Each of us is dealt a blended hand of biology and circumstance from which patterns of behavioral rituals emerge that largely define our experience of life. This crucible of biology and circumstance comes through a combination of heredity and the influence of a complex conspiracy of environmental factors. Heredity could be said to be a set of long term behavioral rituals that have been selected to negotiate the environment over time. Environmental factors range from hormonal signals communicating to us in our mother’s womb, to caretaker behaviors, local climate and culture or traumatic events. This blend of natural and “nurtural” elements shapes the lens we are launched from the womb of childhood with to navigate our world. Our lens may or may not be tuned to reveal the way to a satisfying experience of life, much less motivate us to cultivate all the relationships necessary to support one. On the contrary, some of us are dealt a hand with a mud speckled lens and the destructive momentum of exaggerated stress, abuse, abandonment, cruelty and exploitation. With this malicious hand shaping the tools with which we navigate, many of us are inclined to live out our fate as a mere reflection of the caustic droplets of relationship poverty we were exposed to – never knowing how to cultivate choice – never knowing how to play a better hand than the one we were dealt.
Our developmental environment sets the tone for the way we see and behave in the world. Our lens inclines us to see what we were taught to see. The behaviors we were exposed to incline us to behave as an ambassador representing the interest of recreating the same environment we are familiar with, even if that environment is destructive. Children raised in abusive environments seek out and cultivate abusive relationships as adults. This is not because they rubbed their hands together as children dreaming of one day graduating from “abuse school” and launching a career in the exciting field of abuse; it is because the abusive emotional brew that they were exposed to inclined them to think and behave in ways that perpetuate that same relational dynamic. Because the signals we pick up to navigate relationships with are both subtle and complex, many people do not understand their own role in perpetuating them. Fortunately, and sometimes unfortunately, perpetuating the behavioral hand we are dealt are what we biological creatures do best.
Animal biology and behavior is magnificently tailored to nurture successive generations to carry on the species. If a species is predatory or parasitic, this is what they both express and preserve. If a species is built on a symbiotic foundation of mutually nourishing relationships, this is what they express and preserve. If a species contains a blend of predatory, parasitic and symbiotic behaviors, that is what they express and preserve as well. There is a fantastic preservation insight that churns underneath the outward behavioral expressions of biological creatures. Biology demonstrates a depth perception and an astounding awareness of how to preserve a particular behavioral climate over time that is far deeper than most creatures are capable of recognizing in terms of conscious self-awareness. This lack of awareness includes most of the human population at this point in time. Even more than this, conscious self-awareness is not sufficient by itself to manifest choice. It can be an accurate map, but it is not the whole journey.
The monarch butterfly cannot explain its migration strategy. It cannot explain why it eats what it eats or breeds successive generations with specialized roles, each geared to migrate on a partial leg of a journey that spans a number of monarch lifetimes. It cannot explain the depths of its own genius to collectively act as singular cohesive unit that preserves the species as a whole. Collectively they are a profound unity of behavioral relationships that preserves the status quo in ways it does not understand.
The leafcutter ant cannot say how it learned to cultivate a fungus on a bed of leaves to feed the young ants that help continue the colony. It cannot say how it farms a specific bacterium that secretes chemicals that serve to protect the fungus from pests and molds. It cannot say how it learned to cooperatively build and ventilate a massive intricate lair that is optimized for the colony’s survival – or how it divides tasks among its citizens by producing specific amounts of specialized ants that support a sustainable equilibrium. The next generation of queens cannot say how they learned to save a portion of the fungus, or how they learned to fly in search of a mate to start a new colony when the time comes. They cannot say how they know to build a new nest to bring another colony from one individual to a community of millions cooperating as a whole to continue the cycle over time.
