Human Nature?

My old pupAs I’ve been settling into 6 weeks of writing and thinking and being, this chapter from The Pollyanna Principles has been almost haunting me.  And I’m thinking perhaps the best way to purge it is to share it here and invite conversation, to see just why this thought is following me.


Our Animal Nature
As we consider the parts of our past that have led to our present, we must also consider the very meat of what makes us human.

Consider the phrase “Human Nature.” Do we invoke that phrase when we are talking glowingly about our brethren? Hardly. We use the phrase to focus on our greed, our fear, our selfishness – all the things we dislike about being members of this species.

In reality, though, virtually every one of the traits we “chalk up to human nature” is not what distinguishes us as humans at all. Those “human nature” traits are those we share with many, if not most or all, of our animal brethren.

Animals other than humans steal, kill, cheat, and deceive. Animals other than humans are greedy, fearful, thinking of their own survival above all else. Animals compete, they are violent.

When animals feel threatened, their immediate choices are either to run away or to fight back. As humans, our culture suggests one of those approaches evidences valor and courage, while the other is evidence of cowardice. But in truth, either of those reactions is one my dog might also show. If threatened, she might run away, or she might bare her teeth. No valor, no cowardice; just being a dog.

That is not “human nature.” That is part of our animal nature.

Neuroscientists have found physiological / chemical sources for many of the reactions we have come to call “human nature.” The rush of adrenaline, the virtually immediate reactions that allow us to respond physically to danger without having to think about it first – those fight-or-flee response mechanisms are part of the physical composition of our species, the organs and chemicals that are our physical being. We do not have to learn that; it is in us from before the time we were born.

Our species’ long history of the survival reactions we call “human nature,” therefore, are not just cultural. They are physiologically and chemically hard-wired into our being from a time before we were even human. That means overriding those physical reactions – aiming at something beyond our fears – requires something special; it requires that we make a concerted effort to use logic, and to exercise free will.

Our Human Nature is Our Potential
If our “negative” traits are not what set us apart as humans, what exactly is our human nature? What do we have that other animals do not?

Our “humanity” is a bundle of traits that combine to create our unique potential. While some other species may exhibit one or more of these behaviors, there is no other species that has all this and then some.

• A sense that we are part of something bigger than just our own selves and our own families / tribes
• The ability to comprehend that each of us is one life among a vast whole of billions of people we cannot see, but whom we acknowledge and understand are there
• The capacity to consciously de-program our instincts and re-program new instincts – free will
• An almost tangible sense of connectedness to something we cannot see or touch
• The ability to imagine things that do not currently exist – to invent, to create something from nothing but our imaginations
• The ability to express all these more ethereal capacities through language, through art, through music, through various means that allow us to transmit to other humans that which one cannot touch / taste / smell / see / hear
• The ability to envision the future, to envision what is possible
• The capacity for self-awareness, to strive for self-betterment. The ability to be conscious that we are conscious!
• The combined capacity for empathy, compassion, logic and reason, imagination – and joy at experiencing any or all of those

The human part of our nature provides a choice beyond fight-or-flee – a choice my dog cannot make. My dog is incapable of facing her attacker and choosing to neither run nor fight back, but to instead engage. Sweet as she is, she cannot appeal to her attacker’s higher faculties, to learn why he is attacking, and to try to find a better way.

That is the human part of our nature. That is what defines our humanity. Our human nature is all about our potential. Through that uniquely human nature, we have the power to create the future of our world.


So what do you think? What does this make possible? And what will it take to activate all that potential?

You can read the entire first 4 chapters of The Pollyanna Principles here.

4 Responses to Human Nature?

  1. “The human part of our nature provides a choice beyond fight-or-flee – a choice my dog cannot make. My dog is incapable of facing her attacker and choosing to neither run nor fight back, but to instead engage. Sweet as she is, she cannot appeal to her attacker’s higher faculties, to learn why he is attacking, and to try to find a better way.”

    I disagree – dogs will often engage by taking a submissive posture, asking to be accepted by another canine (or sometimes we think they are asking to be forgiven by their human) rather than fighting. I see no reason we can’t help animals achieve their highest potential too.

    And I have often seen animals imagining things that do not exist – a horse who thinks there are ghost tigers in a corner of the riding ring; a cat who knows a string is not a mouse but is willing to pretend, etc.

  2. Wonderful, yes, Jane. If our highest potential is to create the future of our world, that would clearly mean reaching for the potential in ALL of us.

    Dimitri was just sharing a story about the immense capacities of Alex the parrot and Koko the gorilla. I do know my own sweet animals have always shown capacities we believe we are anthropomorphizing but really – are they acting like us, or are we simply (animals that we are) acting like them?

    I am enjoying imagining what the world might be like if we were to reach for that potential in us all. Thanks for that!


  3. Hi Hildy,

    Thanks for the inspiring post. If we knew more about our human capacity perhaps then that knowledge and skill would be used for continued human development. One implication in your post on humanness is our ability with language to improve and create new social relations and social constructions. I’m suggesting that we see ourselves as partners, co-producing paths to a better world.

    Tony Budak

  4. First of all, God design us all with our own unique capabilities,a mind to think and choose a body to transport us around on this earth and a soul to transport us into heaven this is given to us for the simple reason for the direct alignment of how we continue to survive on this earth and our continuation to heaven, this is our positive human nature given to us, but then there is our negative human nature in us that we tend choose to follow that leads us in the wrong path.