Notes on the Human Condition and Its Expression

Earth is a human planet (for now – it wasn’t always one), home to the human condition, of which there is (as far as we know) only one. There may be other human heavenly bodies, but it seems unlikely, given the diversity of life and the size of the universe. Life elsewhere probably won’t appear like life here. Anyway, on Earth, humans enjoy symbiotic relationships with other forms of life, animal and plant. It’s a lively place, teeming and seething and awash with plasma and chlorophyll. Not all the symbiotic relationships are necessarily mutually beneficial. Things feed, often giving nothing back. Nothing new here.

The human condition remains hidden under cakes of cosmetics. Born with no name, it hides from its own ignominy. It can’t show itself except through indirect expression. It cancels itself out, no remainder.

Humans spend vital energy and expense denying themselves and others their human condition. Denying oneself the proper fit of one’s human condition seems to be its X factor. One opposes others their human condition in an effort to abjure any knowledge of it in oneself. “Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew” (Matthew 26:74 KJV). That rebuttal is how metaphor is created – language at all, really. We never quite seem to know what something actually is, only what that something is like. What is it like to be human, and why do we go to such pains to avoid it?

An electrician I brought in to help on a project, working along side him, pigeon-holed me as some sort of believer, when the subject of the human condition came up, and said he doesn’t believe in anything he can’t see or measure. Fair enough. Seems an odd line for an electrician to hold, though. I seem to be a magnet for these kinds of discussions.

There is at least one absolute fact of the human condition: we are not alone. Try as we might, we can’t get rid ourselves of others. And, no matter how much we might try to get away from ourselves, we always wind up where we started.

Look a little closer and you’ll see the human body a planet plays host to billions of myriad creatures, inside and out, enough bacteria in the big bang of a single sneeze to begin a new universe. And we swap spit. Begin the Beguine. The human condition is a merry-go-round dance.

Scarcity – Musical Chairs. After losing his daughter, on the brink of suicide, Buckminster Fuller proves scarcity a fallacy solvable through technological evolution and equitable distribution (see “Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth”).

Scare City, politics of fear, your other is out to get you. Better out them before they out you. Fuller offers examples of the difference between mind and brain. Mind is a characteristic of the human condition. Mind is universal; brain is local.

Jesus was a perfect naked expression of the human condition: nakod, nudus, nagna: unadorned, vulnerable, reckless, and rash. The Church has kept itself in business for 2,000 years dressing him up, confusing virtue with penance and desire.

“Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 14:26 KJV).

The expression of the human condition is found in sacrifice and altruistic behavior, in non-competitive endurance. What is called character, as in ethos appropriate to its subject, by which is meant integrity, honor, or right values, is yet another dressing for the human condition, a dressing of privilege. Character wears a suit and tie; but it as often wears motley.

Samuel Beckett expressed through text and drama the human condition in a bare form. And Beckett showed that a sense of humor is an important characteristic of the human condition, as he helped develop the tragicomedy, where literature becomes a striptease down to the human condition.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 I was a kid listening to the adults talking things over. My parents and their friends, mostly other parish members, were teenagers during World War Two, or a touch older and had served in the military or had watched others leave and knew some would not come back. They remembered listening to the war news evenings on the radio, in newsreels at the movie theater, weekend matinees. They experienced shortages, rations, and new factory jobs. They knew what atomic weapons were, heard when they dropped. They read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the newspaper. It was not reasonable to deny the possibility of their use again. Someone said we were lucky to be in Los Angeles, about as far away from Cuba as you could get in the US. Someone else said the spreading radiation could be worse, first like a sunburn that doesn’t show up until you’re back from the beach, then your skin is on fire, then more than skin, deep dark blistering blubber oozing juice and falling off the bones like a pig just out of the rock pit. It might be better to have the bomb land right on top of you. Out like a popped zit, a local teen quipped, for which he got a smack, but the adult with his pig went free. Being working class Catholics, they had all of course voted and prayed for Kennedy. One of them mentioned the US missiles in Italy and Turkey and a good old fashioned argument erupted that ended with beers and barbecued burgers and dogs and beans and hugs all around and the women and youngest kids inside praying the rosary while the men and older kids sat out with beers and smoked and talked about work for the week. I was an age where I could have stayed for the rosary or hung out with the men, but I was not invited to comment either place. I could wander off for an hour or two and no one would notice. A long seven years later I would reluctantly be wearing an Army uniform.

A uniform is another disguise of the human condition. When two opposing soldiers wearing different uniforms meet, they still share the same human condition, but they wear different masks of it, show different expressions of it. The human condition then becomes the universal code by which we accept our commonality, or shared features and attributes, our shared similar virtues.

