top of page




by David Williams 


When it comes to love, what’s “natural” for we homo sapiens?  What makes us feel good?  What’s right and what’s wrong? 


16th century philosopher, David Hume, brought up the problem known as the Is-Ought Argument, which basically states, how can we know what we ought to do based on what is?  Eventually, this argument was used by others to discuss nature itself, with the end result being that just because something occurs in nature, it doesn’t mean that it should be that way.  This led to notion that we can derive nothing about morality or ethics from nature.  Just because animals eat each other, for example, doesn’t mean we should do the same.  But with the rise of Biology and eventually Neuroscience, it has become more and more apparent that altruistic behavior, compassion, kindness, even love, do have a Biological root.  They didn’t spring out of nowhere.  Our brains are not blank slates shaped by culture alone (as was the belief by most in academia for decades—and still is in many quarters), but the truth is we are wired from evolution to behave, act, and think in certain ways and not others.  Love itself  derives from a mix of neurochemicals, such as dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, serotonin, and others, that shape our feelings, thoughts, and desires.   Darwin, himself, saw that the beginnings of love had to have developed from the bonds between mother and their young, which we see in innumerable species, and that the root of human love and affection also came initially out of the mother-child connection.


Affection, kindness, compassion, empathy, and the neurochemicals underlying them are certainly part of the human story, as well as that of all other primates.   But why did love in humans become so complicated and multi-dimensional when our closest relatives do not engage in the protracted love behavior and attachment we humans do? 


Love is not limited to humans.  Very strong bonds of attachment form between mating animals of many species, though monogamy is still a mystery to biologists.  From a numbers game, promiscuity offers many more chances for survival and dispersal of one’s genes.  In addition, promiscuity leads to greater genetic variety, that has advantages for fighting disease.  (Scientists now believe that the reason sex itself developed in nature is for this very reason.  By a male and female putting their genes together, much more variation exists in their offspring than would be the case if asexual reproduction—which predates sex and is still seen in numerous plants and animals—were the case. 


But the mating strategy of monogamy does allow for two parents to concentrate on their offspring, who are little packages of the parental DNA.  And in the case of many bird species, monogamy is a necessity, as eggs have to be incubated; someone must sit on them at all times.  But that “someone” also has to eat, so a system of pair-bonding was the easiest solution in nature. 


Until recently, scientists believed that many species of birds were monogamous and faithful, but DNA analysis showed that thought to be naïve.  It turns out that many avian females “cheat.”  The female has a desire for the male with the flashiest feathers, as these are markers for fitness, but these males make terrible “husbands.”  They know they are good looking and desirable, and they can mate with as many females as they choose, but they have no desire to sit on eggs.  The drab male makes a better, more reliable partner.  He will sit on the eggs and attend to the young.  The female picks him for his fidelity and ability to provide, but (in some species up to 70%) she will still risk having a fling with the “stud.”  But this is dangerous.  For if the drab husband discovers infidelity, he is gone.  He does not want to sit on eggs invested with another male’s DNA.  So the game of Peyton Place is played out continually in bird communities around the world.   If the female is not caught, she can have her cake and eat it too, but the stakes are high, for if she is caught having an “affair,” her eggs will die and her DNA will not enter into the gene pool.  An evolutionary dead end. 


Similar behavior has been found in mammals (including primates) through DNA analysis, where what looks like faithful monogamy is actually not.  This finding has required scientists to make a distinction between Social Monogamy (a pair that lives together where there is cheating) and Genetic Monogamy (a pair who lives together where no cheating occurs). 


Truth is, only 10 – 15% of primates are monogamous, including Gibbons, Siamangs, Owl monkeys, and humans, with most the 300 or so monkey and ape species being promiscuous.  Our closest relatives, Chimpanzees and Bonobos are completely promiscuous, with females mating with as many males as possible.  (At the same time, dominant males do get first access and a much better chance of spreading their genes, and vying for dominance is a central obsession for males).  The mating act in chimps takes a few seconds, and there is no obvious emotional attachment, for as soon as consummation occurs the mated pair goes on their merry way as if nothing much ever happened.  It is the mother who takes care of the eventual infant , and males play no role in raising the young. 


In gorillas, the situation is that of a harem: one male has a number of females with whom he alone copulates.  When young males reach adolescence must leave the colony and go off on their own so they cannot be in competition.  And like hundreds of other animal species, when “kicked out” males bond together in homosexual groups, which ensues until that time some are lucky enough to establish their own harem of females.  But there is no “romantic” attachment that develops between the dominant silverback and any of the females in his group.


