June 15, 2007

It's Good To Be An Animal

Ever since I read this diary about a visit to the Creation Museum, it's been sort of in the back of my mind. Really, kind of an interesting philosophical distraction from other concerns. So.

It seems clear that there are some people to whom being an animal is a terrible thing. Clearly, they are animals with inferiority complexes. They think they're just not good enough unless they've got the personal, undivided, permanent attention of a deity who created them by a completely different process than the one by which all other life appears to have originated. Which is just silly.

I believe in a higher power, but only because I just do. After everything and without compulsion, it just comes to me that I think there's something more. Whatever shape or form it might take. I don't require proof, but neither do I feel the need to see it as a facet or symptom of anything more than something that my species is inclined to believe. It's often hard to tell if our beliefs are true, particularly when many of us share them.

When I was a teenager, for example, I seemed to believe simultaneously that I was immortal and would surely not survive past the age of 30. Clearly, I was incorrect on both counts, but this was a widely held (if often unarticulated) belief among my peers. Why human animals of a certain age should seem to be inclined to believe these things, who knows? But we manage our society in ways that prevent these beliefs from disintegrating it, and to promote other beliefs that help maintain cohesion. Like that our own family members are the best people on the planet, something else many people are inclined to believe, but can plainly not be true for the vast majority. At least, not without the kinds of qualifying statements that people don't often leave room for in the expression of strong emotion.

That's the cool thing about being a human animal, though: How many very interesting things we can do with our minds. Like believing in things. That's quite a novel leap. We can be conditioned to expect things like other animals, but we can also believe things for which we've had no prior experience to demonstrate are true. Like that we'll make it big someday.

Another interesting thing we can do with our minds is have bizarrely meta conversations about what we think of how we think about ourselves, and have them with each other. We can talk about substanceless things like thoughts, or abstract representations like flat drawings, and manifest them in the world around us in ways that can be replicated by others who've also only discussed or seen these abstractions.

Anyone would have to agree, these are outrageously spiffy things for an animal to be able to do.

They come with a price, though, and that includes our ability to worry about things that we don't even know will happen or that are problems only in our own minds. Then there's the way we assume that others understand our abstractions, but then they don't always, and isn't that always fun. Or we think they might not because someone else didn't, so we explain, and they get upset because of course, anyone would understand that.

Our facility for abstraction also makes us, in a very strange way, our own pets. Having so distanced much of our energy and attention from the needs and instincts of our animal bodies, we may have to take pains to remember them, acting against their interests as though we had no particular stake in the matter. So sometimes at the end of the day, I'm left wondering if I would have treated another animal the way I treat myself. Did you take yourself for a walk today? Have you been sufficiently fed, watered and petted?

It seems apparent that all the bugs haven't been worked out of our shiny, new, supercharged mammalian nervous systems. And they aren't likely to be, but that's a whole other conversation.

So we'll have to live with the uncertainty of being unable to know for sure whether all of our abstract beliefs are true. I'm all right with that, too. We've survived for a very long time just muddling through. Whether our natural selection was by design or happenstance, it seems to have produced a viable species that now has to figure out how to manage more of us than there have ever been before.

While muddling through that problem, I take solace in the fact that I'm an animal. That my nervous system, the one that allows me to do so very many interesting things, can't see or hear or know everything. What it does see and hear, it may get wrong. It may be affected by chemical reactions I'm not consciously aware of, or the influence of other human animals. It can also be a lot of fun, though sometimes that turns out to be as much of a potential pitfall as any of the other things, possibly fracturing our sense of self such that we identify so much with the thrill-seeking impulses of the body that we abandon developing our reason. Our instincts are rather atrophied, see above, nor are they suited for the new environment we built for ourselves to live in.

With all these flaws, we've still taken over the planet. Not always wisely, but there it is. If I'd made us, I'd think that was pretty neat. If no one made us, well, wow.

Yes, again, I'm glad to be an animal. That I get to have the problems and limitations of an animal to remind me that my abstractions may be only tentatively connected to the world of experience. To recall me to being teachable, in only the way that a heavy dose of mammalian sense impressions sometimes can. Really, I think it makes me a better person than I would be as one of the ethereal creatures depicted by some religions as that ideal lifeform to which we should aspire to become when our animal bodies have breathed their last.

Posted by natasha at June 15, 2007 12:02 AM | Random Mumblings | Technorati links |

> we've still taken over the planet.

For a moment, anyway.

There are so many humans, living so close together, mixing so thoroughly via jets and cars, that we are ripe for a population-reducing pandemic. It happens to other species when they reach monoculture levels of ecological dominance -- some opportunistic pathogen exploits the abundant resource, and a new equilibrium ensues.

The process of reaching a new equilibrium will be unpleasant for many who manage to survive.

If we were really H. sapiens, we'd be working on ways to have a rich culture with far fewer humans, and on defining an acceptable path to that world. As it is, we pursue more-of-everything-for-everyone; the worst possible course for population stability.

Fortunately, we already know how to adjust the demographic thermostat downward: education for girls and women, and the right and ability to control conception, seems to transition most societies toward a low rate of population growth.

[Insert spittle-flecked rant about BushCo's stupid and counterproductive abstince-only sex "education" and worldwide defunding of contraception organizations.]

Posted by: joel hanes at June 16, 2007 03:00 PM