The wild dog cannot say how it how it learned to feed its various hungers for air food and reproduction, or how those particular hungers were established. It cannot say how it learned to sense its order inside the pack or with other creatures in the natural world. The vast conspiracy of signals that shaped its state of being flowed out unnoticed from the darkened depths of nature and nurture. Many biological creatures cannot describe the strategies through which their complex behavior patterns are arranged and preserved, neither are they aware of the depth perception with which they view and interact with such a broad swath of nature. “Blind genius” is perhaps an accurate way to describe it.
The intricate behavioral patterns that emerge from environmental influences in the crucible of time which preserve the status quo are largely unknown to the very creatures that express them. Even humans, with our capacity for abstract thought are far more able to report on what happened than we are to craft an intentional happening from a slightly enhanced state of awareness. From an outward perspective looking in we can observe a vast collection of relationships that are aligned with the intention of carrying a species forward in time. We can also see how human culture follows this same form by conspiring to preserve ideas based on what has already been established without respect to whether they service something fulfilling or destructive. If we are influenced so heavily by accidents of circumstance, is it possible to play a better hand than the one we were dealt?
Our heredity, coupled with our upbringing, can be like the sting of the Jewell Wasp which immobilizes a cockroach into a zombie state. Unable to move of its own volition, the cockroach is led to be slowly eaten from the inside out by the wasp’s offspring. Some of us can become like the zombie cockroach, stung by circumstance, unaware that what we think and do is not a matter of choice toward fulfillment, but a complacent slave to our own destruction. Like so many other biological creatures, we can be complex expressions of blind intention that act to preserve a destructive behavioral norm and yet; we can be simultaneously unable to exercise a choice that effectively changes the outcome.
In the game of poker players are dealt a five card hand which they keep hidden until everyone takes turns putting bets on how likely they think their hand will win against their peers. The betting continues until someone matches rather than raises the previous players bet. On the surface the game would fall prey to the person with the best hand on average over time, if it were not for the bluff. Someone can behave differently with their bets than what would make sense if only the strength or weakness of the hand was the factor. Placing a bet that implies a better hand can bluff others into “folding” leaving their money on the card table to protect them from losing even more than they have before the betting pool went up. This element of bluff changes the entire dynamic of the game. It is also a metaphor we can use to point to the real location of choice in our lives.
While we are bound in many ways to circumstance by virtue of the hand we are dealt, we also have some wiggle room if we learn to act with intention. The profoundly dark genius on which our behavioral strategies are executed to preserve and propagate more of themselves are largely hidden from many of us. As a result, some of us flow on the currents of circumstance without much in the way of capacity for choice. Unless we first learn to recognize the behavioral momentum on which we ride we cannot become self-aware, and unless we behave contrary to any destructive elements in the midst of that momentum we cannot move toward a greater state of fulfillment. We must become more aware, and use that as a springboard to make intentional choices.
Some of us think we make choices and navigate life when in fact we are only blindly echoing the characteristic smells, tastes, and urges of our particular brand of biological stew. We experience a brew of motivating factors in the form of such things as hormones and neurotransmitters and the like. Along with our physiological structure, these biological factors drive our behaviors and set the tone for the relationships we develop – and collectively, what we experience as life. We can be equipped to execute with precision skill, maneuvers that cultivate a depleted and impoverished state of being. We can also effectively act as agents that infect and carry a disastrous collection of behavioral practices outward to multiply across more biological territory. In other words; we can easily pass our poison on to our family and community the same way we pass our genes on to our children. The same way rabies takes over a mammalian host and destroys it as the means by which it preserves and replicates more of itself, we can blindly carry out and propagate our own destructive state of being by virtue of the biological circumstantial hand we are dealt.
It is critical to understand how the biological motivation machine we are equipped to navigate with works if we are to move with intention in any other direction than the one we came equipped with. If we are diminished by the behavioral momentum of destructive circumstance we can sink below the surface of our own capacity for self-awareness and blindly participate in the dark genius of relational cultivation that leads to our own dissatisfaction.
