Human intellect initially promoted our instincts
This is important because logical thinking and self-awareness are traditionally held to be a stupendous new stage in the human evolutive process – the decisive innovation that separates us from all other animals. We tended to think we were unique based on ethical, moral and aesthetic valuations. While these traits were no doubt actually present, over long stretches – at least as far as the fossil record is concerned – they played a rather subordinate role and our instinct-driven behavior dominated.
These considerations help explain why the first premises of this book have placed such emphasis on energy gain. After all, to what end did our ancestors apply their capabilities in the two-million-year-long period in which they lived as hunters and gatherers and then as farmers and livestock breeders? The answer is simple: they mostly strove to improve their acquisition success. On the one hand, this was the prerequisite for all life functions; on the other hand it reflected our attempt to make life more pleasant and thus to promote whatever provides us with pleasure in one form or another.
It is instructive to note that all our drives are controlled by what zoologists refer to as the “pleasure-pain principle”. Again, we cannot definitively say whether this pertains to animals as well because we are unable to communicate with them linguistically. Nonetheless, it highly probably that they – like humans – associate “hunger” with negative inner sensibilities that they try to avoid, and that feeding imparts a positive sense of well-being. This is equally true for sexual drives or for the drives related to security, brooding (protecting and raising children) or “impressive” behavior (striving for admiration or a leadership role in the community). In reality, it is technically impossible to create a motivation that isn’t based on reward and punishment – on unpleasant feelings when drives remain unfulfilled and on pleasant feelings when fulfilled.
In animals, the above are all components of instincts, much like the innate nature of recognition and movement. Humans, on the other hand, used their additional organs to gradually gain the upper hand on animals and therefore win more time for leisure and cultural refinement. We did more than simply produce these organs to be as effective as possible: we also geared them to create positive inner feelings that satisfied both our innate drives and our new-found habits and traditions. Human aesthetics, which no doubt arose from delighting over well-formed human bodies and then progressively shifted from the natural to the additional organs, began to exert an influence on the design of our clothes and jewelry, but also on our tools and buildings19. The pleasures we derive from eating and drinking were intensified by various forms of food preparation, spicing and gastronomic culture. The joys of conviviality, exchanging ideas, chatting, flirting, and celebrating feasts began to determine the course of daily life. Questions related to the meaning of life were ultimately raised and guidelines had to be established to maintain order within society. This is one explanation for many of our religious concepts: they promoted cohesion within the group and favored the development of customs and mores. It may also help to explain why these features, once created and established, are difficult to disprove. Simply put: the basic elements of human “culture”, as abundantly documented in archeological finds, had begun to fall in place during this period. Throughout, technological-economic progress was a prerequisite and centerpiece for all these phenomena. Perfect harmony between the innate and learned behaviors governing our predatory pursuits or, more precisely, our energy gain, also played a crucial role.
We continued to refine our hunting and gathering methods. One decisive advance was the taming of fire to cook and stew our food. Better taste was only one advantage. The primary benefit of cooking food is that the heat weakens the cell walls of both plant and animal foodstuffs and makes them more digestible. The molecules are easier to break down, enabling us to extract the energy from their chemical bonds, giving us to better access to useful components. This helps us extract more from the food we eat. Of course, the many methods of preparing food also helped make eating a pleasurable and palatable leisure experience.
A key issue is the degree to which our innate instincts either harmonized or collided with our intelligent control mechanisms over this two million year period. More closely analyzing the nature of those innate programs gives us an answer.
As we all know, drives – as the core of all instincts – are no less well developed in humans than in animals. Konrad Lorenz even considered our drives for food and sex to be more strongly developed (“hypertrophied”) due to “human self-domestication”, i.e. humans use this strategy to shield themselves and their domestic animals from natural selection20. Whereas reproduction in animals is bound to certain clearly delimited times, humans remain active and interested throughout the year. As far as eating and drinking are concerned, the affluent increasingly became confronted with the problem of eating too much rather than of procuring enough food. In humans, brood care expresses itself in affection for children and in efforts to raise them accordingly. Our drive for security appears to be hypertrophied as well, probably promoted by our powers of imagination. Among the social drives that play a role in all pack-forming animals, the best-developed drive – alongside the joy of conviviality and a certain readiness to lend help – is the human desire to impress others. This “impressive behavior” helps determine the rank we enjoy in the community or the potential leadership role we can assume.
In humans, the innate control mechanisms for movement are reduced, at least compared with other “higher” animals. The period in which our children, who are long unable to fend for themselves, develop the control mechanisms for their future lives exceeds that of all other mammals. This period – driven by play instincts and curiosity and nurtured by parental support – requires commensurately long parental protection or “brood care”. Infants still show innate behaviors, such as the instinctive search for the mother’s breast, the sucking behavior (which need not be learned), and holding on tightly to the mother. This is accompanied by numerous innate actions that constitute human mimicry, such as yawning, coughing, sneezing, etc. In the framework of the central questions this book poses – how can humans lead more efficient professional lives – the ultimate issue is the degree to which innate key stimuli affect our decisions and actions. Specifically, do innate tendencies influence the way we go about business and, if yes, how?
