Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mysteries of human nature solved

It's one thing to understand, intellectually, that the human race evolved from the same ancestors as chimps and bonobos, and quite another to recognize their apish influence on our daily affairs. "Sure", we shrug, when the scientists tell us that we share 97.3% of our DNA with chimpanzees, "but that other 3% makes us extra-special. I don't see Bonzo driving a Beamer or J. Fred Muggs building towers in Manhatten, no matter how much DNA he shares with Donald Trump."

Something creepy but enlightening this way comes when you steel yourself to look at that other 97%, as did Franz de Waal, primatologist and author of "Our Inner Ape". Ugly events that failed to make sense become clearer under the ape lens. Why do juveniles gang up on a classmate, bullying and ostracizing him for no apparent gain? Why are our male-female relationships so fraught with pitfalls? Why are our attempts to build safe, pleasant communities perpetually assailed by violence and misbehavior - and on a global level, war?

We can look at our ape kindred for the answers. The hairy guy in the mirror will tell you how he, and we, are designed that way; that adaptations we've made on the road to successful reproduction have geared us for behaviors kind, and not so kind. There are good reasons for the things we do. They have less to do with Satan and more to do with genetic survival. They are blunt, unforgiving and imperative. They can be ugly and disharmonious. The best means of escape may be in, finally, ceasing to run away.

In facing our apeness, we may also look for things of beauty. We have reasons for pride. Even though our social systems aren't greatly evolved from jungle tribes and predatory packs, we are great tool users and builders and imaginers. Our technology is as remarkable as an elephant's tusks or an ant's strength or a horse's power of movement. Because of our technology's phenomenal capabilities, however, we've come to a point when the shortcomings of our social evolution must be dispassionately examined and resolved.