Virtues are unlike values. Values are locally defined and ritualized. When a particular value is removed from the locality of its origin, it may cease to be of much use. (The poet Robert Creeley said, “Ritual removed from its place of origin loses meaning.” Values may also be fake or faked, as in “Good Country People,” or “Good Family Values,” platitudes or propaganda that when examined closely and all assumptions and presuppositions exposed are found to be hollow terms or labels of disguise.) Virtues are universal. Kindness, humility, love, forgiveness, patience, endurance – these are virtues. They transcend the local masks and express the human condition found worldwide. In virtues we recognize the human condition as a universal reality. It is on the basis of that recognition that rules of engagement and war are created and adhered to. It is on the basis of that recognition that torture is made universally criminal. It is on the basis of that recognition that cooperation, the same cooperation that is seen functioning on the altruistic cellular level (see E. O. Wilson, who has now suggested the gene is not characterized by selfishness, but by cooperation, thus questioning ideas based on survival of the strongest, the populist, or the nativist) is understood to be more important than competition.

There is no guarantee the human condition will endure. It could morph into something new and different. It could be destroyed completely.

There are incentives and rewards to living a life of values, membership in a group, for example, even if one only makes a pretense to sharing the values of the group, or misuses or reinterprets the values in a way that undermines their original purposes. There is no incentive to live a virtuous life.

Tolerance is not a virtue. Tolerance may be a value, in as much as it’s better than intolerance, but to tolerate is not to accept. Tolerance anesthetizes, as intolerance attempts to persecute or destroy differences. Acceptance is the virtue, and is far more difficult than tolerance.

It’s not enough to acknowledge the human condition in another. One must recognize the human condition of another as the same as one’s own human condition. No differences. We must continue to search for ever lower common denominators than are indicated in a comparison of values.

The Golden Rule is subverted by self-loathing. How can one love another as one’s self if one does not love one’s self? Loving one’s self means accepting one’s human condition, and accepting one’s human condition means accepting that one shares that condition with everyone else, whether or not you feel you share the same values, beliefs, or goals as the other. Yet, paradoxically, it might be possible to hate one’s self while loving another? Enter, unrequited love.

Is self-loathing simply a severe form of poor self image? Vices pander to the poor self imaged. Vices are masks, escapes from self loathing, medications. Virtues are the outward expression of the human condition. The virtuous accepts that self-loathing may also be a characteristic of the human condition in the sense that all masks show a human in hiding, a fugitive from self truth.

Is there a need for virtuous living? No. And, as said, there is no guarantee that the human condition will endure. Maybe it will continue to evolve or morph into something that doesn’t at all recognize virtue, but we could scarcely then call it human as we now define humanity (humanity as in, “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”).

It’s difficult to agree upon values, what’s of value. It can be difficult adhering to one’s values, even as one embraces them as right. Anyone can be virtuous, at any time. Virtues are often worthless, no exchange, no stock value. The Church’s idea of indulgences makes a mockery of virtue, tries to capitalize on the essential worthlessness (in the existential sense) of the human condition.

Virtue requires action. Virtue is a verb. Value does not require action. One easily plays one’s values close to the vest. Value is desire. What we want. Even when it’s not good for us. Values are never satisfied.

Cruelty is a mask of self-loathing. If you would torture another, you are simply a sadist. Cruelty is a vice.

Character as a value has local limits. Masks are local. If virtue is character, it must be universal.

How to build a universal character?

We may think we love the human condition, but it does not reciprocate. The human condition is the lipstick on the toilet paper. Value is the lipstick on the lips.

Metaphor is often not helpful, but what is the lowest common denominator of the human condition? Are there virtues, selfless acts of sacrifice that ask for and indeed achieve practically nothing? Where do these virtues come from, and where are they going? How are they expressed, if at all?

Some Bibliography

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2006; 2007, Norton paperback. For Appiah, cosmopolitanism is the effort to learn to live together in a global society that recognizes and accepts differences while working on a shared basis of a universal sense of right and wrong that works toward the benefit of all. Appiah writes as a philosopher, which means he insists on logic, reasonableness, the unpacking of what we might do separated from why we might do it (because, as he points out, we might often agree to do the same thing but for different reasons). I am not a philosopher, and in my writing, I make no such distinctions. I’m afraid I’m a packer, not an unpacker, at heart, or by temperament. Likewise, Appiah is a scholar and academic, and follows the conventions of academic argument. As a rule, I do not follow any such conventions.

