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The Animal in Man

Updated on March 22, 2012

Man is an animal - and he would like to forget it. He is certainly unique, with a superior brain power and unequaled abilities to think and act, but he is still an animal. In the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin's pioneering work produced his revolutionary Theory of Evolution and clearly showed Man as the most advanced example of the monkey and ape tribe, or primates.

The initial shock of this realization soon wore off. People reasoned that, even if human beings were advanced apes, their intellect and powers of reasoning placed them far beyond their animal origins. Humans, and their behavior, could not possibly be studied on the basis that they were still animals, simply because their brain-power ensured that they had progressed.

So men refused to consider themselves in any way 'animal', and indeed went to considerable lengths to convince themselves of the opposite. This dangerous myth has persisted to the present day.

But Darwin is not alone in his theories. Several twentieth century zoologists, too, have written books on the subject of Man's evolution. At least one, The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris, aims at a mass audience - because it is the mass of humanity that chooses to ignore Man's animal heritage and the insights that acceptance of this could bring. For Man is a 'social animal' and the time he spends trying to discover why he cannot construct a perfect society might be lessened if he accepted the 'animal' in this definition.

Man tries to escape from his origins. When there is an outbreak of teenage violence, the phrase 'animal behavior' receives a widespread airing on television and in the press, as if the whole purpose of society is to rationalize away Man's animal motives. To call any man an animal is an insult of the worst proportions. Yet if men would accept that they do have animal drives - even though these might be disguised by a thin veneer - and approached social problems accordingly, then these problems might well seem less severe. The human race is the result of a unique evolutionary experience, and specific animal needs lie behind much so-called 'social' activity. For all the apparent sophistication of his society, Man is still driven by those basic needs.

Society today is the result of a myriad of influences, even though this society could never have existed had the human race not felt the compulsion to create it. The key to the start of society must be found in the developing animal that evolved from tree-dwelling primate to human being. Any evolving species experiences reaction to circumstance, followed by physical and physiological changes designed to adapt it to survival in changed circumstances.

Failure to do this means extinction, and thousands of species have vanished completely - simply because they could not adapt to new conditions.

Man has been uniquely successful - evolving so well from his tree-dwelling ape ancestors that he completely dominated this planet. But this does not mean that he has escaped from the deeply ingrained heritage that links him to his animal past - far from it. Initially, it is difficult for modern Man to accept this, because the human animal is so different from any other. This is because, of all the primates, Man alone managed to find a successful long-term formula for survival. The others have steadily declined.

Millions of years ago, the crisis point for primates came when the traditional forests they inhabited began to recede. There were two choices. Either the primates could cling to their fruit-eating life in the forests as best they could, or they could venture on to the hostile plains - where many carnivorous hunters already existed to make life almost impossible. The easy way was the former, but Man's ancestors chose the latter. It was a risky decision, but in evolutionary terms it proved to be right.

The primates that found themselves in a hostile, open environment were forced to change. They already had good brains, compared with the other animals around them, plus good eyesight and able haPds. But in a world where speed to the kill was the yardstick of success, they were physically ill-equipped - they couldn't run very fast, they had different fangs and limited strength. So a series of evolutionary changes had to take place if they were to survive. The immediate need then was survival - which entailed becoming more deadly and efficient hunters.

So the human ape became a better runner, he began to stand upright all the time, his hands became used to holding primitive weapons and above all he began to exploit the advantages offered by superior brain-power. His brain became better equipped to make the quick decisions necessary for success, while his natural leaning towards social organization enabled him to hunt in packs and evolve a tight community way of life. The development of the brain raced ahead, and Man became unique among primates - as a peculiar form of primate predator, one who subsists by catching live prey.

As a result of this, Man found that he was indeed becoming drastically different from his animal fellows. The dependence on brain-power meant that the young needed time for t his vital quality to develop. This, in turn, meant that the female of the species had to remain behind to look after the young while the males went off on hunting trips. As time went by and Man grew capable of better social cooperation, he needed a base of operations, where the women could wait securely while the men were away hunting. This aspect soon became increasingly important, as the advantages such security were realized.

Once this point was reached, Man inevitably applied his intelligence to further cultural advances - which in turn led to the developments that have brought about the society of today. But the extent and complexity of this process was in one sense made possible by the physical changes that had taken place - this race had already changed to deal with a harsh physical environment. The rapid cultural advances that occurred once Man's security was assured happened without further genetic modification. So the stresses imposed both on individuals and society itself were considerable. Man had the ability and the need to create society, but did not change to adapt himself to the demands of that society. The result was unhappy - cultural advance was so rapid that Man was forced to transfer his basic animal instincts, designed to help him survive in a harsh and primitive world, to a social structure that placed new emphasis on organization and sophistication.

The problems created by this process are acute - but tend to be obscured by the nature of society. Men tend to make a conscious effort to deny their animal drives, but these do remain important.

How do animal motivations, inherited from ape ancestors, still condition modern Man's behavior? How does he tackle the age-old problems of security, feeding, breeding and fighting and how well has his powerful brain been able to harness his primitive urges to the situation in which he finds himself?

Man's early need for security provided the motivation for society's growth. Such growth did not lead to an ideal result because society developed initially along the lines laid down by primitive Man's animal drives. Modern society basically reflects the needs, not of the twentieth century, but of primitive Man and this is most obvious in those areas where the basic drives operate - sex activity, fighting, subsistence and comfort.

The modern human being is sexually well-equipped: both physically and physiologically able to take a fuller interest in sexual activity than any other animal.

The reasons lie in the simple needs of primitive men. They had to tame a hostile environment by the use of intellect. This resulted in co-operative effort, and the formation of steady mating pairs. The usual mating policy of most animal species - strongest takes all - was no longer good enough. The need to nurture and develop brain-power meant that human young had to be given sufficient time to develop their powers which resulted in the females remaining behind while the men went out to hunt. But the 'growing-up' process needed parental example to cement it, and it therefore became essential for stable relationships to form. Also, in order to survive, all the males had to co-operate with one another to hunt - which meant that the weaker members could not be discouraged by depriving them of mates.

This need to create stable pairs is reflected in the physical development of the human race. Humans are made not just to breed and mate but to indulge in constant sexual activity on a level unknown in other animals. Their bodies can always be stimulated by members of the opposite sex. This was originally designed to ensure the formation and maintenance of steady pairs. But the crowded urban environments of advanced society have meant that humans are subjected to the constant attraction of strangers around them, and the basic animal urge towards the formation of steady pairs is thrown into total confusion. A vast network of restrictions and taboos around human sexual behavior has resulted, which has served to contain, but not satisfy, contradictory demands.

So modern Man is pulled in opposite directions. On the one hand, he is highly equipped to respond to members of the opposite sex, on the other, this ability was originally designed to ensure the existence of steady pairs. In a modern context it inevitably tends to work in reverse and the result is confusion, psychological disturbances and a pressing tension that society is unable to cope with. Social behavior has reflected the problem and today society has become obsessed with sex. But on the whole, the animal instinct towards steady pairs has been maintained, with substitutes to repress the constant sexual stimulations of life in a crowded environment.

Man has, however, been almost too successful in fulfilling the need to procreate - and society is rapidly reaching saturation point. Society will soon have to face the fact that the emphasis must switch from breeding to the control of breeding.

Whether or not it can bear this extra stress remains to be seen.

The process of rearing the young, too, lends confusion to society. To an extent, the human infant learns by imitation. This consolidates the form of any society and maintains any inherent weaknesses. On the other hand, Man is a curious individual too: he is always keen to pursue anything that pricks his curiosity. Unless he strikes a balance between these elements, the result is further social turmoil, and not progress towards a society that better serves his needs.

An extension of this curiosity is the urge to push out the frontiers of knowledge. The ability to make technological advances had a vast effect on the actual nature of society without materially altering the basic animal goals which Man still pursues.

So the nature of society alters, without offering any more satisfaction to the basic needs of Man.

But aggression is the one field of animal activity which really makes society imperfect.

It is a basic drive with which men have never managed to come to terms in a social context, and provides ample evidence that society really has no way of dealing with this deep-rooted animal aggression. Animals show aggression for two basic reasons: either they fight to survive - which means trying to dominate the other animals in one territory - or they fight to maintain status within their own species.

Both reasons applied to early Man. The human primate had to fight for domination of a particular territory, and there was also fighting within any particular group. Fighting with other animals was not so intense in the case of the human ape: the weaker members of the tribe could not be totally discouraged for they were needed to ensure the success of co-operative hunting.

Leadership, however, was still necessary and so fighting within a group was confined to asserting leadership without destroying the social structure.

Because humans have acquired such terrible powers of self-destruction, the range of threatening gestures and forms of ritual combat are considerable; at the same time, however, the potential areas of conflict are also vast - simply because of the size and complexity of society. Each individual operates according to his basic animal instincts - he belongs to one or more small, interlocking social groups and goes about his business in his own way. But it is now impossible to do this without coming into contact with other, alien groups - whose interests may directly conflict with his own.

Society is just not capable of coping with all these strains. Man's intellectual advance has inevitably led to the growth of society, both in numbers and complexity.

At the same time, the motives that drive him have not greatly altered to match the new society he has created. Physically and physiologically, the modern human being is geared to a life of primitive animal existence. Practically and psychologically, he is conditioned to life in a complex modern society.

It is not a successful mixture. For thousands of years, this sort of society has been uneasily able to survive - simply because men have subjugated their basic animal drives to the realities of the society around them. The tensions imposed by a continually expanding population have been met, though often with unhappy results.

But this cannot go on. Man has consistently proved that he cannot use his brainpower to achieve intellectual mastery over his animal drives.

Sooner or later, Man must change to survive: if not, he will destroy himself after a brief but glorious reign. Overwhelming pressures are building up within society, and time will tell whether he is capable of finding solutions.


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    • PhiMaths ATB profile image

      PhiMaths ATB 

      6 years ago from Charlotte, NC, USA

      Interesting. I think this is correct. I had not thought so much about how we have evolved physically to make us for fit, though I am very interested in evolutionary psychology.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Interesting, I think that man should be more animalistic. It makes sense. Thanks for sharing.


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