Saturday, July 13, 2019

What is Human? Review of MAMA'S LAST HUG, and others

I have a bad habit of reading several books at the same time. This creates a sort of confluence in my mind and also makes finishing anything take longer. But at times, even the most seemingly disparate books find a twain that meets. For instance, I recently read MAMA’S LAST HUG by Frans de Waal, the primatologist and author of numerous books about animal emotions. De Waal writes about emotions in animals, especially the chimps he studies, and how animal emotions help us understand human emotions. Empathy, for instance, has been crucial to survival, of course, and it is particularly paramount in good parenting for any species. Mothers of all species know well the fierce pain they feel when their child is hurting. 
But human empathy can take a darker role as well. Our ability to read another’s vulnerability results in scams, frauds, and even violence. Bored chimps will also sometimes play cruel “games” in taunting and even murdering other animals. Cruelty is not just a human trait, according to De Waal, although you could argue that we have nearly perfected it.
Another book I started recently is David Brooks’ THE SECOND MOUNTAIN. In it, Brooks writes about the process of climbing the first mountain in one’s life: career building, finding one’s place in the world, creating one’s life. The first mountain represents the “I” in our thinking. Although we are still certainly empathic, because we are natural creatures, others’ needs and desires take a backseat to our own ambitions. If we are completely bought into the “I” movement, so to speak, it will likely reach a peak and then begin a descent into a valley of chaos, loss, and possibly even depression. But crossing that valley is, as Brooks sees it, imperative in our growth as moral beings. The second mountain, then, is our ascent away from selfish pursuits to “moral elevation.” By climbing that mountain, our own needs now take the backseat to the needs of our fellow creatures. What I find an interesting dichotomy is that you could read Brooks’ book not as a memoir of his own search for moral elevation but as a self-help book. But that throws it back into the first mountain scenario! In any event, his tale is of one of our journeys away from self and toward community. Until we live as a village, a herd, a flock, we will be simply stuck in our own valley of despair.
Thus, in reading about animal emotion and human morality I see a pattern and an intersection of both scientific and philosophical study. In our current crisis of morality (perhaps ongoing crisis) in this country, it is especially relevant to consider the human and animal worlds as interconnected. Morality is not a human trait exclusively, nor is it the domain of reason. I agree with De Waal that in fact morality must be tied to our emotional lives. Otherwise, if we were to use purely rational justifications without emotion, the concept of slavery, for example, could be touted as a sound economic policy. But crimes against humanity do exist and persist. Why? How has our natural emotional connection with our fellow species broken down so badly to allow the atrocities we see, and sometimes even condone? 
That seems to be where David Brooks comes in in his examination of what involves a moral state of being and how it can be achieved. Animals seem not to have the issue with morality that humans have. Even domesticated animals who are tied hoof and tail to humans retain their natural, emotional connections to each other, except where human cruelty has so skewed their minds that they become ferocious—as in the case sometimes of fighting dogs—or anti-social—as with many animals who have been badly treated.
Murder does exist, as I’ve noted above, in the world of chimps. But genocide and war are uniquely human. Classes or clans of similar-looking humans have banded together to bring annihilation or enslavement to other classes or clans of humans dissimilar in looks and culture. Usually, the contest is territorial, which does harken back to our animal ancestry. But in modern times, it is either an effort to remove an entire ethnicity or to remove an impending or possible threat. Sometimes, it’s simply greed.
De Waal points out that the soldiers who carry out the atrocities of genocide or war are not usually acting of their own volition, and in that way, we have veered far from the animal world. Alpha males and matriarchal powers exist among animals, of course, and can produce violence. But animal cultures do not have the power structures that humans have created. We have a system wherein a group of commanders can dictate to a pool of subordinates activities that might actually violate an individual’s sense of morality. But the consequences of rebelling against the orders are so high that the soldier is forced to push down his emotional inclinations towards empathy and morality in the treatment of other humans. 
MAMA’S LAST HUG brilliantly conveys the thesis that animals do have emotions (most of us would say, “Duh,” but many scientists have balked at that concept), and that those emotions may, in fact, create “feelings,” just as human emotions do. The fact that animals do not articulate those feelings, doesn’t mean they’re not there, and with more study, possibly uncovered. Feelings are not emotions. Feelings are the outward expression of an inward emotion—sometimes the opposite—such as saying, “I’m happy,” yet inside being truly depressed. Animals will disguise their emotions for reasons for survival or to gain an advantage. Humans do the same. Both, I believe, also tailor their emotional responses for moral reasons. An urge to behave one way can be stemmed because the animal knows that the action is wrong. 
So back to David Brooks’ book. To live a truly moral life means, according to Brooks, to forego one’s own selfish inclinations for the benefit of one’s community. We see evidence of that behavior in all types of creatures. What we do not usually see in the animal world is the opposite: the intentional pursuit of selfish gains to the detriment of an animal’s community. There are no laws in place, no systems of ethics to dictate an animal’s behavior, except maybe the overall need to survive. Humans, on the other hand, do have a system of ethics stating what is right and wrong, what is acceptable behavior and what is not. And yet, we see even in our leaders a constant flouting of those rules, and for some, an obvious lack of a moral center or emotional attachment to community. 
Is that what makes humans different from animals? Maybe. Selfishness does not promote the welfare of a species or community. In Richard Grant’s wonderful book, GOD’S MIDDLE FINGER (I said I read a lot of books at the same time!) he writes of a tribe in the Sierra Madre who are distinctly anti-social except when beer is involved. Their tribe has suffered attacks and slaughter throughout their history, and as a result, they’ve pretty much kept to themselves. Consequently, they have few traditions, a broken language, and stagnant intellectual and social development. Keeping oneself to oneself doesn’t lead to growth. Animals know this. Humans apparently still need to learn it.

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