A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, Andre Comte-Sponville, 1996 (Petit Traite des Grandes Vertus); First Owl Books Edition 2002 (with the added subtitle, “the uses of philosophy in everyday life”). Comte-Sponville describes, defines, and discusses the following virtues in this order, a chapter devoted to each: Politeness, Fidelity, Prudence, Temperance, Courage, Justice, Generosity, Compassion, Mercy, Gratitude, Humility, Simplicity, Tolerance, Purity, Gentleness, Good Faith, Humor, Love. Readers might find it difficult distinguishing between values and virtues, or how being polite somehow might compare with being in love.

E. O. Wilson: I’ve written several posts with references to Wilson. I was initially more interested in the questions of peer review, but I’ve since given up hope there – as far as peer review establishing or ensuring any kind of so-called scholarly credibility. Though I still recognize the importance of following conventions in order to participate in practical, fruitful argument, the throwing off of certain academic conventions opens a door to more free and creative pursuits. Anyway, here is a lively post on Wilson and altruistic behavior. The implications of his turnabout are huge, and, in turn, speak to the value and legitimacy of research, scholarly, and academic work.

Thoreau’s Meanly Men and Manly Ants

“We live meanly, like ants,” Thoreau tells us in the “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” chapter of Walden, just after he’s divulged his reason for being in the woods: to distill life, then distill it some more, until he has more than 100 proof. And if life prove mean, then he will “publish its meanness to the world.” What does he mean by meanness? The opposite of simplicity, for one thing, letting the railroad ride over us, for getting off track is devalued; today Thoreau would use the automobile as the vehicle and mean man the asphalt. His discussion of living meanly anticipates the later episode of the war of the ants in the “Brute Neighbors” chapter. But there, the ants are anthropomorphized as warriors from antiquity. In the ants he sees meanness because in the ants he sees men. But what could be meaner than the mother who “had charged him to return with his shield or upon it”? Thoreau even imagines the ant armies with military bands blowing on the sidelines just as fiercely as the combatants. Yet Thoreau anticipates E. O. Wilson, whose newest work explains altruism, communication, and cooperation as fundamental to advanced social behavior successes, both in ants and men, as opposed to competition and meanness. The fittest may turn out to be the one who can best cooperate, sacrifice, and share. Wilson considers self-understanding as vital to survival of the species. Thoreau agreed. Thoreau leaves the pond when he does because he’s called by Mrs. Emerson to come care for her family while her husband will be away on a lecture tour. Thoreau leaves Walden quickly, with an attenuated conclusion.

The E. O. Wilson reference is to a interview with Wilson, “What Does E.O. Wilson Mean By a ‘Social Conquest of the Earth’,” by Carl Zimmer, March 22, 2012.

Related Posts:

Mapping a Reading of Thoreau’s Walden

Now is the Science of our Discontent

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Where we Freak Out! and blame it on the cat

Ever wonder where questions like these originate, questions like “What’s got into you?” or “What’s eating you?”

Turns out, these questions might be literal, not figurative at all.

What’s got into you, literally, according to an Atlantic article arriving via snailman yesterday, is cat parasite. You know the one, the reason moms-to-be should avoid cat feces. I’m not making this stuff up. You can read about it here: “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy, by Kathleen McAuliffe, about Jaroslav Flegr, a Czech evolutionary biologist, who argues that the cat parasite “may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons.” It’s one of those articles where you come away yelling, “I knew it! I knew this all along”!

Flegr’s hypothesis goes something like this: the cat parasite can’t reproduce in the human, so it needs to get back into the cat. Enter Frank Zappa and Suzie Creamcheese, for the parasite then tries to manipulate the host into releasing it back out into the wild, into the cat, thus driving the host to Freak Out! level. Well, that’s the idea (lay version), and it’s getting credible attention from the scientific community.

And not only that, but another article just in from Jonah Lehrer, my favorite neuroscience journalist, talking about E. O. Wilson’s turnabout on altruism, a reversal that has Dawkins and his supposedly Darwinian cohort up in arms, for the survival of the fittestists can’t explain altruism from their cornered point of view. As Jonah says in the article, “This is science with existential stakes.” Dawkins’s view is that genes are selfish, that human behavior is driven only by self-interest, by the will to survive. The opposing viewpoint, which Wilson seems to be inching toward, is that human behavior is driven at least as much by cooperation, and that the idea of cooperation might even exist at the gene level.

