There are nearly eight billion humans walking this planet, and as we stumble with varying degrees of success through our lives, every one of us is leaving a trail of fallout from our confusion of emotions, motivations, knowledge and beliefs. If we want to limit our destructive impact and encourage the good, understanding ourselves is a good place to start. Why do we do what we do?
In recent years, science has opened new windows on the psyche, supplementing 50,000 years of thoughtful insights with hard research that is by turns stunning, intriguing, and deeply disturbing.
While Darwin could only speculate on our African roots, modern genetics now tells us, within a reasonable margin of error, when we left (50,000+ years ago), how we left (by boat, leaving East Africa to cross the southern end of the Red Sea), what we looked like (brown) what we were wearing (sewn clothes), where we went from there (along the coast to India and Australia), and most importantly, when we were joined by the dog (15,000 years ago, probably in East Asia).
Functional MRIs allow neurologists to peer inside our brains while we are thinking, and sometimes can tell us what we’re thinking about. Game theory explains why 10% percent of us persist in left-handedness in an overwhelmingly rightist technological environment.
But when it comes to effecting change, science is weak. It can tell us all the ways we are animated by subconscious tribal drives, dictatorial genes, or brain chemistry, but it can not convince us to stop eating junk food or give a damn about global warming. Evolutionary neurology can tell us the survival value of emotional bonding in a social animal, but it cannot prescribe a way forward from rejecting people of different faiths as “the other.” Brain science can isolate the parts of the brain that light up as we experience ecstasy, but it cannot tell us who God is or why Beethoven’s 9th makes us weep.
These are the things that drive real people in their daily lives, and to understand them on a human scale, we are lucky to have a rich resource in the insights that have been derived by thinkers, spiritual leaders, and philosophical traditions over the past 2,000 years. We should use it.
To scientists, this kind of thinking is impossibly fluffy. These rigorous souls (bless their hearts!) devote their professional lives to establishing hard facts and defendable hypotheses. Evolutionary biologists approach the best of human nature—love, faith, conscience—on the same plane as our urge to take murderous revenge or covet our neighbor’s wife, or his ox: just another survival adaptation by the selfish gene, a behavior that persists because it enabled our ancestors to pass on their genetic material.
This is fascinating, but not all that helpful. It’s hard to use it to predict which way the average joe will jump when faced with an ethical fork in the road. People can devote their energies to squeezing more work from their unlucky employees or spending their weekends volunteering at the local food bank—sometimes at the same time. And if pumping facts at people pumped up selfless behavior, research studies would guide our affairs rather than piling up in the bubble around activists on every side of every question.
Without the humanities, we are still just mapping the surface of human nature, even as we dig deeper into the genome and brain function. We are trying to bake a cake with a bunsen burner and a test tube—as a recipe for change, people aren’t buying it. To make that sale, we need an artist with a wooden spoon, some down-home cooking skills, and an flair with icing. Faith traditions and the humanities represent 3,000+ years of wisdom gained from looking at ourselves and our world from the inside out. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the models that have come out of post-Einstein physics bear an uncanny resemblance to the reality described by the tao, buddhist, and mystic thinkers many hundreds of years ago.
So…why do we humans do what we do? There are 7 billion-plus answers to that question—one for every person on the planet. But flowing through the wildly divergent world views of individuals, generations, and cultures on what is right, what is wrong, and how we should act in the world, there are commonalities that all people, everywhere, draw from. These are the foundations we can build on to leave a legacy of positive change.