knowledge knows no more than you or I.”
Yes, “why” are we humans the way we are, competitive, aggressive and selfish when the ideals of life are so obviously to be co-operative, loving and selfless? To prevent O’Hara’s “global nervous breakdown” from occurring, we need the answer to that riddle of riddles; as Harvard biologist EO Wilson recently wrote, “There is no grail more elusive or precious in the life of the mind than the key to understanding the human condition.”
Certainly we have excused the darker aspects of our nature as relics of a competitive and aggressive animal past where the instinct to survive and reproduce genes dictated behaviour. But isn’t this reason, which biologists, including EO Wilson, have been perpetuating, just a convenient excuse we used while we searched for the real cause of our divisive nature? After all, words used to describe human behaviour such as egocentric, deluded, inspired, depressed, pessimistic, optimistic, hateful, guilt-ridden, evil, immoral, neurotic, psychotic, or alienated, all recognise the involvement of our species’ fully conscious thinking mind. They reveal there is a psychological dimension to our behaviour; that we don’t suffer from a genetic-opportunism-driven “animal condition”, but the psychologically troubled human condition O’Hara referred to.
Clearly, what has been needed is a deeper analysis that recognises the association between the emergence of consciousness in humans and the appearance of our species’ collective psychosis. Indeed, when we take that approach the explanation of our competitive, selfish and aggressive condition is reasonably obvious – because it makes sense that when our species became fully conscious a psychologically upsetting battle would have broken out between our already established instinctive self and newer, self-managing conscious mind.
To visualise what happened, imagine what would occur if we placed a fully conscious brain on a stork migrating from Africa to Europe to breed. Now conscious, this stork (who we’ll call Adam) starts thinking for himself, and seeing some apple trees on an island decides to depart from his instinctive flight path to visit the island for a feed. He carries out his first experiment in self-management.
The problem is Adam’s instincts naturally try to pull him back onto the flight path; they, in effect, oppose and condemn his search for knowledge. But if Adam is to master his fully conscious mind he has to continue his experiments in self-adjustment.
What can Adam do?
Ideally he would explain to his instincts why he is having to defy them. He would explain the difference between the gene-based and nerve-based learning systems – that while instincts, which are acquired over many thousands of generations of natural selection, can give species orientations, the nerve-based conscious mind, which is able to understand the relationship between cause and effect, needs understandings to operate.
The problem is Adam is just setting out on his search for knowledge and has no ability to explain anything. So three things unavoidably happen: Adam defensively retaliates against the unjust criticism, he tries to block it out of his mind, and he desperately seeks any reinforcement he can find to relieve himself of the negative feelings. Since the definition of “ego” is “conscious thinking self”, Adam becomes ego-centric; his conscious mind becomes centred on trying to validate itself through achieving as much compensatory power, fame, fortune and glory as he can. He unavoidably becomes a psychologically upset sufferer of anger, alienation and egocentricity, which are all the aspects of the human condition that we fully conscious humans experience.
The story is similar to the pre-scientific Biblical account of Adam and Eve taking the fruit from “the tree of knowledge” (meaning, they became conscious and began to seek knowledge), but this account has a completely different outcome. While Adam and Eve were “banished” from the Garden of Eden for having become “sinful” selfish, competitive and aggressive villains, this story explains that Adam and Eve, we humans, are actually the heroes of the story of life on Earth! This is because the conscious mind must surely be nature’s greatest invention, and since we were the species given the upsetting task of championing the intellect over the ignorant, unjust condemnation of instincts, we have to be the heroes of the story of life on Earth.
We humans had no choice but to persevere with our search for knowledge and suffer the psychologically upset state of being angry, alienated and egocentric until we could develop the scientific method and through that vehicle for enquiry find the redeeming explanation for our upset condition of the difference between the gene- and nerve-based learning systems – the key insight that reveals we humans are good and not bad after all. The “sacred” scriptures that Geldof referred to couldn’t answer the “why” of our divided human condition until science clarified the difference between the gene- and nerve-based learning systems.
And most wonderful of all, through this clarifying insight all our psychologically defensive angry, alienated and egocentric behaviour is made redundant. With the great burden of guilt lifted from the human race, the old insecure, upset life that went with it is finally over. As Bono anticipated when he wrote and sang, everyone will now be able “to feel sunlight [of liberating understanding] on my face, see that dust cloud [of all our upset behaviour] disappear without a trace”. We will be able “to take shelter from the poison rain…high on a desert plain [in a wonderful ego-less new world] where the streets have no name”; a place where “there will be no toil or sorrow…no time of pain”, and everyone will sing “I’ve conquered my past, the future is here at last. I stand at the entrance to a new world I can see. The ruins to the right of me, will soon have lost sight of me. Love [in its purest form, which is truth, has] rescue[d] me.”
Jeremy Griffith’s “Freedom: The End Of The Human Condition” is published by WTM Publishing & Communications