Many of us mistakenly think that we make choices when we don’t. When we recognize a biological signal like thirst and respond by getting a drink. We might think; “I’m thirsty, I will get a glass of water”. This is not a choice. What we have done in this case is reported what our biology has spoken to us after dutifully following what it has instructed us to do. Mistaking our words as the driver of our behaviors when they are actually a byproduct of what our biology compels us to do hides the true nature of choice. Just because we wrap some words around an experience doesn’t mean we made anything near a choice.
If the relational climate we grew up in was peppered with cycles of betrayal and stress, we will continue to preserve and cultivate this selfsame experience throughout life because our biology will be tuned to move us in that direction. Our state of awareness can become a whiney reporter and explainer of the painful events that are driven by our own biological queues. We can blindly cultivate powerful destructive influences that shape complex social environments without recognizing our participation in the painful consequences that follow. We can do this with the same blind and amazing depth perception with which an ant colony interacts with the social environment based on its biological queues.
Our biology tells us what we are thirsty for and how to act to satisfy that thirst, but our thirsts can be hijacked to be aligned around a diminished experience of life. Depending on what we experienced in our developmental environment, our biology could be thirsty for unfulfilling destructive relationships. We too can become the cockroach that received the signals that lead it to willingly participate in being devoured to feed the next generation of parasitic wasps. We reflect the natural and “nurtural” aspects of the environment we grew up in unless we learn to cultivate choice, and choice is not as easy as it might look on the surface.
Understanding the mechanics of real choice is much like understanding the game of poker. We have to first understand what our biology is inclined to do. We must also recognize that our biological momentum cannot be altered without some disciplined effort to deviate from the message it sends. In other words; to choose something other than what we are already inclined to do, we must do what we don’t feel like! If we are inclined to cultivate a destructive climate, it means we need to act contrary to our feeling as the sole driver of our behaviors.
If we make an honest assessment of what we are inclined to do based on the expressed behaviors of our current and prior generations we can see our culture in general has all three of the behavioral dynamics of nature; parasitic, predatory and symbiotic mutually nourishing ones. Of a certainty mankind currently has parasitic and predatory elements clearly expressed through our macro behavioral climate. Some governments war over resources or turn a blind eye to injustice rather than find the best equilibrium of sharing that maximizes shared wealth, some businesses drain multitudes for the aggrandizement of a few. The parasitic and predatory cultural memes we express are often perpetuated through a process of hijacking the emotional mechanics of the masses the same way a Jewell Wasp hijacks the biology of a roach to turn it into a willing zombie or rabies spreads in a mammalian population so that it participates in its own destruction to preserve the destructive element.
To believe the macro behavior of our collective culture is not built on the collective tide of micro cultural environments is delusional. In this same respect, to think that any of us are immune to the effects of the dark genius of biological inclinations is also delusional. The solution must be grassroots because the problem is also grassroots in nature. Individually we have to begin to grasp what drives us and make effective disciplined choices to steer our behaviors in directions that are more built on a mutually nourishing symbiotic center, otherwise we will continue to experience the backhanded poverty of parasitic and predatory behaviors. We also need to join together in mass to collectively address the larger manifestations of destructive behaviors on larger social scales. To behave contrary to what we feel is necessary if those feelings incline us to move in destructive directions. If we are not centered on cultivating a network of nourishing symbiotic relationships we will continue to be agents of the preservation of our own diminished experience of life. This is the only way we can establish real choices that lead to fulfillment in the midst of a cultural climate that is partly poisoned with poverty generating elements.
The discipline to do this is not a passive activity. We cannot expect to somehow be rescued from the devices of our own biological momentum without effort. Our persistence must be greater than the resistance until we have firmly established a more nourishing center of biological momentum. Based on an honest assessment of where we currently are, we need to step beyond ourselves in the same way that the well placed bluff of a poker player is the only way to steer the game toward a more positive outcome. This is also the only way to play our best hand as a species and a planet sized body of life.
- The Riddle of the Human Species (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)