Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Nature of Human Nature

[Johnathan Clayborn]

As many of you who know me well know, I often volunteer my time for various activities and organizations. I've been part of Relay for Life committees, been on the public safety council for my city, and fed the homeless more times than I can count. One of the volunteer things that I do is answer questions on I volunteer both as an English language expert, and in the "writer's block" category.

For the most part the people who ask questions there are learning to speak English and they want to know if they've used to the correct verb tense, or the correct adverb, etc. However, every now then one of my regular, recurring questioners asks me something profound. Today I got an email from one such person in Poland who has emailed me several times. As they learn more about me and my background and experiences a few of them sometimes use that channel to ask questions about philosophy of psychology. Last time I heard from this gentleman in Poland he was asking me to interpret what a particular author was saying about different kinds of love and whether or not I agreed. Here's was today's question for me:

Hello Mr. Johnathan. 
Once again I'm not going to ask about grammar or writing, but rather about psychology. 

Last time I asked you about love. Today my question pertains to a similar subject, I think. 

Do you think that all people, by nature, need someone else to share their life with? It seems to me that most of the people cannot live alone, they feel they need someone and sooner or later find him or her. Of course there are monks/priests/nuns etc. who live in celibacy, but aren't they, in this way, going against their nature? 

I think I heard or read somewhere that we are, in a sense, (I'm not sure which word is correct here) imperfect or handicapped because we cannot live (or at least it's not comfortable for us to live)without the other person - of course I'm talking about a relationship between a man and a woman.

What are your thoughts on this?

I rather enjoy this more philosophical questions as they break up the tedium of explaining verb-tense agreement and other such grammatical rules. 

This is a very complex question, with many different factors to consider and many different possible philosophical lenses to view the question from. 

I'll start with the easier part of this question, whether or not people can live their lives alone. This, in and of itself, is a complex question. Intrinsically humans are very social creatures. We like to belong to groups. As Professor Diamond explains in his book, "Guns, Germs, and Steel", this is a throwback of evolutionary psychology from our hunter-gatherer stage. Being part of a group meant that that you would have a much better chance of survival. This component of human psychology has carried over to modern society. We, as a species, do prefer to be part of a group. We often find ways to associate ourselves with a group and we actually strive for and foster that "us versus them" mentality. When there are no ready-made groups available, we often invent some so that we can develop this sense of belonging, which is one of the steps in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. With the advent of the internet, this is much, much easier than ever before in history. Now we have the ability to divide ourselves along racial lines, nationalities, political lines, religious beliefs, sports teams, which games and shows and band we like, etc. 

Just because humans have a natural tendency for socialization and belonging doesn't mean that people as individuals are always well-suited for this. There was an article in a recent issue of Psychology Today magazine that talked about the growing demographic of deliberately unmarried single adults, people who have chosen to live a single lifestyle because they are happier being by themselves than with a partner (a concept that seems strange to me, personally). As humans I do think that we all want to belong, that we all want to love and be loved, and that we all want someone to share our joys, our achievements, and our heartaches with. But I do think that there are a number of people out there who are not only capable of living alone, but who actually prefer it. Many of these people date, and fulfill their need for intimate human contact with either friends who understand the boundaries of that relationship, or with people whom they meet randomly every so often. 

But, this brings us to the question of whether or not this behavior is in violation of human nature. When I was younger I used to do a philosophy exercise. I would pick a question or a topic and then on one day I would make arguments in favor of that position. On the next day I would argue the opposite point. I would pick random things like "Can one person really make a difference?" and argue the point back and forth with myself for weeks. One of my questions was "is there really such a thing as human nature at all"? To this day I am convinced that if there really is a such thing as human nature, it is not a cleanly-defined set of rules or parameters for behavior. I think it's much more complex and abstract than that. The reason that I think this is that almost every type of human behavior that you can think of has a counter-part and opposite behavior that exists in dichotomous opposition to the first behavior. For example; there are those people who would donate and give away most of the things that they own to help others, but there are others would who steal and horde things away for themselves. There are those who would stand up and protect the weak and the infirm, but there are also those who would pick on them and prey on them. There are those who say that human nature is to believe in something greater (perhaps God), but there are also those not only don't believe in religion but don't believe that there is anything greater. I could go on, but the point is; how can any of these behaviors be "human nature" if there exists another behavior that is the exact opposite? If it were human nature, then wouldn't all people be more or less compelled to be that way through the intrinsic properties of human DNA? So, I propose to you, that maybe human nature is to be in conflict, with ourselves, and with each other, in such a way that there are no clearly-defined rules that define the human experience. 

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These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.