April 30, 2015


The social sciences aspire to understand social phenomena with theories, case studies and statistical descriptions of populations, or they may explain individual experiences using general principles derived from other fields such as psychology, anthropology and economics. In this book, Human Nature, I aspire to review general principles and suggest 21st century revisions based on an understanding of human nature.

The term “society” tends to be a fuzzy word that refers to the inner workings of groups of different sizes. As an abstract term, society refers to ideas and beliefs about how groups work. Society is often treated as an agency that does things to people and causes humans to act one way or another. But there is no actual entity, society; just humans interacting with other humans.

The adjective “social “ refers to interpersonal dynamics and also to devices invented to regulate human behavior such as fences, gates, roads, stores, schools, churches and prisons. In this chapter, we view society as a product of human-primate behavior. Social devices grow in size and complexity as communities expand, but human nature does not change.

We recognize that humans are social animals and generally depend on each other to provide context and meaning. However, because of the construction of the human mind at birth, each human has difficulty reconciling self-identity and group membership. There are discrepancies between self-interest and group interest; between bonding, belonging and being a free independent soul. While there is a strong tendency to conformity in every group, selfish interests often motivate deviance. Token conformity or simulated conformity provides a good disguise for deviant individuals who seek to exploit others.

The word ”community” describes a group of people who live together. As groups enlarge, factual kinship is replaced by a sense of identity or similarity and cooperation to achieve some stability and security of the home. Communication is one of the tools of community. Communion is a ritual of the community.

Sociology is typical of academic disciplines with different schools based on the writings of single individuals or small groups. The names for different point of view become academic commodities and membership in the right group will determine academic success or failure. Sociology has tended to be a cognitive box with a specialized literature. Insights that occurred to non-sociologists long before appeared in the discipline as new and sometimes controversial innovations. Poore suggested that different schools of sociology such as the Functionalists, Marxists and Symbolic Interactionists were divergent except that they all assumed that the social world is orderly, that patterns of behavior and interaction in society are regular and systematic rather than haphazard and chaotic. Poole described American sociologist, Harold Garfinkel, as an innovator who introduced and old-new perspective to sociology in his book "Studies in Ethnomethodology." Poole stated: “Functionalists regard society as the outcome of value consensus in society, which ensures that behavior conforms to generally accepted norms. Marxists see it as a result of the subordination of one class to another, it is precarious and prone to disruption by revolution but nevertheless it exists. Interactionists differ from these macro-perspectives by viewing social systems as something that is created in a multiplicity of interactions. It is order which results from the processes of definition, interpretation and negotiation. In contrast, Ethnomethodologists recognize that social order is illusory… in reality it is chaotic. For them social order is constructed in the minds of social actors.” Garfinkel suggested that individuals make sense of their social world by recognizing patterns that are used as frameworks for interpreting new experiences.

For example, Garfinkel asked a number of students to take part in an experiment, telling them that it involved a new form of psychotherapy. The students were invited to talk about their personal problems with an ‘advisor’ who was separated from them by a screen. They could not see the advisor and could only communicate with him via an intercom. They were to ask him a series of questions about their problems to which he would respond by answering either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. What the students didn’t know was that these responses were not authentic answers to the questions posed but a predetermined sequence of yes and no answers drawn from a table of random numbers. Although there was no consistency in the answers given to the questions, the students made sense of them by attempting to recognize an underlying pattern in the advice they were being given. Most found the advice reasonable and helpful. This was so even when, some of the advice was contradictory. Thus in one case a student asked: "so you think I should drop out of school then?" and received a ‘yes’ response. Surprised by this he asked, "You really think I should drop out of school?" only to be given a ‘no’ answer. Rather than dismissing the advice as nonsense, the student struggled to find its meaning, looking back for a pattern in the advisors' responses, referring back to previous answers, trying to make sense of the contradiction terms of the advisors’ knowledge of this problem. Never did it occur to the student to doubt the sincerity of the advisor. What the students were doing throughout these counseling sessions, Garfinkel argues, was constructing a social reality to make sense of an often-senseless interaction. They were able to bring order to what was in fact a chaotic situation.

Garfinkel recognized that people make sense of a remark or action by reference to the context in which it occurs; that is they index it to particular circumstances. The counseling experiment had sufficient prestige that led the students to accept the situation as authentic. The problems with pattern recognition involve bias, cognitive boxes and perseveration. Garfinkel recognized that pattern recognition can become so fixed that it is incapable of accommodating new experiences.

Erving Goffman is another innovator who extended sociology toward an empathetic view of the chaotic. Collins and Makowsky in their brief history of sociology described Goffman’s method: “to look at places where smooth-functioning public order breaks down in order to see what normally holds it together. The method has produced insights that have begun to restructure sociological theory; we have come to see how social reality is constructed out of tacit understandings among people meeting face to face… A person is not an isolated thing, but an image carved out of the whole life space of his or her interactions with others.”

