Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Human Identity: How Emotions and Feelings Are The Very Basis of Our Nature

In the peacebuilding/conflict transformation program at Eastern Mennonite University, there is a great emphasis on interconnectedness, both in the many diverse academic discplines, as well as humanity as a whole.  This interconnectedness naturally extends into the areas of practice incorporated in the field, and most recently has included the ideas of Attachment Theory.  Mary E. Clark was the one time chair of Conflict Transformation studies at a leading university in the field, George Mason University near Washington D.C.  Here is a brief introductory review I wrote of her book "In Search of Human Nature"


                From the very beginning of Mary E. Clark's In Search of Human Nature, she acknowledges the inherent difficulties of attempting a study as broad as the title suggests.  This is a book that comprises (according to the author) nearly four decades of accumulated knowledge and academic as well as life experience.  Immediately, questions arise; both for Clark and for the reader.  It was these kinds of questions that prompted her to write this book, such as:  What are the basic components of what makes us who we are?  How do we find objectivity or does objectivity even exist in analyzing who we are?  She found the explanations of science to be adequate early in her career, but those explanations slowly became more and more illusory and unsatisfactory as time went on.  Her own sense and need for meaning drove her to draw on and combine diverse disciplines in creating a cohesive analysis of humanity.  This review will center on the first part of Clark's book, up through the third chapter, which starts at the very origins of life itself, and specifically focuses on how we came to be what we are today:  the species known as homo sapiens

Summary and analysis

                Battling the claims of Western science to hold the way to absolute truth, and challenging those already established "truths" of science is at the heart of Clark's first three chapters.  The indisputable subjectivity of any human viewpoint is repeatedly discussed, and particularly emphasized through the role that culture plays in the way we see our world.  She argues that scientific methods of breaking down the relationships of everything that is in our universe misses the point.  To counter-act this way of understanding, Clark begins with the very language she uses ; the term "gestalt" is one that proposes the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts, and is, Clark feels, a more accurate way of looking at the nature of humanity.

                Life is too complex to be reduced to individual deterministic patterns of interacting objects/events; rather,  Clark would have us switch from this way of thought, which is described as the  "Billiard Ball" gestalt (with the individual objects representing the billiard balls) of Western science to the more Eastern approach of the "Indra's Net" gestalt, which changes the paradigm to an interlocking web of nature.  The Indra's Net describes everything that is as a part of and therefore dependent upon this interconnectedness for its very existence. 

                The first area of concern for Clark is the way that evolution has been presented in the West.  The subjectivity of the Western Capitalistic, Hobbesian mindset, she argues, is seen in the way that competition, even violence has been presented as central to evolutionary natural selection.   This is shown to be overly simplistic and misguiding, and sometimes flat out wrong.  To Clark, it leaves out too much of what makes us human.  It is true that adaptation is necessary for survival, and has its place in evolutionary theory.  However, Clark specifically says that adaptation could mean a number of things.  What if, for example, we were to look at the ability to adapt to changing conditions as a necessary prerequisite for survival?  This would then lead to the fact that adaptation requires the ability to respond to changes. 

                Clark goes on to say that through responding, we see the beginnings of emotions and feelings.  Responses start out as repulsions and attractions, which are precisely what characterizes feelings and emotions.  These feelings are what science overlooks, by its constant emphasis on rationality and logic.  Rationality and logic do not fill in the gaps of individual human behavior or existence, because they are too limiting and reductionist.  They leave out feelings, which are very real, although, she concedes, hard to understand. 

                Thus, Clark states that the behavior of the individual can only be explained in the context of the whole, as the repulsions and attractions experienced by the individual objects are in relation to the rest of the "net".  By the very fact of stating that these objects (which include humans) are attracted to various elements of being, Clark makes a strong point about the fundamental existence of the energy of love.  Further, this attraction and repulsion or determining the proper "place" of an object in the Indra's Net gestalt leads to Clark's explanation of the three basic human propensities:  Bonding, autonomy and meaning. 

                Seen through the theory of attraction/repulsion, Clark shows that it is only through healthy bonding that an object can function.  However, this kind of bonding also requires autonomy in that the individual object must develop the ability to adapt with a universe in flux through its own "decision making" or repulsion from some objects in favor of attraction to others.  This is not deterministic in the sense that there is only one path.  On the contrary, in an ever changing universe, Clark shows the importance of adaptability and therefore autonomy in the object's response to changing conditions. 

                We can now see the beginnings of intelligence in Clark's description, not just a purely rational or logical intelligence, but one that includes many different feelings and emotions as well.  In fact, Clark says that logic and reason are only attempts at explanation for why things are the way they are.  Feelings and emotions, in the form of attractions and repulsions, would have been the primary or first form of intelligence. 

                It would seem that the need to bond is very closely tied to Clark's third stated human propensity, which is the need for meaning.   It is presented to us that meaning is the overarching need that subsumes the other two.  This would make sense, and is agreeable if we take bonding and autonomy separately, and view how each one is a "search" of sorts. 

                One Interpretation of the text would say that through properly evolved autonomy, we have the freedom and the capability to evaluate our feelings and emotions and become in touch with our individuality.  Context then comes into play as the genetic situation in which we find ourselves vis-à-vis our parents is the first unique factor with environment (people, places, things, etc...) being the second.  The argument from Clark backs up her claim that adaptability, and not competition, is the crucial evolutionary factor.  We could say from this reading that as each human is encountering a unique situation, the species could not possibly evolve in a deterministic fashion which is identical for all.  Rather, not only is the homo sapiens species unique, but each individual within the species is in a unique context with unique genetic information. 

