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Human Nature and Behavior

by Alfred de Grazia


My thesis here comes close to a remark once made by Mark Twain: "The human race consists of those who are dangerously insane and those who aren't." Humans, that is, are naturally somewhat crazy, by all definitions of that term among practicing psychologists.

A book on human nature, especially if it contains a theory of instincts, needs an apology. The International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences of 1968 carried no article on human nature. Its direct predecessor, the Encyclopedia of Social Science of 1932, did publish such an article, written by John Dewey, where he opined that social experiments might ultimately reveal the limits of what humans could achieve and tolerate; we hope that they have not yet done so.

Some 16,000 articles and reports in psychology were noted in Psychological Abstracts in 1979. None was grouped under the heading of "human nature." There was no such heading. In the area of information storage and retrieval, what is not indexed tends not to exist. Researchers usually follow marked paths. Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox presented a book on The Imperial Animal recently with nary a peep or growl about human nature, although, if I read it aright, that is precisely the subject.

My teachers at the University of Chicago, a fashion leader in matters intellectual before World War II, generally regarded the search for "human nature," and "instincts," too, as futile. It was the heyday for stressing cultural influences and cultural differences. "Human nature" was suspected of being a tool of conservative theologians and politicians. The ordinary man had made it a vehicle of his biases, his hopelessness, his social darwinism and his need to generalize, no matter how foolishly.

In respect to the concept of instinct, McDougall and Freud were influential. But the one by overclassifying the phenomena of instinct, and the other by using the term broadly and vaguely, aroused suspicions of it. G. H. Mead, in the vanguard of imperialism for the concept of culture during the 1920's, substituted "impulse" for instinct. There came a period of "motivation," "values," and "drives" and now, too, one can see certain nuclear meanings that are handled by "reflexes," "genetic factors," and "genetic predisposition."

So the term "instinct," too, went by the board of Psychological Abstracts. A third term to which I refer often is "schizophrenia" and here, I am privileged to say, a computer printout of the Abstracts will convey hundreds of titles every year. As we shall see, however, "schizophrenia" is scarcely less diffuse and troublesome a term than "human nature" or "instinct." To me the term "human nature" signifies the traits most distinguishing humans from other life forms. A model or system of behavior can be constructed of these traits such that their interrelations are perceived, along with the mechanisms energizing them. As will be observed from the chapters to follow, the half-million studies in psychology that accompanied the near demise of the two terms, "human nature" and "instinct," nevertheless changed what can and cannot be said about them. I may remark, as did Konrad Lorenz once, upon returning home from some American disputation over whether behavior was all learned, "I think I have taken some of the stink out of instinct."

Empirical research, both macroscopic and microscopic, now offers pertinent data in abundance. New perspectives are invoked. The study of the brain has made excellent progress as, for instance, in the comparative study of cerebral hemispheres. The French newspaper Le Monde, quoted a Delegate to the World Congress of Biological Psychiatry in 1981 to say: "Psychiatry will slip away from the psychiatrists if they don't want to do biology." Ethology and socio-biology are aggressively pushing into the realms of anthropology and sociology. Chimpanzees have been house guests. Women have lived as neighbors to gorillas. More and more of animal instincts are observed to be subsumable under deliberate decisions and experiential learning. We have more systematic knowledge, as well, about the human social condition and what brings it about. Also, physical reconstruction of human nature has become theoretically possible, if some pronouncements upon gene-splicing, cloning, drugs, and brain surgery are to be believed.

Although many books are related to questions of human nature, few works attack the subject head-on. Almost all of these latter are old. They may come out of any field of knowledge, but usually emerge from philosophy, theology, anthropology, psychology, and political theory. The present work derives in part from twenty years of teaching political psychology and the sociology of invention, and from a decade of studying prehistoric and ancient cultures which were undergoing ecological disturbances and creating myths and legends meanwhile. It connects ultimately with a merged set of pragmatic, psychological and anthropological traditions that were especially well represented at the University of Chicago a generation ago. I am indebted beyond words to that community of scholars.

The sequence of chapters can be explained in a few sentences. First I seek a usable concept of the normal human being. I cannot find it, for it sinks into the quagmire of ideas concerning man as a rational animal. Thereupon I look for a description of the mentally ill today, and how they are treated. It appears that psychotherapy is seeking vainly to reduce bizarre behavior, but such behavior crops out in normal people too as their perverse inheritance.

So both the disturbed and the normal gyrate around a central complex of behavior (including mental activity) that is schizoid, and this schizoid complex cannot be reduced to "normal." The "normal rational person" is a fiction, undiscoverable in reality, unsupportable and misleading theoretically. The concept of "normalcy" becomes a portion of a statistical distribution of the population whose behavior is appropriate. Thus, a person who eats moderately is sane; one who is a glutton is sick. One who kills in self-defense behaves reasonably; one who kills in a religious sacrifice is mad.

Conventional behavior makes a poor key to human nature. A more workable key can be fashioned from the traits assigned to schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is not an aberration of human nature but a powerful and influential expression of the basic personal and social format. It becomes especially conspicuous when social structures are displaced or destroyed.

I find that it emerges from a general genetic failure of the human instinctive system, a blocking of responses. This instinct-delay brings self-consciousness, a plurality of selves, whose disorganization imparts a continuous, unstoppable and ineradicable fear. The fear transforms into a drive for total interior and exterior control. There occurs a set of strategies for coping with the fear. Language and science coordinate the strategies. The ideas of the good, true, and beautiful that eventuate convince the human being that, if not a divine creation, he is at least the monarch of nature.

An analysis of human nature is likely to prove pessimistic. Although it may deny "original sin," it uncovers too many lapses and contradictions in human behavior to conclude with a happy prognosis. Nonetheless, I cannot but feel that the bio-psychiatry of homo schizo presents human nature in a perspective which scientists and philosophers will readily comprehend. From understanding to research, and then on to description, and finally to applications is a familiar path in our times.

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