Tag Archives: animal nature

The Marriage of Intellect and Animal

Last night Raymond and I went to an  Astronomical Society meeting in which Stephen Slater was discussing the making of his film, Destination Titan, which was shown recently on BBC. As he played back footage of that amazing moment when Huygens actually landed on Titan, I had a lump in my throat.  And I couldn’t help it. My eyes misted a bit. This was humanity at its most amazing. With the help of our technology, we had flung our consciousness out into the cosmos. Over a billion kilometers from home, the Huygens lander, equipped with an instrument package not much bigger than a shoe box, sent us back information from a world that we could scarcely have imagined. Now, six and a half years on, I still can’t get my head around it, and yet it’s a fact. We have the data to prove it.

Afterwards I came back home and answered the questions for an interview Sarah Barry was doing for the  Fannies Rule website. The questions involved why I liked a full bush, something I’m always happy to expound upon. That’s right. We were discussing pubic hair. So what do the two have to do with each other? Seemingly nothing. That’s what’s so amazing. These are classic examples of our  human duality. We have the intellect to conceive, design and build a space craft and a landing craft that will visit worlds we can barely conceive of at distances we can barely imagine. And we made it happen. And yet in the blood and bone and DNA of us, we’re animals, so similar to all other animals on our planet that it’s astounding, even disturbing.

Are we a little lower than the angels? Oh, I don’t think so. I think any angel would envy the position of humanity, the marriage of intellect and animal, the being who can fling her consciousness into space and bring it back to herself and in the very next breath join in the rut that’s the biological drive of all animals. But even the down and dirty of it, the rough and tumble between the sheets of it,  is in itself an act of flinging our consciousness out there into the great unknown, into the great unknown of the other, the lover, the one who mirrors us, but whose secrets we can never quite touch except through that physical act of joining.

Wow! Humans! So wonderful and so terrible, so in need of each other and yet so alone in ourselves. And for the most part so totally clueless of what we are really capable.

Still Behaving Like Animals

People have always been nervous about the possibility of human nature being nothing more than animal nature all tarted up with a big brain. There’s lots of bristling at the idea that biology might explains us just as easily as it does our animal cousins.

We’ve been wondering for a long time just how thin the line is that separates our behavior from that of those animal cousins. And we can’t ask that question without wondering if civilization is maybe nothing more than a thin veneer we humans wear to protect ourselves from the most dangerous animals on the planet — each other.

Strangely enough in the past few weeks, it hasn’t been The Pet Shop or rutting Siberian beavers on Animal Planet that have me thinking about that thin line and what’s actually going on beneath the veneer. I confess to know next to nothing about neurobiology and even less about the financial world. I write nasty stories. But when penises and testosterone and male biology enter, detrimentally, into the stock markets and the banking industry, I’m suddenly very interested.

I first became aware of the market-testosterone connection while doing my usual scan of the news over breakfast.

In his article for the Observer, Testosterone and High Finance Do Not Mix: So Bring on the Women, Tim Adams gives a brief lesson in ‘neuroeconomics’ and writes about hearing Michael Lewis, author of the book, ‘The Big Short,’ Speak at the London School of Economics. Lewis was asked what single thing he would do to reform the markets and prevent such a catastrophe happening again, and he said: ‘I would take steps to have 50% of women in risk positions in banks.’

Several days later there was an article in the Guardian about the EU calling for women to make up one third of bank directors in an effort to prevent ‘group think,’ which is often blamed for exacerbating the industry crisis of 2008.  According to the article, gender diversity can lessen the problem of group-think, partly because there’s evidence that the leadership style of women is different, that they ‘attend more board meetings and have a positive impact on the collective intelligence of a group.’

When I shared the ‘testosterone’ links with my husband, he sent me a link to a New York Times article, in which Paul Krugman discusses a comment from a post by economist, Kevin O’Rourke, called, ‘What do markets want.’ This is the comment:

‘The markets want money for cocaine and prostitutes. I’m deadly serious.

‘Most people don’t realize that ‘the markets’ are in reality 22-27 year old business school graduates, furiously concocting chaotic trading strategies on excel sheets and reporting to bosses perhaps 5 years senior to them. In addition, they generally possess the mentality and probably intelligence of junior cycle secondary school students. Without knowledge of these basic facts, nothing about the markets makes any sense—and with knowledge, everything does.’

In the animal kingdom, younger males are sometimes ostracized from the community until one of them develops the strength and maturity to wrest the power from the alpha male. In the animal kingdom, the one who gets to breed is the winner. Even our seemingly companionable British robin will fight to the death with a usurping male if it will get him the chance to pass on his genes to the next generation.

I couldn’t help but wonder as I read about hormones and the market running amuck if our cultural queasiness with our animal nature has, once again, come back to bite us in the butt. The drive to procreate, and the sooner the better, may no longer be at the top of our civilized ‘to do list,’ but the biology for it is still there. What better place for young men, not yet mature enough to lead the pack, to play out that possessive, territorial ‘need to breed’ aggression than in the market? As I said, I’m definitely no expert, but it seems to me that  to turn the animal loose in an already testosterone-charged play-ground, complete with expensive cars and high-end sex, and expect him to behave in a ‘civilized’ manner is more than a little bit naïve.