“Kin and Kind: A fight about the genetics of altruism,” the Lehrer article, is behind the New Yorker paywall, but I don’t have my hard copy yet, but I couldn’t wait, so I read it in the digital version, but which you need a subscription for, but I rarely go there, preferring the hard copy, and I couldn’t remember my user name and password and had to email Help (Freak Out!), resulting in about half a dozen emails, all of which took me longer than reading the article, and I began to wonder if the cat parasite wasn’t at work.

Note: On Wednesday, February 29th, at 3 P.M. E.T., Lehrer will answer readers’ questions in a live chat. Follow link to New Yorker site.


E. O. Wilson’s Happy Ant in Mary Midgley’s Primate Picnic

Now is the Science of our Discontent: E. O. Wilson and the Sacrifice of Science

Now is the Science of our Discontent: E. O. Wilson and the Sacrifice of Science

Why do humans sacrifice for one another, sometimes even giving their lives so that others may go on living? We are an exceptionally selfish species, if measured by our propensity to hoard, to covet power and control, to manipulate and coerce. Scientists appear to be part of the species. Nature published last August a new paper by E. O. Wilson, with Marin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, all of Harvard (Wilson, now 81), but we wonder what’s become of the peer review process when after publication 137 scientists see fit to call Wilson a heretic, signing a letter chastising Nature for publishing his argument. Of course there’s disagreement – no disagreement, no argument; no argument, no need to publish results. One would think the scientist would be the first to understand this. So what’s going on here?

Borrowing from the medical peer review scandal, about which we posted last October: In the Atlantic’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” David H. Freedman (November, 2010) said, “Though scientists and science journalists are constantly talking up the value of the peer-review process, researchers admit among themselves that biased, erroneous, and even blatantly fraudulent studies easily slip through it.” The motive appears to be funding. If you are a scholar at work on research on kin selection, it’s possible that Wilson’s breakaway article renders your work null and void. Yet most disturbing is the suggestion that many of the scientists signing the letter of discontent have not even read Wilson’s paper, or, if they have, have not studied the mathematics addendum, or if they have, have not understood the math. A Boston Globe interview (April 17, 2011) with Wilson, interestingly titled “Where does good come from?,” discusses the letter of discontent and his revised theory. According to the Globe, Richard Dawkins said, “It’s almost universally regarded as a disgrace that Nature published it.” That’s not a rebuttal; it’s an insult. Wired Science’s Brandon Keim summarized the support that does exist as well as opposing viewpoints: See “E. O. Wilson Proposes New Theory of Social Evolution.”

The crux of the matter was usefully stated by Robert B. Laughlin in A Different Universe (2005): “The pig-headed response of the science establishment to the emergent principles potentially present in life is, of course, a glaring symptom of its addiction to reductionist beliefs – happily abetted by the pharmaceutical industry, which greatly appreciates having minutiae relevant to its business worked out at taxpayer expense” (173). Laughlin defines emergence this way: “Emergence means complex organizational structure growing out of simple rules. Emergence means stable inevitability in the way certain things are. Emergence means unpredictability, in the sense of small events causing great and qualitative changes in larger ones. Emergence means the fundamental impossibility of control. Emergence is a law of nature to which humans are subservient” (200-201). Further, Laughlin explains, perhaps, both the medical research scandal and the dissing by so many scientists of Wilson’s paper: “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (215). What Laughlin is talking about is science that shifts in focus from explaining things based on “the behavior of parts to the behavior of the collective” (208). And that is precisely the direction taken by Wilson’s new paper.

The threat of Wilson’s change in focus is to the dominance of the individual, the single gene as well as the single person. When humans come together, the resulting behavior of the group is something different from the behavior of each individual within the group. The same may be true of genes. This is what Dawkins can’t tolerate, for the focus changes from competition, which his work is bound to, to cooperation, which is probably an emergent phenomenon. If we are to have the truth, it appears that someone in the scientific community is going to have to make a sacrifice. Perhaps E. O. Wilson already has.

…ant, ant, ant, ant, and ant: The Fiction Science of E. O. Wilson; or, What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

E. O. Wilson’s fiction piece “Trailhead” appeared in the January 25, 2010 New Yorker. The story is science fable, science fiction. The main character in the story, the protagonist, might be the queen ant, or could be the entire ant colony, the superorganism. The antagonist is a capricious nature, and there’s the rub, for the ant is nature, and it’s a curious narrator who separates one from the other to argue a moral.

This is not the first time Wilson has used science fiction to illustrate a sociobiological theory. In On Human Nature, he creates a “superior extraterrestrial species,” that eats humans, easily justifying their appetite using the same argument that humans use to eat animals. Meanwhile, the aliens are mostly interested in Earth’s ant population.