                The individual context then contains its own patterns, and it is only through learning to bond with these patterns that the individual survives.  Hence, the second propensity comes into play, that of the propensity to bond.  Clark makes a statement at one point that the propensities to bond, yet also be autonomous are in opposition to one another.  This argument could be contested by saying that it is through autonomy that the individual determines the proper way to bond.  Further, the very process of bonding and autonomy itself leads directly to purpose and meaning.  The decision making and adaptation required in proper bonding is, when looked at from another viewpoint, a search; a search for the proper way to fit into the whole.  The very nature of existence, far from being value or meaning free as scientists would claim, would be countered by these arguments and would explain the very deep need that humans have to make sense of their environments simply in order to function within that environment; environment then becomes a basis of our identity.

                It is then through this desire for meaning combined with bonding and autonomy that leads to culture, or shared meaning through the group, which culminates in societies.   Clark shows that the process becomes reciprocal as societies and individuals become more evolutionarily complex.   Once the individual finds a form of meaning through bonding with the group, then that individual's intelligence evolves to incorporate the patterns of the group.  The group then takes on a life of its own as the more the individuals within it interact, the more we can see that some sort of shared ideas and opinions must evolve in order for continued bonding (i.e. universal love) to maintain the group.  This search for group meaning becomes the foundation of what Clark refers to as the "sacred myths" of humanity, which of course include religion and even science.  It can be argued that these sacred myths are the natural evolution of societal thinking or what we know today as groupthink.  As the individual becomes bonded to the social group, thus identifying with that group, then we can see how Clark's idea of "self" is directly tied to the cultural patterns within the group. 

                This attraction towards the social group is required for the very survival of the group which Clark partly exemplifies in reproduction.  However, Clark presents the sexual drive as not simply utilitarian, but as one of the ways in which primates and hominids have shown affection and reduced stress and aggression over evolutionary history.  She seems to allude to the idea that repression of sexuality can lead to increased stress in modern societies, something that many might agree with.  Clark discusses how this has been shown to be the case in careful observation of primates, and that signs of affection increase feelings of security, strengthen the ties of bonding, and reduce the feelings of fear that can inhibit healthy functioning of individual autonomy. 


                A central theme of Clark's throughout In Search of Human Nature is the inherent subjectivity in every area of life, even science.  Dogmatic thinking takes many forms, and Clark does an effective job at illustrating - through examples drawn from diverse areas of knowledge - how much culture influences the way scientists interpret the information they receive.  Ultimately, everything that we perceive is filtered through the lens of various minds, from that of the group mind of society down to the individual interpretation, all of which are drawn from many experiences in just as many individual contexts. 

                One of the ways in which we see a painful example of our thinking when it comes to evolution, is the fact that the male has played a prominent role in the narrative.  The role of females and children is just now starting to receive the recognition it deserves.  Further, the competitive Western Capitalistic world view has downplayed the significance of the group as a survival mechanism.  Group life not only increases intelligence by drawing off of the experiences of others, but it also serves as a protection mechanism during times of great stress, such as threats to survival by outside organisms and climates.  Living within groups enables group members to carry on various functions such as hunting, gathering and helping to care for the children, not to mention meeting the emotional needs of bonding and meaning that are crucial for survival. 

                Clark's belief is that for the individual to survive, there first must be the capacity for the group to survive, and that both the individual and the group must contain features of adaptability that go beyond pure genetic determinism.  It is for this reason that she believes the propensities of bonding, autonomy and meaning to be foremost in the history of human evolution, and not the more commonly heard explanation of cold, often violent competition as the basis of human nature.  She has put forth a compelling argument that this kind of cold competition would lead to eventual destruction, and that situations of violence have only arisen throughout history when the group did not function properly, thus creating stressful situations that challenged the interconnectedness of the group.  This could be as a result of lack of resources for basic survival, or over-crowding that limits autonomy and places a strain on the bonding of the group. 

                Ultimately, Clark points us, through academic insight, in the direction a universal energy of love at the base of human relations.   Her theory is an optimistic view of human nature, and one that shows ways we can improve the environment in which we find ourselves by realizing how dependent we are on everything and everyone around us.  


kisapele said...

excellent post, thank you. We are all one <3

timradioboy said...

...or I could've just said that :) Would've been a lot less writing. Thank you for reading!

Pithom said...

OK... so now I am in conflict. Which book shall be my next read? I was quite certain that 'Identity and Violence' was going to be it, but now I'm not so sure.

Mary E. Clark appears to be travelling down the same road of contemplation I've found myself. I'm not sure if we've come to the same conclusion though.

Although my way of expressing my ideas is somewhat convoluted, I wonder if other readers would find correlation with the thoughts expressed in her book with what I've expressed in Tabula Conscientia (and other poetic works). Quite a few times my work was flagged up as I read your review, partiularly T.18 http://is.gd/ef847P . For this reason 'In Search of Human Nature' became all the more intriguing for me... hmmm... I think I've just made up my mind as to which book I shall be reading next.

Have you read 'The Blank Slate' by Steven Pinker? I think you might find that an interesting read. It's one of the most fascinating books I've ever read.

Anyway, thanks again for the suggestion.