No animal except Homo sapiens has any choice in what life to live. Having a vastly richer interior life, we humans must struggle to find an excellent way of living, and we must recognize the most fundamental principle of human life: By nature every person is meant to love and be loved…
I don’t know about you, but I wish I had been born with the user’s manual for the human being, or at least received basic instruction in school about the fundamental equipment every human being possesses. In my youth, I was incredibly ignorant about my senses, emotions, memory, imagination, intellect, and will. For me, it was like waking up alone and finding myself on board the space shuttle, and, then, through trial and error trying to figure out how to fly the machine, without much success. After a series of personal disasters that are irrelevant to report here, I was forced to write a user manual to help guide me through life. I began with a cursory glance at animals other than Homo sapiens; my once-over convinced me that they have a complete life given to them by nature. No animal except Homo sapiens has any choice in what life to live.
Imagine a number of animals queued up for scrutiny, much like in a detective movie. In our animal lineup, we have an anteater, a zebra, a rhino, an astronaut, a stock broker, and a sumo wrestler. Nature furnishes the anteater, the zebra, and the rhino with a fixed occupation, a fitting dress, and an appropriate emotional profile, respectively. The long, tapered snout of the anteater is its tool for carrying out its line of work, eating ants and grubs. No two zebras have identical stripes. A baby zebra identifies its mother by her stripes. Lions and other animals that prey on zebras are confused by the flashing stripes displayed by a running zebra herd. The dress of the zebra fits it way of life. An adult male rhino, in mating season, marks out territory with its urine. A rhino occupies the center of its territory and aggressively chases away any male rhino that challenges it. A male rhino, however, must leave its territory for water and then out of necessity it crosses the territories of other adult males. When a rhino intrudes into another rhino’s territory for water, it becomes submissive. The farther a rhino strays from the center of its territory the more submissive it becomes. Thus, the aggression of the male rhino is regulated by nature.
Some animals do possess a limited culture. For instance, unlike a mallard or a robin, a young jackdaw, a medium-sized member of the crow family, does not recognize a cat as an enemy by instinct. The jackdaw learns that a cat is an enemy, not through its own experience of a cat attacking it, or even by witnessing a cat attack another jackdaw, but by “actual tradition, by the handing-down of individual experience from one generation to the next!” But the culture of any animal is so circumscribed that virtually all its behavior is rigidly determined by nature, as animal trainers know.
Psychologists Keller and Marian Breland, the proprietors of Animal Behavior Enterprises, have had more than fourteen years’ experience in training animals for various commercial purposes. Whenever the Brelands attempted to train an animal to go against its instinctive behavior, they met with persistent failure. Chickens trained to deliver to a spectator a plastic capsule containing a toy would, after a few successful performances, began to stab at the capsules and pound them up and down on the floor of the cage. Pigs trained to deposit large wooden coins in a piggy bank for immediate food rewards would do well for a few weeks but then began dropping the coins repeatedly, rooting them, tossing them into the air, and rooting them again indefinitely. Chickens that hammer capsules are obviously exhibiting instinctive behavior having to do with the breaking open of seed pods or with the killing of insects and grubs. The rooting behavior of pigs is part of their food-getting behavior. Animals can deviate little from the course set for them by nature; consequently, successful animal training builds upon instinct.
In our strange collection of animals, those in our detective lineup, Homo sapiens is the strangest of all. Nature gives human beings no specific way of life—no fixed occupation, no fitting dress, and no appropriate emotional profile. It is as if nature grew tired when she fashioned Homo sapiens and left this one species unfinished. She gave each human being a mind and a pair of hands, and, then, said, “All right, the rest is up to you. I’m curious what you will do.” The life of an anteater, a zebra, or a rhino is infinitely easier than the life of a human being, although infinitely smaller. We humans must struggle to find an excellent way of living, if it exists, but we have a vastly richer interior life—nothing great without a curse.
Because we humans are unfinished, we are not enslaved to anatomy the way animals are. The natural tools, weapons, and armor of animals serve only one specific task and cannot be put aside or changed for others, severely restricting the life of an animal to limited activities. A mole’s short, chunky paw is an outstanding digging tool but it cannot hold anything. An eagle’s talons are perfect for clutching small animals but are useless for digging. The human hand can perform all the tasks achieved by the restricted tools of animals: it can dig with a hand shovel, stab with a sword, cut down a tree with a saw, and perform thousands of other activities without being restricted to any single one of them.