What makes “Trailhead” fiction includes the idea that nature, or someone, dispenses luck. But what is luck? From the OED we get “locken to entice.” While, as the OED points out, this is the verb, not the noun, Wilson, in addition to giving us “By luck she had found an ideal site to build a nest,” says “…the dice fell right for the Queen of the Trailhead Colony.” Who rolled the dice? Who or what dispenses luck? In any case, isn’t one man’s luck another’s misfortune? And why is it considered lucky to merely prolong a meaningless life? Answers to these moral questions are implicit in the story, where we find “altruistic workers,” “self-sacrifice,” “viciousness,” and “taboos.”

But luck drives the theme, for as lucky as the Trailhead Colony queen was, the Streamsider Queen was even luckier: “The Streamsiders had not chosen this site for their own protection. They were just lucky that their Queen had landed there.” Are we lucky that our parents met, that the Big Bang occurred, that our ancestral genes wound up close, but not too close, to the sun?

The story ends with the defeat of the Trailhead Colony by the invading Streamsiders. “With luck a few survivors [Trailheaders] might then reassemble and restart the colony elsewhere. That is, if they had a real queen. But, of course, they had only their inadequate Soldier-Queen.” The end comes, and “The ants were a doomed people in a besieged city.” They’ve run out of luck.

Then comes the most surprising part of the theory; the ants are given a choice: “Finally, all that the Trailheaders knew was terror, and the existence of a choice – they could fight or run from the horror.” If luck exists, they will make a run for it.

Note: Norton has published Wilson’s first novel (he’s 80 years old), “Anthill,” this month.

E. O. Wilson’s Happy Ant in Mary Midgley’s Primate Picnic

Human freedom creates morality, for to exercise our freedom we are held in a cage of motive. The stuff of motive is found in literature, and we thought we might there experience freedom unrestrained by complicity, and our awareness of others’ actions might be total. Through literature we would enjoy our freedom without ourselves being questioned as to our motives.

Those are the sorts of things I found myself jotting down in my notebook while reading Midgley’s book. Why was I reading Mary Midgley? I’d been meaning to read some Midgley ever since her interview last year in The Believer – which she consented to only after being assured it was not a religious magazine.

Midgley takes on E. O. Wilson, who viewed humanity as a dysfunctional ant colony, saw the potential for individual happiness from a sociobiologist’s viewpoint, the neurobiologist the queen of the ant hill. The Humanities work best when non-specialized, and acknowledging a plurality of motives, looking behind the Main Street facades, but enjoying the stroll. But when the Humanities also buy into reductive thinking, and fragment, capabilities are lost, for, as Buckminster Fuller showed, specialization leads to extinction – when the organism loses its ability to adapt. Midgley’s term of Wilson’s progress is “bilogicised,” where he excludes “amateur thinking,” and the “merely wise,” as if there is such a thing as an amateur human, people who live just as a hobby. But looking at today’s superhighways one wonders if Wilson wasn’t on to something with his ants. But do ants cry? Laugh? Stray from the scented path? Take irrational risks? Celebrate birthdays? Humans are not ants, even if they both do like to picnic. 

Midgley explains that moral judgments are not only possible, but necessary, and not only necessary but mandatory, compelling, and binding: mandatory in that to be human is to be moral; compelling in that our moral judgments forge our path through the otherwise inhospitable jungle of the universe; binding in that we must live the results of our judgments – we can’t escape our own judgments.

If we are in the universe, and we have a moral purpose, how can the universe not have a moral purpose? For why is there something? Why is there simply not something, but nothing? Does not this fact of something trump the possibility of nothing, and suggest a moral to the story? Perhaps we are short-lived, but if we are short-lived why have we evolved to a moral purpose, that moral purpose evolving consistent with our evolving consciousness? Perhaps we are the universe’s only chance at a moral purpose, of realizing a moral purpose for itself.

If the human is denied a moral purpose, we lose our freedom, are literally “demoralized,” and we are our own cage, a bag of genes. 

Specialization leads to extinction, which explains why the specialists practice reduction of their competitors, wanting to “cannibalize” every threat to the dominance of their singular point of view, and thus lose the ability to adapt. The cannibalization takes the form of propaganda, a disguised values’ trap, where one is led to miscalculate the future results of one’s current actions.

Sung to the tune of Teddy Bears’ Picnic: If you go out in the woods today you’re in for a big surprise, for today’s the day the primates have their picnic.

Midgley, M. (1994). The ethical primate: Humans, freedom and morality. New York: Routledge.