A Taxonomy and Epistemology of the Human Predicament

In the face of mounting evidence about the worsening state of the systems that humans and other life forms depend on, the need for deep understanding of the situation has never been more critical.

In this era of specialized knowledge, most people decide to work on whatever aspect of the problem is most intellectually, geographically or politically accessible to them.  While that approach is a good one, it presents some difficulties.  We are dealing with a system that is very complex, and this complexity must be taken into account.  Trying to fix just one part of the system without knowing how other pieces interact with it may make the overall problem worse rather than better.

I strongly believe that in order to understand the situation, we need to look at it holistically.  We need to understand it on all levels – from our chemical makeup to our most abstract expressions of art, science and philosophy.

I try to dive below the visible surface that is composed of cultural phenomena and investigate its roots. I used to want to do this to “prove” we were all doomed by our evolutionary biology. Now I do it because I suspect there’s information down there that may prove to be crucial. The exploration might provide deeper understanding of how we got into this worsening ecological situation, and might provide some positive guidance as we move into what looks like a period of accelerating change.

As I said, I see the situation in terms of levels. At the lowest level the one thing that is common to all humans is their biological need for energy - a need we share with all life. Our basic requirement for energy remains unchanged no matter what physical, mental and cultural elaborations are built in top of it. Any time the energy supply to the organism fails, all else ceases.

Progressing up from the basic requirement for energy, we come to the physical structure of the organism. In humans this starts with the binocular vision, upright stance and opposable thumbs that define our physical competency. Then we have our large brain size relative to our body mass.

More important than pure size, though, is the structure of our brain – both in terms of the algorithmic processing power of the neocortex and the unconscious influences of the older limbic and reptilian parts of the brain. I’ve long used this triune brain model as a descriptive framework for the unconscious neuro-psychological influences that are common to us all – especially our coexisting tendencies towards cooperation and competition, egalitarianism and hierarchy, selfishness and altruism, autonomy and herding instincts.

Layered above that, of course, is the wonderfully complicated cultural expression of those paradoxical traits. This is the level at which most of us operate every day, that we feel most fully expresses what it means to be human.

At each level it’s possible to ask both horizontal and vertical questions.

Horizontal questions are variations of, “How does this level operate?” In other words, how does culture work in and of itself, how does our physical organism and its brain function, how do living forms find and use energy?

Vertical questions run along the lines of, “How did this level arise from lower, supporting levels, and what does its structure imply for the levels above and/or below it?”

Take the simple question of our food supply for example. How does our organism’s need for food combine with: the ecological opportunities for food available in the immediate environment; the ability of our neocortex to understand and control how food becomes available; our innate selfishness (making sure that I have enough food to survive) and altruism (making sure my group has enough food to survive); and the cultural expressions that develop around food as a result.

In reverse: how does the existing culture support and modify individual behavior regarding altruism and selfishness; how does that balance contribute to the technological choices we make about food production and distribution; and how do those choices affect the amount and type of food energy available to us?

I tend to be more interested in the vertical questions than the horizontal ones. This orientation has from time to time led me into some mistakes because of my insufficient understanding of the level I was looking at.  A classic example of such a mistake was my failure to appreciate how our cultural "superstructure" of beliefs and values arises from the "infrastructure" of resources and technologies. Allow me to explain.

Anthropologist Marvin Harris has published a theory he calls “Cultural Materialism”.  It is one of the more important theories to come out of modern anthropology, especially in its ability to clarify how cultural elements such as beliefs, behaviour and social structures interact with our environment.

Harris proposes that culture can be understood as having a three-tiered organization similar to the one I used above for the human system as a whole.  In his lexicon, human cultures are composed of an infrastructure (loosely speaking, the resources, production and reproduction technologies available to the culture), a structure consisting of organizing principles such as economics and politics, and a top-level superstructure composed of values, traditions and activities such as art, religion, sports and philosophy.

One key understanding that Harris provides is that each level arises from the one below it, and influences flow largely upward, from infrastructure to structure to superstructure.  Influences in the opposite direction, though they exist, are relatively weak.

The mistake I originally made, which Harris clarifies, was to assume that our worldview (composed of our beliefs and values) was a primary driver of our behaviour, and that our behaviour then impacts our environment.  This is the classical view of those who seek to educate the public on environmental and social-justice issues, in the hopes of changing their minds and thereby altering their behaviour and the physical situation.

As Harris explains, the process works largely in the exactly opposite direction than I had assumed.  In a general sense our circumstances determine our collective behaviour, and our behaviour in turn gives rise to the values and beliefs required to support and justify it.  For anyone who knows about the largely unconscious nature of human decision-making, this will come as no great surprise.  To those of us who dream of influencing others’ behaviour by changing their minds, it is difficult to accept that this pathway is only marginally effective. If Harris is right we may have to wait for circumstances to change and drag our collective values along with it, rather than becoming proactive by changing our values (at least on anything but an individual level).

So the human system can be viewed as having three levels – chemical reactions and energy supply are at the bottom, physical structure (especially of the brain) is layered over that, then culture is the icing on the cake.  It’s interesting to note that two of these three levels resolve into three-tiered systems of their own – the triune brain with its reptilian, limbic and neocortical layers; and culture with its infrastructure, structure and superstructure.

Needless to say, the whole thing becomes a very complex system.  As a result it’s hard to ask clear questions about it – at least questions that cross levels and don’t immediately degenerate into a discussion of the horizontal issues at any given level. Despite this difficulty, I’m convinced that unless we expand our understanding of the whole human edifice as a system, we risk missing vital factors.   Such ignored factors may determine the success or failure of our actions as we try to address the increasingly severe problems that are cropping up with ever-accelerating speed.

Paul Chefurka
May 24, 2011

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