Unlike the instincts and organs of other animals that are suitable only for specific tasks that lock them into one way of life, the human mind and the human hands are general tools. The human hand is tailored to the human mind. Planting a garden, making a canoe, and painting a picture are rational activities; in each case, to achieve a desired end, the hands move under the direction of the mind. Thus, human activity is rational.
For human beings, the use of things is also a rational activity. Consider food. By instinct, animals avoid eating harmful things. “Many animals from blue jays to garden slugs come programmed to wait a species-specific length of time after eating a new food to see if they become ill. If they do—even if the sickness arose from a completely independent cause—they will never eat the food again,” ethnologist James Gould writes. “Even more curious, each species is programmed to identify the forbidden food in the future by its own set of cues. For example, rats will remember the suspect food’s odor, while quail recall its color.”
Instinct also directs animals in how much to eat. A biology professor friend of mine keeps a boa constrictor in his lab. After the boa eats a rabbit, it will not touch another live rabbit until it digests the one it has eaten. By nature, the boa is a temperate eater. I remember—and I know my son would like me to forget—that once or twice when he was very young he threw up after having gorged himself on chocolate candy at Halloween. In that way, he learned that a human being must use reason to direct his desires to acquire temperate habits. Hence, we see that in human life habits correspond to instincts in animal life.
Every human being by nature desires to know. Confucius said, “I am a person who forgets to eat when in the pursuit of knowledge, forgets all worries when he is in the enjoyment of it, and is not aware that old age is coming on.” Even infants show an irrepressible passion for investigating the world. They crawl about, raiding cupboards, experimenting with all manner of objects, and tasting everything. Such behavior is clearly natural, not taught.
As soon as a child learns to speak, an unending barrage of questions begins, as every parent knows. Children are experts at wondering, for they see the world with new eyes. Some of us preserve the spontaneous wonder we had as children. Astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington points out how childlike wonder animates the scientist: The child who sings Twinkle, twinkle little star, How I wonder what you are, “is wondering how big it is and how far away, what keeps it from dropping down, whether it is made of gold, whether it is lit by electricity…. One question leads to another, and in the recondite treatises of physics we are still asking, and now and again answering, the unceasing flow of questions.”
The actual life we live first as children and then as young adults—if we did not have our questioning turned off by parents and teachers and if we do not become corrupted by the desire for power, wealth, and material comfort—shows that one end of human existence is to reveal, or to uncover, or to come into contact with more and more truth. Just as the sunflower cannot help but turn from the dark toward the light, the human being cannot help but shun falsehood and seek the truth.
Thus, we do not determine the most important thing about who we are: our natural end in life. Trying to fulfill our rational nature through loving and seeking truth, we become more and more. A desire that would be thwarted if our rational nature did not mean that we possess virtually an unlimited intellectual freedom. If our understanding were determined by instinct, brain physiology, and culture, then we could never separate the true from the false and knowing would be impossible. For science to be possible, the scientist must have the freedom to choose, and what holds for the scientist also applies to the layperson: every human has the capacity to make free choices.
The Senses Need Training
Knowing begins with the senses; unlike the animals, however, human senses require training. The untutored tongue cannot distinguish a St. Emillion from a St. Julien, though a wine enthusiast not only can recognize the region the wine came from but the chateau and the vintage year.
Hence, the education of the whole person must include training in the use of the senses. Chief Standing Bear says that Lakota children, “were taught to use their organs of smell, to look when apparently there was nothing to see, and to listen intently when all seemingly was quiet. A child who cannot sit still is a half-developed child.”
In the one-room schools of America’s past, observation lessons were often given. John T. Prince, in his Courses and Methods: A Handbook for Teachers, written in 1892, explains that the “aim of these lessons is not so much to teach facts as it is to cultivate the pupils’ powers of observation, and to awaken an interest in, and a love for, the things of nature that lie directly about them.” Prince suggests that teachers tell nothing to their students that they can discover for themselves by their own powers of observation. He maintains that for students, “Learning one fact by their own unaided powers is better than memorizing a hundred facts which have been given to them.”
Age is no barrier to training the senses. An adult can see the parts of a flower—the sepals, petals, stamens, and pistils—or observe that the head of the common ant is triangular in shape, or learn how to use the pointer stars of the Big Dipper to locate the North Star.
While reflecting upon Lakota life, Standing Bear discovered the universal truth that “half-dormant senses mean half living.” When a person’s senses are alive and alert to the world around him or her, life is full and interesting. Of all the natural creatures, only human beings can perceive the fullness of nature. Who does not wonder how birds fly, why the trees turn color in the fall, how ants find their way back home, or why heavy objects fall? If a person is alive, then everything in nature evokes wonder.
The Joy of Knowing
Every naturalist enjoys the pleasure of exercising his or her powers of observation. Listen to Charles Darwin’s journal entry describing his first day in a tropical jungle: “The day has passed delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who for the first time has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration. A most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence pervades the shady parts of the wood. The noise from the insects is so loud that it may be heard even in a vessel anchored several hundred yards from the shore; yet within the recesses of the forest a universal silence appears to reign. To a person fond of natural history such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again.”
The beauty of nature connects a Lakota Indian Chief, a great English naturalist, and a pupil in a one-room school house on the American prairie. Fully developed senses allow us to receive the gifts of nature: beauty, wonder, mystery, and places to meditate—the means to discover that we belong in this world as much as the wild sunflowers and the soaring hawks.
The Good Mind
The study of music, language, literature, mathematics, and science develops our capacity to define, analyze, and draw conclusions. For these studies to bear fruit, we must acquire more than knowledge, techniques, and general rules. We must be trained to think well, and this is possible because we are unfinished by nature and thus must perfect ourselves. A good mind is open, thinks concretely, and seeks interconnections.
The open mind willingly accepts truth from any source. Mozart, a model of open-mindedness in music, writes, “People make a mistake who think that my art has come so easily to me. Nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not studied over and over.” Mozart’s reaction to Bach’s music reveals his childlike openness. When one choirmaster and his forty-pupil choir performed for Mozart an eight-part motet by Bach, the music had scarcely began, “before Mozart started with an exclamation, and then was absorbed in attention. At the conclusion he expressed his delight, and said, ‘That now is something from which a man may learn.’”
Close-mindedness often arises from laziness or disdain. If a person rests contentedly with his opinions, how can he learn from others? Similarly, the stubborn mind desires to refute anyone on any topic, a major obstacle to learning. An open mind, in contrast, recognizes that all of us are profoundly ignorant, and thus easily admits that it does not know much—nobody does!
If we admit our ignorance to ourselves, we will see that our opinions carry little weight and thus need to be examined, especially culturally-given opinions that most of us take as obviously true. If we are willing to confess our ignorance in public, we can then ask questions openly and engage in genuine dialogue. If we are constantly aware of our ignorance, then we will always have the freshness and innocence of a beginner, who is astonished again and again by the new wonders he or she encounters. We will never forget that all learning begins with wonder and amazement, and that profound truth appears strange to cultural opinion.
In thinking, concreteness yields clarity. One of the maladies of modern life is the substitution of a fuzzy verbal world for actual, concrete experience. Psychologist Abraham Maslow observes that genuinely creative thinkers “live far more in the real world of nature than in the verbalized world of concepts, abstractions, expectations, beliefs, and stereotypes that most people confuse with the real world.”
Physicist Enrico Fermi was noted for his quick and clear thinking. One reason for his mental agility and clarity of thought was he had “a whole arsenal of mental pictures, illustrations, as it were of important laws or effects.” He would not simply keep Newton’s third law in his head, for example. (To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.) He would discover and etch in his memory a paradigmatic example of the law, such as a man jumping from a boat to a dock where clearly the boat must move away from the dock with a momentum equal to the man moving toward it.
If we cannot give a simple, obvious example of something, we probably do not know what we are talking about. Using this principle to assess ideas, theories, books, lectures, either our own or those of others, enables us to cut through extraneous matters to the essentials in rapid fashion.
Without seeking interconnections as we learn, what fragile knowledge we gain can be easily lost. We, thus, should form the habit of connecting what we are learning to what we already know. For example, when we hear Stephen Daedalus, the protagonist of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, argue that the three universal qualities of beauty in the arts are wholeness, harmony, and radiance, his translation of Aquinas’ integritas, consonantia, and claritas, we should seek to see if this trio describes beauty in the sciences. Einstein does give these three elements: “A theory is the more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises is, the more different kinds of things it relates, and the more extended its area of applicability.” As a further confirmation that beauty is a common ground that unites the arts and the sciences, physicist and novelist C.P. Snow writes, “The literature of scientific discovery is full of aesthetic joy. The very best communication of it that I know comes in G.H. Hardy’s book, A Mathematician’s Apology. Graham Greene once said he thought that, along with Henry James’s prefaces, this was the best account of the artistic experience ever written.”
We Are Social by Nature
The child asks questions of another person, and thus needs others to fulfill his or her natural desire to know. The child’s “Why?” reveals that each human being is not only unfinished by nature but that no person can complete himself or herself alone, unaided by others. To answer “Why?” we need to reason about the causes of things and that requires language.