We can briefly skip over some of the more trivial stimuli, for example that “sweet” indicates the presence of sugar and that sugar is a particularly easy energy reservoir to tap. We therefore react positively to sweet tastes, whereas a bitter taste, which characterizes certain poisonous substances, repels us. Green tends to exert a positive attraction because it is associated with plant growth and habitats suitable for humans. Red can be construed as warning us of fire, perhaps helping to explain why traffic lights use the green signal for “drive” and red for “stop”. The babbling sound of running water is pleasing to our ear – a key stimulus that appeals to our sense of thirst. My thesis, however, places greater emphasis on the more general activities and behaviors triggered by key stimuli, even in today’s much altered world.
From the evolutionary standpoint, humans are “universalists” or, as the zoologist would say somewhat dryly, omnivores. Whereas specialists react to very precise key stimuli with very precise chains of action, this is less the case in universalists. Are the general innate tendencies that direct animal predators also valid for universalists21? This leads to the heart of the matter. In my opinion, such fully functional, genetically anchored tendencies do exist in human beings, but they have failed to generate interest or scientific study because they appear to be self-evident or even “trivial”. I argue that at least five such tendencies exert a major influence on us.
First, almost every animal follows the maxim “Only your advantage counts” when hunting (the incredible variety of animals means that exceptions will exist for nearly every function). How could we expect anything different from predators? If a mutation gave rise to a new species whose inner voice during the hunt whispers “be nice to that leaf, bite off only a small piece” or “have pity on that antelope, especially if it cries plaintively”, then this species will succumb to the competition. Regardless of the predatory strategy, consideration – in the sense of human morals – is clearly out of place. Gaining energy by consuming the components of other organisms is neither simple nor altogether harmless. Precision is required to avoid injury if the prey puts up a fight. The predator also risks falling victim to another predator when it focuses all its attention on the predatory act. “Pity” of any kind would be deadly.
Second, only few animals such as coral polyps are lucky enough to automatically and regularly have food delivered directly to their door. In my opinion, every animal must therefore optimally utilize every opportunity that arises. For example, animals tend to bridge adverse conditions by storing food reserves, particularly in the form of fat. Some species have developed highly extensible stomachs to optimally utilize animals they have consumed. Others have developed behaviors that allow them to hide and store prey that is too large to be consumed immediately. What advice, in human terminology, could we formulate about this innate control, which is designed to maximize gain (and might be called “greed”)? “Utilize your chances optimally. Amass as many goods as possible, if only to make sure that some competitor doesn’t steal them from you.”
Third, predators must save energy whenever possible. The motto here is “the more precise your action, then the fewer your poor investments and the lower your own risk of falling victim. The quicker you complete your job, the better. And keep an eye on the competition. The greater your income and the lower your expenditures, the greater your profits (your chances of survival). Therefore, save wherever you can.” We know little about how such instinct commands are coded, but there is no denying that such general instructions are at work in most animals. Birds learn to more effectively peck at seeds – they try to reduce their error rate. Whenever a predatory act is enriched by new experience and additional key stimuli, the mechanism controlling that behavior will improve. Avoiding ineffective exertions clearly improves energy balances in both innate and learned behaviors.
Fourth, “pay attention to what the competition is doing” is a key instinct command that can be demonstrated in many animals. They tend to be the toughest rivals because they rely on the same food source. Action must be taken to drive such rivals away from one’s own territory. Rivals converging from all directions usually means that prey has been discovered. If, on the other hand, they all scatter as quickly as possible from some point, then the correct interpretation is “caution, danger!”. The ethologist terms this infectious behavior a “herd instinct”. Competitors that have spotted prey and prepare to attack have spared others from doing this work: those that are quick enough might get their share first. This tendency is so pronounced that some animals, birds for example, have developed innate mechanisms to make off with their competitor’s prey. Even if this is not always successful, it at least provides an opportunity to get a free lunch. This strategy leaves the strenuous pursuit and kill to others. Once the battle is over, the competitors enjoy a golden opportunity to participate uninvited and with great appetite at the set table.
Fifth, a particularly important inner command common to most animals is: “Beware! Don’t trust anyone or anything. Even if the morsel is yours and merely needs to be devoured quickly, cast at least a brief glance in all directions!” This typical behavior is reflected in innate movement control mechanisms that “secure” the food. Feeding animals, whether they be herbivores or carnivores, intermittently look to both sides and over their shoulders. This fright reaction has only few exceptions on our planet, for example on the Galapagos Islands, where tourists with their cameras can approach birds and other animals to distances of one meter. The lack of larger predators on the islands has gradually reduced the innate preservation instinct of the island’s inhabitants. This also translates into less movement and reduced energy expenditures. Innate tendencies that prove to be superfluous mean superfluous effort, and such expenditures can be spared.
Advice that comes from deep within and that in one way or another influences the actions and reactions of most animals is also important for omnivores, which react reflexively to a reduced set of key stimuli. Unsurprisingly, these innate tendencies are deeply and firmly engrained in humans as well. For one because they are virtually omnipresent in the animal world. And, secondly, because they were no doubt quite relevant for our ancestors, Finally, from the evolutionary perspective, it would take quite a long time for such a general command to be recalled; this would require very specific conditions such as those on the Galapagos Islands (fear of predators lost, see point five above). Elsewhere, this reaction is universal: in every deer that we startle if we approach closer than 100 meters, or even in the much-feared sharks, which themselves show fright and avoidance behavior when approached rapidly by a diver. All try to hide or somehow make themselves invisible.
Over the two million years in which our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers and gradually shifted to farming and livestock breeding, this inner, general advice was perfectly compatible with the intelligent control mechanisms that helped us acquire food using additional, man-made tools and weapons. Whether the task was to pick fruit and berries, to tease insects from their hiding places, to rouse rabbits from their dens and kill them, or to finish off large wildlife in organized hunts with beaters: in every case, any form of pity for the prey once it was discovered and cornered was entirely out of place. Rather, the strategy was to use and secure as much of the captured organic substances as possible, either be eating it yourself, bringing it back to the group, burying it (for example eggs or edible roots), drying it, or smoking and curing it (pieces of meat were hung high up in trees to prevent ground-living scavengers and predators from reaching them). The goal in every case was to continuously improve hunting and gathering skills: every trick, every deception translated into progress and additional advantage. Additional examples include the camouflaged pits still used to capture big game animals in Africa today or the snares and traps we employ in our latitudes. Poisoned arrows continue to be used by many indigenous peoples to this very day. Bites aimed at specific weak spots of prey animals belong to the innate repertoire of many predators. Analogously, early hunters had to gain very detailed anatomical knowledge to speed up and simplify the kill, to use the best trick and the least effort to minimize or eliminate the prey’s resistance.
From a subjective, human viewpoint, we tend to view farming and animal husbandry as something quite noble, even highly “environmental”. Countless poems herald the farmer and his harvest, Mother Earth and her bounty, as well as the gentle disposition and selfless contribution of our domestic animals. Those who can get up the courage to look truth in the face will have to admit that hunters, who had developed into a super-killers even in the hunter-gatherer period, clearly outdid themselves again in switching to these practices. Farming means that all non-food plants are “cleared” and every annoying “weed” is eradicated. Fences and scarecrows are designed to ensure that no competitors reap the fruits of our hard labor. If managed in this manner, a small area can yield as much food as extensive forages in the past. The yield is further increased with fertilizers and by breeding high-yield, good tasting species. This led to grapevines and fruit trees that produced much larger and sweeter fruit than required for normal plant reproduction (which is, after all, the role that fruit plays in the plant kingdom). I mention this not to condemn the human race, but merely to determine, in a sober and detached manner, how one predator continuously simplified its predatory act, continuously improved its harvest, and continuously perfected its energy gain.
The situation is even more brutal if we take a close, honest look at animal husbandry. The particular achievement here is to keep captured animals alive (instead of killing them outright as in prehistoric times), and then feed and fatten them until the need arises. At this point they can be killed without great effort or resistance. Ranchers may well develop a certain bond with the animals they raise, much like farmers towards the crops that thrive under their hands. This situation, however, in no way hinders the latter from reaping the grain or the former from killing and eating the fattened cow. Humans long held the firm belief (and many still do today) that they were either created or put on this planet as “the Chosen” by higher powers, and that the rest of nature merely serves as a backdrop and arbitrary source of food. Such conceptions are easy to understand, considering that humans generally tend to view themselves and their deeds in a friendly, favorable light. From the evolutionary perspective, however, we are dealing with creatures that used additional organs to specialize in virtually every conceivable type of performance and that surpassed, a thousand fold, any other animal that had ever imposed its will or wrought havoc. Note here that evolution was never a very squeamish process to begin with and that life, if one can personify the phenomenon, never exerted an influence on what promoted it and what didn’t. I have merely described the other side of the coin here to somewhat counterbalance the legions of poets and thinkers who seek to lull us into believing that our new, perfected predatory behavior is a prime example of morals, ethics and aesthetics. This can be summed up, more briefly and less emotionally, in one sentence: Among all animals, humans became the most efficient and perfect predators. Our intellect optimally supported our instinct-driven predatory behavior toward animals and plants.
This is perhaps the place to recall that we have directed
this very behavior with equal vengeance and efficiency against our fellow
humans – not to use them as food but to hold them as slaves, to take away
the animals they breed and the fields they till, their homes, their weapons,
all their possessions. In short, we loot everything that, from an evolutionary
perspective, can be construed to represent additionally formed organs that
are not firmly attached to our bodies and that empower us as much as they
did their former owners. Here, the term “predator” coincides fully with
the vernacular “thief and robber”, although we do apply different standards
and moral interpretations when this behavior is directed against nature.
Wars of conquest were waged, peoples subjugated – and little has changed
to this very day. Our additional organs spur our progress and our cultural
development, but also represent a powerful key stimulus that time and time
again brings individuals and groups, despite legal constraints, to ruthlessly
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