Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of talk about what is natural or unnatural in regards to human behavior. I suppose it all depends on which part of the elephant one currently perceives. Beyond that though, I see this like layers of an onion—an emergent property situation. I’ll take a stab at sorting this out…
Humans are naturally (and usually) inclined to take the easy way, go for pleasure and avoid pain. In the wild this bio-hoodwink usually works out well. Human culture has been driven by this primary instinctive drive shared by all animals, from ants to duck to dogs to people. Consider the human highway on the left and the ant highway on the right (photo left). Both species are just trying to make life easier and more efficient. As I pointed out in Ants are Us, the similarities are striking.
Over time (100,000 years +/-) this drive has evolved modern civilization to its present condition through the development of tools and materials to make life easier… more comfortable, secure, and to fatten up whenever possible; who knows when the next famine is coming? That seals feels it has to eat its fill while it can (photo right). The human man is not really any different; his biology does not know the supper markets are always overflowing with food, nor the danger of long term overeating (1).
So, while we are totally natural in how we live (pursue pleasure, avoid pain), we are not living under the wild conditions for which our instincts evolved over millions of years to live. The instinct to make living easier combined with the cognitive and manual ability to succeed has led us to an unbalance situation. We are increasingly faced with having too much of a good thing. Naturally, letting go of our ‘good thing’ is not easy, and so we remain bogged down in difficulty (2).
Any species that evolves capabilities which bring it beyond essential counterbalancing forces will either evolve in ways that bring it back in balance, or it goes extinct. Of course, external conditions can also change quickly to a degree that brings it lethally out of balance (e.g., the comet and the dinosaurs, the dodo bird and humans).
In my view, we are simply responding to life naturally and like all other creatures, we do so in overall ignorance of the consequences. Like all other life forms, we react to circumstance, and adapt accordingly. The unusual and ironic thing about humans is that human knowledge is a major source of our ignorance. Other animals are just ‘dumb’ and ignorant; we are smart and ignorant. Or as chapter 18 says, when cleverness emerges there is great hypocrisy.
(1) I’ve really noticed the biology as I’ve aged. Toward my late 20’s I found myself gaining weight ‘naturally’. My diet was not really changing, my biology was. When I quit smoking, my weight really shot up. I suppose I was replacing the pleasures from tobacco addiction with pleasure from food. As Buddha’s Second Truth points out, if I had continued to follow pleasure’s bait, the result would be pain—I wound be seriously overweight.
We burn fewer calories as we age. This slow-down prepares us, in the wild, for becoming increasingly less agile in hunting and gathering, and less able to recover from injury. Biology is oblivious to civilized conditions where rich and abundant food is always available, especially now in modern economies.
Interestingly, it took me about 10 years to unlearn the ‘eat today for who knows what lies ahead’ approach to life that years of living abroad in developing countries ingrained in me. It took me that long to psychologically settling down enough to know food was always at hand. It took me even longer to know I needed to rein in pleasure’s drive. Though I understood (in theory) that ‘short term pleasure attracts long term pain‘, it took real time to begin to actually understand and put that into practice.
(2) Here are a few passages from Chapter 63 that speaks to the obvious difficulty we face.