Nature obviously gives every human being the capacity to comprehend and to speak any of the estimated 6,800 languages now spoken in the world. All the spoken sounds of the world’s languages are reducible to approximately fifty phonemes. Infants in all cultures can discriminate the whole human phoneme repertoire, but learn gradually to concentrate on the sounds of whatever language they hear around them and eventually forget the others. Japanese infants, for example, can easily discriminate the ra/la contrast, while Japanese adults have difficulty making the same discrimination even after hundreds of attempts.
That we require language for virtually everything we do means that we are social by nature. The language my children learned at home was not unique to our family or neighborhood. Learning English in the home connected them to a larger community that has much in common. Conservative estimates place the number of native-speakers of English at 365 million; an additional 510 million use English as a second language; and, if a lower level of language fluency is included, then over one billion persons, an eighth of the world’s population, speak English. The number of persons my children can easily communicate with is staggering.
In the history of science, the only event remotely akin to the philosophical concept of a person living in a state of nature, untainted by civilization was the discovery, in 1801, of the feral boy of Aveyron, an eleven-year-old found running naked and wild in a forest. Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, a French surgeon, thought the wild boy of Aveyron was the Rosetta stone for deciphering human nature. He spent five years trying to train and educate the boy, before concluding that the boy’s prolonged isolation from humanity rendered him incapable of language and consequently incapable of living a genuine human life. Itard’s answer to “What makes us human?” is language and thus social living.
We Are Meant To Love and Be Loved
Even the newborn infant reveals the social nature of Homo sapiens. Ethologist Robert Fantz developed, in 1961, a reliable technique for measuring the visual preferences of babies. Presenting a reclining infant with two visual stimuli, he measured the amount of time each object was reflected in the infant’s pupils. In this way, Fantz was able to infer the baby’s preference for one object over another. It is now known that newborn vision is at least 20/150, an acuity not exceeded by many adults. “By demonstrating the existence of form perception in very young infants we… disproved the widely held belief that they are anatomically incapable of seeing anything but indistinct blobs of light and dark,” Fantz reports.
He and many subsequent experimenters found clear evidence that babies, even those less than twenty-four hours old, prefer to gaze at a human face more than any other object, whatever its color, shape, or pattern. Other investigators have found that “the human voice, especially the higher-pitched female voice, is the most preferred auditory stimulus in young infants.” These preferences are clearly not learned: in one study, the youngest babies were ten minutes old.
Fantz showed in other experiments that without learning or experience, a baby chick prefers to peck at three-dimensional, round, small objects. Nature directs the newly-hatched chick to look for grain; correspondingly, as soon as the human infant emerges from the womb, it looks for a human face and listens for a soprano voice. Nature directs the infant to seek its mother.
The very first experience in any baby’s life is connecting herself to another person. The infant is not just seeking a source of breast milk. Psychologist René Spitz discovered through the study of hospitalized children that a child’s very first bond with another person is the basis for the later development of human love and friendship. A child under two years of age if deprived of a single person’s continuous care for three months or more develops emotional trauma that may result in death, even though the child is provided with perfectly adequate food, shelter, hygiene, and medication by a succession of compassionate nurses. In such circumstances, no one is exclusively responsible for loving the child, so she cannot form an attachment to another person.
Spitz recounts the suffering of one baby girl deprived of her mother: “She lay immobile in her crib; when approached she did not lift her shoulders, barely her head, to look at the observer with an expression of profound suffering sometimes seen in sick animals.” If separation from the mother in the absence of a constant caregiver continues, the child will undergo rapid decline in mental and motor development, eventually being unable to sit, stand, walk, or talk, despite the best of institutional care. In the extreme case, when love is totally absent, or nearly so, the child simply dies, or if she survives, her emotional life is permanently damaged.
Spitz also discovered that when a child experiences other persons as a source of both intense pain and comfort, all the child’s emotions are blurred, and its capacity for friendship is severely diminished. A child severely deficient in love is not interested in her toys and is prone to violence in later life. An empty, uninterested facial expression is a characteristic of a child lacking love. Many a child’s life has been saved from ruin by the sustained, unconditional love of a grandmother, an aunt, or a nanny. If a mother or continuous caregiver showers the baby with gratuitous love, the infant feels, “I am wonderful, just because I am.” The young child learns to love itself the way the mother or caregiver loves her. The child then extends this self-love to a love of the world. The child feels, “It’s good to be alive; it’s good to be surrounded by such good things.”
