Taxonomy and Epistemology of the Human Predicament
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
each level it’s possible to ask both horizontal and vertical questions.
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
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?”
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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.
article may be reproduced in whole or in part , in any manner and for
any purpose whatsoever, with no restrictions.