We have seen in the first part two important, and almost opposite, genetic determinants of our essence of being human, the so-called “killing ape instinct”, and then love. Two opposites, and without any of these two, most probably it would have been impossible for man to survive. Survival and reproduction are due to love, the mother instinct of love and protection for her puppies, but also linked to the necessity of food and territory, which since the primordial times is in turn linked to war and killing the rivals. Are there other instincts, other genetic primordial forces, which are characteristic of mankind?
Spirituality and the thirst for knowledge
Figure 6 is an imaginary picture to remind us what the hominids should have felt when they began to walk in an erected manner, seeing then the sky, and facing then with awe the mysteries of nature – sunrise and sunset, the phases of the moon, the lightening and the clouds. Possibly, these primordial feelings were the origin of religiosity – the awareness of powers much above the human dimensions, from which the arising of the notion of gods, to whom it was necessary to erect altars and bring offering; and perhaps also the origin of consciousness, with the question: what am I then? (see Capra and Luisi, 2014).
In this regard, one should mention one line of research in Darwinian evolution. Some authors have in fact expressed the idea that humans are genetically characterized by being “born to believe” (see for example Boyer, 2008, and Girotto et al., 2008). There is here the idea that tribes and civilizations which were united by a common set of religious beliefs would have a greater chance of survival.
What our hominid ancestors must have felt was not only awe and wonder but, right from the beginning, also curiosity and a desire for understanding; and with that also the desire of mastering the environment with the help of tools, an intelligence which became more and more sophisticated with time.
The term “intelligence”, in its more general sense, means the capability of solving problems. It is now well established that chimpanzees make tools and use them not only to feed themselves, but also for hunting, with strategies requiring cooperation. As far as humans are concerned, it is commonly assumed that there was a jump of intelligence with the development of bipedalism in the genus Australopithecus. The walking in the erected position gave not only to this Southern ape greater elevation, but also it freed the arms and hands – and this gave them the capability of solving many problems in new ways – it was the arising of Homo habilis (the “skillful human”).
The relation between intelligence, thinking and mind is a complex one. For the purpose of our simplified picture, let us simply say that curiosity and human intelligence is a determinant that led to the rise of science (the desire of shedding light on the darkness of ignorance) and of technology (the desire of using this knowledge for practical applications). These applications range from the invention of the alphabet and the wheel, to all forms of modern technology, including the invention of gun powder, bombs, and other warfare devices.
The search for beauty and harmony
Our listing of human characteristics would not be completed without mentioning the search for beauty and harmony, and the corresponding artistic creativity. A world without magnificent fine art works, such as Greek statues and temples, traditional Chinese brush paintings, Indian bronzes, Renaissance masterpieces... would not be our world (see Figures 1 and 3). Looking for another example, let us think about how poor our life would be without the wonderful music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Coltrane and many others. These were just a few suggestions, because this concept can be widely extended, considering all the fields of art, over the span of thousands of years of cultural evolution.
Why do we create these monuments to beauty and harmony? Is this, too, due to genes, which would mean that beauty and art have some reproductive advantage for humanity?
Let us start with simpler animals. From the Darwinian point of view, beauty plays an important role in sexual selection, orienting both males and females to make the best choice of their partners. The peacock’s tail is the emblematic example. No doubt, in nature, beauty is a symbol of youth, strength and health. But what about humans? Is our capability of appreciating beauty in nature – the display of colours of birds, the symmetry of flowers, the beauty of a painted Venus, or the harmony of Beethoven’s symphonies – something inborn in our own nature? Or is it simply due to our education and therefore rather a product of culture?
Philosopher Denis Dutton contends in his book The Art Instinct (2009) that aesthetic taste is an evolutionary trait, shaped by natural selection. It is not socially constructed; on the contrary, the human appreciation for art is innate (see Figure 6), and certain artistic values are universal across cultures. According to Dutton, an interest in art belongs to the list of evolutionary adaptations together with the enjoyment of sex, the response to facial expressions, the understanding of logic, and the spontaneous acquisition of language, all of which make it easier for us to survive and reproduce. He suggests that this appreciation for beauty may have been what pushed our hominid ancestors toward the beautiful savannas of Africa and other landscapes that appealed to them. Dutton uses arguments taken from evolutionary psychology to show that human perceptions undergo a kind of evolutionary development.
Darwin is linked to beauty by Roger Scruton, in his book Art, Beauty and Darwin (2009). The idea is that the contemplative appreciation is also instinctive, which permits the author to link high artistic values to our biology. It is perhaps interesting to recall that already Immanuel Kant thought that our appreciation of nature was spontaneous, coming from our instinct.
The aesthetic sense of beauty in humans must be considered in conjunction with the development of spirituality, the determinant discussed above.
In addition to art, there is another dimension in the search of harmony of human nature: the search for order in nature and in the cosmos (see Figure 4). The harmony of the movements of the stars and planets became the foundation of astrology in ancient times; and from there, of the various attempts to interpret the universe, often on the basis of beautiful geometrical representations. All this is actually linked to the determinant discussed previously, about scientific curiosity and the origin of science.
Consciousness, ethics, and free will
We come last to a very important genetic determinant, perhaps the most “human”. And whereas the genetic determinants such as aggression, as well as love, and also intelligence and curiosity, can be also present in higher animals, the characteristic of man is to be able-at least in principle – to be over such biological instincts thanks to consciousness and the corresponding ethical imperatives.
The notion of consciousness is very complex and controversial. In most academic circles, consciousness has essentially to do with subjective experience, which according to the school of “consciousness as primary”, are in principle not dependent from the brain (they are not secondary), (see Bitbol, Bergonzi, Spira, Thompson). This forms the basis of the so-called hard problem of consciousness, as defined originally by Chalmers (1995).
For most of the traditional neurobiology research, consciousness instead may have to do with an emergence property of the brain, and can be studied accordingly (Tononi, Damasio, Penrose…).
In this short assay, we do not want to enter in such complex controversy; we will use then the term consciousness in the sense of potential capability of discriminating the good from the evil, which corresponds more or less to the classic Christian terminology.
In this sense, consciousness overlaps, or is complementary, to the general concept of moral code. This concept is known in literature. For example, Marc Hauser (2006) argued that morality is grounded in biology. This would imply that for humans the moral code comes from within human nature, without any need for religion.
Let us say in more general terms that ethics can be seen as a genetic determinant – something that works at the level of the collective framework – but, most importantly, is also a determinant of our individual daily life. We must continuously make decisions, and it comes many times a day to our consciousness the following question: is this good or evil?
In turn, this can be linked to another important issue, that of free will – whether and to what extent are we, as individuals, really free to choose our decision – or whether instead our behavior is somehow pre-determined. This is another hairy big field in which we will not dwell in this assay.
As a way to conclusion
The aim of this contribution was to suggest that most of our innate behavior has a genetic origin, and how these genetic determinants can be contradictory with each other. One could probably present a different list of them, and give each of them a different emphasis, but the final outcome should not change too much, and indicate that the species homo is in fact a wild mixture of instincts: the species able to build the splendors of San Peter’s Cathedral, but also capable of the absurd criminality of the atomic bomb or of the Nazi concentration camps.
In this discussion, we have presented the genetic determinants of being human as separate from each other. This is, of course, valid only for heuristic reasons. In fact, consciousness, spirituality, artistic creativity, abstract thinking and rationality, all intertwine with each other in an intricate maze of genes from the biological point of view, and a mixed behavior from the personal and social point of view. Is this then the definition of our being human – this coacervate of opposite genetic and behavior traits?
Most of these genetic determinants – the killing ape instinct, love, striving for intelligence, and even the attraction to beauty, are present also in animals, although at same different degree.
What is unique in man is the consciousness, the decision-making, with the discrimination between good and evil – or, better, what each one of us considers good, viz. evil. Thus, and this is certainly not a novelty, the animal instincts of man can be, or should be, under the supervision of consciousness. The problems of our world today, with pollution, global warming, migration, poverty, show rather clearly that unfortunately is not so – that in this equilibrium between the killing ape/aggressiveness from the one hand, and spirituality with its positive sides from the other, is far to be reached.
And this brings us to the last picture of our article (Figure 2), showing the arrow of spirituality, but showing also the question mark on the upper side of the last figure – where are we going? What does the evolution prepare for us in the future? Or, perhaps, there is simply nothing new to expect: the eternal dance of what we have, of what we are, for all times? Clearly, the notion of love, and passion; as well as the desire of aggression and even that of curiosity/creativity, have to come to terms with the question at the individual level: do I do well – or badly? Will my consciousness be at peace, after that – or not?”
The author wishes to express his deepest appreciation for the collaboration with Angelo Merante, who took care of the illustrations, and made important critical remarks to the paper.
Read also Part One.
Bitbol, M. (2011). Science and the self-referentiality of consciousness, in R. Penrose, S. Hameroff and S. Kak, eds., Consciousness and the Universe. Cambridge, MA: Cosmology Science.
Boyer, P. (2008). Religion: bound to believe. Nature, 455: 1038–9.
Capra, F., and Luisi, P. L. (2014). The Systems View of Life. A Unified Vision. Cambridge University Press.
Chalmers, D. (1995). Facing up to the problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2(3): 200–19.
Dutton, D. (2009). The Art Instinct New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Girotto, V., Pievani, T., and Vallortigara, G. (2008). Nati per credere. Torino: Codice.
Hauser, M. (2006). Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. New York: Harper Collins/Ecco.
Scruton, R. (2009). Art, Beauty, and Darwin. New York: Oxford University Press.