A child nurtured and protected by love can as an adult suffer the most outrageous misfortunes and still believe she and the world are fundamentally good. If success is measured by human relations and friendship, not wealth and career achievement, then the kind of love a child receives is a better predictor of her course in life than environment, IQ tests, or genes.
We, thus, arrive at the most fundamental principle of human life: By nature every person is meant to love and be loved.
The Curse of Social Living
My mantra “nothing great without a curse,” adopted from Sophocles’ Antigone, applies to the social nature of Homo sapiens, too, not just to the human condition of nature not giving us a specific way of life. Individually, each one of us is extraordinarily weak and could not survive on our own. Even a recluse who retires to a remote region of Alaska to live alone brings with him knowledge and skills acquired from prior group-living. In our highly technological society, no person understands or knows how to produce everything that he or she consumes or uses in a single day. What person knows how to grow broccoli, make eye glasses, weave cloth, generate electricity, and fabricate a microchip? The community of humans supplies all our needs. The farmer is given the fruits of ten thousand years of experimentation with the growing of crops; the poet, a language and the poetry of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare; the physicist, the understanding of Newton, Einstein, and Bohr. No farmer, no poet, or no physicist could ever pay for all the gifts he or she receives gratuitously. Each one of us can humbly accept what is freely given, preserve and add to it if possible, and then pass it on to others. When we understand ourselves as parts of a whole and recognize that our lives are possible only because of the group, we see that such destructive emotions as anger, envy, and self-pity are contrary to our social nature, and we willingly work for a community life that promotes peace, cooperation, and generosity.
The curse of social living is that every society implants ideas and instills habits of feeling and thinking that limit its members to a particular perspective, one that as a general rule is contrary to human nature and destructive to neighboring societies. The paradox is that social living greatly extends our capabilities and yet limits us. Capitalism tells us that we are economic beings, consumer-workers. Nationalism tells us that our ultimate destiny is the fate of our Nation-State. Democracy tells us we are autonomous, isolated individuals.
In my youth, I believed I was an island unto myself and that I had freely chosen my own way of life with no regard to what others thought of my odd, eccentric behavior. Then, I read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and discovered that the individualism of the New World inculcated Cartesian thinking in me; as a result, like a trained parrot, I vociferously and probably obnoxiously tried to convince my friends in philosophy and literature that they were fundamentally deluded, for the universe, including their own misguided thinking, could be explained by tiny bits of matter. Tocqueville, not my friends, persuaded me that I was an idiot, intellectually unaware how modern culture shaped my interior life.
Culture gives every person the tools for human living as well as a core self. I had wholeheartedly believed the democratic myth that I was the King of the Castle, that I had chosen the fundamental aspects of how I lived, and that I was totally free, unrestrained by a non-existent human nature. I probably would have gone on forever believing this nonsense—no, living this nonsense—if it were not that on rare occasions life awakens us more than ideas in books.
As a post-doc in theoretical physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory, I heard Samuel Glasstone deliver twenty hours of classified lectures on the history of nuclear weapons. Hiroshima and the development of the hydrogen bomb—the sheer destructiveness of nuclear weapons and their insanity as military strategy—changed everything for me. For the first time in my life, I saw that my life was not mine alone, that what I choose to do would affect others, and that I was inextricably bound to others, even to all humanity. In the course of my crazy, zigzag life, I arrived at the place where John Donne had been four hundred years before me. “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” And, I heard the bell toll for me, and left Los Alamos, never to return.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
 See Norman Owen-Smith, “Territoriality in the White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) Burchell,” Nature 231 (4 June 1971): 295.
 Keller Breland and Marian Breland, “The Misbehavior of Organisms,” American Psychologist 16 (1961): 681-684.
 Confucius, The Humanist Way in Ancient China: Essential Works of Confucianism, ed. and trans. Ch’u Chai and Winberg Chai (New York: Bantam Books, 1965), p. 44.
 John T. Prince, Courses and Methods: A Handbook for Teachers (Boston: Ginn, 1892), p. 188.
 Standing Bear, p. 69.
 Robert Fantz, “The Origin of Form Perception,” Scientific American 204 (May 1961):69.
 Daniel G. Freedman, Human Infancy: An Evolutionary Perspective (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1974), p. 30.
 René Spitz, The First Year of Life: A Psychoanalytic Study of Normal and Deviant Development of Object Relations (New York: International Universities Press, 1965). See also Robertson, J., and J. Bowlby. “Responses of Young Children to Separation from Their Mothers.” Paris: Courr. Cent. Int. Enf, 1952.
 Spitz, p. 270.
 John Donne, Essays, Meditation XVII.