Goffman compared normal interactions with presentations seen on the stage in theatres. His view is entirely consistent with the view of anthropologist who recognized the dramatic performances common in preindustrial human societies and by ethnologists who recognized the dramatic aspects of animal behaviors, especially territorial and courtship displays. Humans have not invented anything new. In his classic text, Asylum, Goffman, described his experience working in a mental hospital and criticized total institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and military boot camps. Collins and Makowsky suggested that:” the hospital is a place to keep patients away from normal society – the patient spends every hour of every day within the same walls, subject to the same monolithic controls and facing the abiding scrutiny of a regular staff that keeps permanent records. The social sources that reflect his or her self are degrading; they offer the patient no escape into privacy or to alternative audiences.”

There have been many observers and critics of prisons that come in different sizes, shapes and flavors, but all share the common feature of entrapment and control of inmates. Some prisons such as mental hospitals pretend to be serving the needs of mentally ill patients. Even general hospitals retain some of the features of prisons, leaving significant doubts that the best interests of patients and their families are being served. In an ideal world there would be no prisons in any disguise.

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

April 29, 2015

Nature and Wilderness

When I was a child, my family moved a new suburb on the edge of Toronto, a typical North American city, beginning its post-war growth spurt. My back yard was a forest that led down into a river valley - still natural and full of wonder. For a few years, I enjoyed this natural environment and made friends with trees, flowers, birds, raccoons and fish in the river. I discovered peace and joy in the natural environment.

The city grew, as I grew, and I watched the cherished natural environments of my childhood disappear -swallowed up and replaced by houses, roads, and shopping malls. I adapted to an increasingly urban existence and enjoyed parts of it, but for many years I dreamed of returning to a place of nature. Eventually, I found my way back to a more natural environment on the West Coast of Canada and restored there a sense of well being and kinship with the ocean, forest and mountains. I regretted the destruction of the natural world of my childhood and to this day have a deep, relentless sense of foreboding- little good can come out what we have done to our precious Mother Earth.

I see the health of individuals and populations all inextricably meshed with world ecology and I see our species in trouble. We are creatures with a tragically split personality. Part of us is destructive, selfish and confused. The other part of us is tender, affectionate and feels reverence and awe whenever we make ourselves available to perceive the natural world as the divine temple. Nature stands apart from whatever humans have made and Mother Nature is a term of reverence for the principles and energies that infuse the living world with structure and meaning. Most humans retain a sense of kinship with natural environments. Even urban dwellers will seek out little moments of nature and will feel deep satisfaction when they can sit for a moment in park, watch birds or find their way to a beach to hear and feel the reassuring action of waves. A sense of natural beauty is rooted in old primate preferences for food-rich, flowering plants and trees, for savannahs with abundant game and vistas that are simple and easy to understand.

One essence of being human is that you are an adaptable and nomadic creature. Your innate preferences are layered like layers in sedimentary rock that allows geologists to read the history of a place over millions of years. Your deepest feelings come from the oldest parts of your brain that still recognize features of an environment that appealed to early mammals and perhaps to more ancient creatures such as reptiles and dinosaurs. Hominids evolved in Africa and followed a lineage from tree-living primates who ate plants and insects to ground-dwelling creatures that wandered further and further as time went on, perfecting the attributes and skills of nomadic hunters and gatherers Humans in the past 200,000 years have wandered all over the planet and settled in every place that could sustain their life.

Our deepest recognitions come from contact with rocks, wood, fire, metal, bone and water. The history of the unique features of our mind is rooted in a very slow, gradual transformation from creatures who lived in nature to creatures who transformed the nature of rocks, bone and wood into tools, weapons, clothing and shelters. The finest of homes to this day display rock, wood and fire. Civilized humans still cook meat over fires in back yards and fires improvised on beaches, feeling more peaceful and authentic on a camping trip when they are closer to their inner and wilder nature.

The term “Umwelt” was introduced in 1930 by biologist, von Uexküll to describe the different "real worlds" that animals perceive with different sensory systems. He built mechanical devices to simulate their perceptual Weltanschauungen or worldview. The compound eye of insects saw the world in multiple images, for example. Snyder suggested that: “Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and no-living beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order. When an ecosystem is fully functional, all members are present at the assembly. To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came from that wholeness. Deep Ecology thinkers insist that the natural world has a value in its own right, that the health of natural systems should be our first concern, and that this best serves the interests of all humans as well...Environmental concerns and politics have spread worldwide. In some countries, the focus is almost entirely on human health and welfare issues. It is proper that the range of the movement should run from wildlife to urban health. But there can be no health for humans and cities that bypasses the rest of nature... A sophisticated postindustrial citizen will be asking: is there any way we can go with rather against nature?"

Umwelt can refer to the both the perception of the natural world and the deep sense of belonging that most humans feel in some natural places. You could argue that we like wide-open spaces because we can see what is going on and feel safer. You can see predators and enemies at a distance and take action before they are close enough to attack you. It is better to be high rather than low. Climb any tree, hill or mountain and you feel a sense of calm, power and liberation. Trees have a special significance since our distant primate ancestors all lived in, or at least, slept in trees. Children spontaneously climb trees and want to build tree houses. Adult humans seldom climb trees because they become too heavy and lack the upper body strength to climb easily. Our bodies have adapted to the ground. Our legs are heavier and stronger than our arms.

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason