Human Natures, Human Habits

Marissa Vahlsing


In the last one hundred and fifty years the total human impact on the world's ecosystems has multiplied twenty-five times (Ehrlich, 278). Although people have become increasingly conscious of the fact that our current human behavior is rapidly deteriorating the very resources that we depend on for survival, it is difficult to change our habits to be eco-friendly. As Paul Ehrlich explored in his book, Human Natures, many of us want to be environmentalists but find that to do so, we would have to relinquish almost all of our human habits. This discouraging truth invites us to consider whether to be human is to be inherently incompatible with the natural world. Perhaps it is not this simple, though. Many of the habits that we consider to be human nature are actually of our own devising. They are human technologies.
What we often fail to consider is how our own human creations effectually determine our human natures. As Paul Ehrlich envisions it, human nature is actually a fluid balance between genetic and cultural evolution, both of which are affected by micro evolutionary and macro evolutionary factors. Micro evolutionary factors are defined by those cultural constructions that result from human choice and reaction to small-scale events: for example, the decision to go to war or the discovery of a new medicine. Whereas, macroevolution is "the shaping of cultural trajectories by environmental factors" (Ehrlich 254). Earthquakes, floods, disease are all examples of cultural macroevolution. Consequently, our human natures are much more complicated then we assume. They were not given to us or born at the dawn of civilization. Rather, they are a product of our cultural and biological histories, and how we chose to live them. Thus, we are much more in control of our human natures than we assume. If we can harness the fact that the societal norms that we invent are what in turn dictate our conduct and habits, then we might be able to create more sustainable societal norms.
At this point in the 21st century, we take religion and the nation-state for granted. We fail to understand that these institutions that we comply with are actually human devices. Often when we consider human technologies, we limit ourselves to material structures and methods. We envision the spear thrower or the domestication of fire. It can be argued, though, that human technologies are not limited to the material or industrial world. A technology can be as simple as any physical or metaphysical structure that achieves a manipulation of the natural or supernatural. In this light, Religion can be viewed as the process of explaining the supernatural and the natural in a way that was most functional for society. Undoubtedly, religion began on a small scale in the form of personal or group beliefs, but it grew with human cultivation into a large-scale organization and institution. Ehrlich asserts that religion was the first non-genetic stratification of society (p.256). In the past people were stratified in a biological hierarchy where the "fittest" was the most successful in terms of survival. The creation of an organized religion changed this. As Ehrlich articulates, "In early societies, the unusual bad luck (or lack of skill) in some hunters could have been blamed on the operations of certain spirits, which could be appeased; and the good luck of others could have been seen as the spirits' approval of their actions"(Ehrlich, 256). From this early convention, codes of conduct that appeared to appease the spirits or the creator became institutionalized. This sanctified micro evolutionary practices and social norms into apparent human nature.
Religion also functioned as an industrial technology. The stratification of society induced by religion allowed a division of labor to take place. This justified the creation of a large contingency of slaves who were forced to provide hard labor in the construction of temples, pyramids, mosques and other such structures. In addition, an attitude prevailed that discrepancies within society or inequality were simply an expression of god's will. This unfortunate belief still pervades in much of the world today, leading to acquiescent or fatalist groups of people, or "cultures of poverty". An acceptance of these "norms" is the only constraint that prevents us from affecting change. Ironically enough, this is a constraint that we have created for ourselves.
A similar cultural evolution occurred with the establishment of the State. The State came about primarily as a result of the shift from a hunter-gatherer dominated society to one dependent on agriculture. With the development of these agricultural societies, we inaugurated the idea of a "surplus". This idea, which was foreign to nomadic hunter and gatherers, involved the mentality that saving up for the winter or for the future would provide an insurance mechanism. However, the same mechanism also initiated gross disparities between the rich and the poor, as well as a cultural environment built on the fear of being powerless if you had not 'saved up'. A new currency was invoked, in which the amount of material you had amassed was indicative of your power and chance of survival. Thus, those who were more 'powerful' dominated the less powerful in a further stratification of society. Subsequently, trading became inevitable. This led to the creation of a market system. Soon enough we found ourselves dictated by social norms as defined by our own technologies: the state and the market. As these institutions demanded further division of labor and societal stratification, the culture of our society became more like a machine. All that there was under the sun became a market item. Land, labor, food and energy became commodities. Yet, when we priced the priceless, something else was lost. As we can see today through the process of corporate globalization, the lust of the market drives intensification and stratification to the point where we all become culturally homogenous. We have reached a time when we accept the construction of the state and the market as inevitable. Consequentially, our own creations have redefined our human habits. Although states are often considered to be pockets of culture that are distinct from one another, even this claim cannot be maintained. As Ehrlich points out, although groups and states can differ from one another each state will often encourage conformity within that state (254). Additionally, many contemporary nation-states since the peace of Westphalia have not been drawn according to ethno-linguistic or cultural boundaries. As a result, we are experiencing what Ehrlich terms a 'micro-evolutionary hangover'. Our microevolution of nation-states is inherently incompatible with the cultural geography determined by a larger cultural macroevolution. This incompatibility has climaxed in the fact that more than 200 wars are currently being fought around the world today, most of which are over geographic borders that were drawn politically rather than culturally (Jerry Frost fact).
The construction of warfare is another human technology that is highly disputed. Anthropologists and Political scientists spend a lot of time arguing whether aggression and warfare are genetic or societal. This may be a futile task not only because warfare pervades either way, but also because all of our technologies are a product of both our genes and our cultural history. The more important issue to familiarize ourselves with is that war does exist, and that because it is a human creation, we are capable of culturally evolving past it. War itself is another example of a 'micro evolutionary hangover'. Even though we have evolved culturally to a point where war is incredibly inefficient environmentally and socially, we perpetuate its existence by adhering to our cultural norms.
In effect, we have created the very wheel on which we now spin out of control. As Ehrlich observed, many of us want to be environmentalist, but simply following our culturally sanctified habits pits as against that which we want to preserve. This might be the largest micro-evolutionary hangover we have yet to invent our way out of.

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last updated 2/21/03