Our ancient ancestors were no doubt chimpanzee-like in their behavior, and promiscuous.  So what happened to change this, and when?  (According to DNA analysis, we and chimpanzees diverged some 6 million years ago).  The size difference between males and females (sexual dimorphism) is one indicator of sexual behavior.  Gorillas and Orangutans have the greatest size difference, and they both have harem structures, as well as teeny testicles—their sperm don’t have to compete.  Chimps, who are promiscuous—are in between gorillas and humans in overall relative size between males and females, and the males have absolutely enormous testicles.  Their sperm must compete.  Humans have the least sexual dimorphism of the great apes, males and females are slightly different in size, and humans tend to be pair-bonded.  Human males have testicles larger than Gorillas but much smaller than chimps.  Based on sexual dimorphism, evidence suggest that this pattern goes back some two million years, beginning with Homo Erectus, and existed in both Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens populations.  So, it’s likely that we’ve been pair bonding for a significant amount of time.


If our ancestors began moving from promiscuity to pair bonding, the big question is why?  Every society on earth has pair bonding, but then again, while the “norm” for humans, pair bonding (genetic monogamy) is not practiced in all situations, as our species has sexual mating patterns across the board: harems (one male with many females with whom he exclusively mates), polygamy (one man with multiple wives—two or more), polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands--extremely rare), and various types of promiscuity that include extra-marital affairs while within a pair bond (social monogamy), casual sexual partners (such as paid prostitutes, which were allowed in many societies, but only for men), and homosexual partners that may be exclusive or not. 


Directly related to sex in the animal kingdom is the question of paternity.  Male gorillas, lions, and many other males animals, are known to kill younger offspring not their own when they take over a colony, thereby guaranteeing that the next pregnancies will be of their DNA and not that of other males.  For humans, we have countless cultural artifacts for guaranteeing fidelity, and it is for this reason that the obsession with virginity occurs in virtually every culture on earth.  Whether it be the Virgin Mary, or the White Buffalo Calf Maiden, the cult of the virgin is universal.  In addition, cultural practices, such as marriage, religion, chastity belts, and symbols like the wedding ring, are there to ensure that paternity is known and accurate.  Interestingly enough, the main difference between the great apes and human beings is that males in our species take an active part in raising their children, nearly two decades, and fatherhood demands a tremendous cost from males (as well as females).  There is much more at stake in paternity for human males than for male gorillas and chimps. 


There are various theories to account for this shift toward pair bonding, the most prominent being the raising of children.  Human beings are especially long-lived, and our offspring require years of education to prepare them for the complex social networks of human life and complications of culture.  While other animals have some culture (learned behavior that is passed down to succeeding generations), nothing compares to the culture of homo sapiens—from language to technology— requiring the memorization of history, mythology, hunting and food gathering techniques, maps of landscapes, knowledge of plants and animals, seasons, agriculture, religion, law and codes of conduct, medicine, clothing and adornments, mating customs, as well as all the arts—music, ritual, painting, architecture, and writing.  To exist as a human is not easy.  Thankfully, the unconscious parts of the brain handle much of the learning we need (for instance, no one has to teach us language, which should be the most difficult task of all to learn). 


So, it was advantageous for children to have two parents instead of one.  Those with two prospered more than those with one parent, and it was the two-parent genes that began to appear more and more frequently in the genome of our species, which gave rise to more and more pair-bonding.  But the the earlier promiscuous tendency of our ancestors was not wiped out—rather a new layer of behavioral disposition was added on top of the old.  When it comes to evolution, the old is never erased; the new is just added on.  We also still carry many genes from the ancient past that are there, just turned off—such as having dense body hair—like our ape relatives.  (One of the most surprising things scientists found when uncoding the human genome is that we share 50% of our genes with bananas, a very ancient relative.  For almost all life on earth is related at the genetic level.  Go back far enough and you find a blade of grass and a blue whale share a common ancestor). 


Not only having two parents instead of one was beneficial, but having a grandmother was as well.  The Grandmother Theory states that the reason we are so long-lived is because it was especially advantageous for early humans who had a grandmother to help with the children.  A Grandmother freed a mother from having to watch a young child 24/7, allowing her to do other essential things, like gather food.  Once again, those with living grandmothers tended to survive more than those without, and genes for longer life began to proliferate in our genome.  You can’t have a grandmother without humans living longer, and this is what pushed us in an evolutionary direction to get older than our primate cousins.  (The oldest known chimp lived to be 74 in captivity, while in the wild 40-50 is the typical life expectancy).


What all this means is that the human mating system is a mess—complicated, contradictory, a base of promiscuity going back 30 million years with a two-million old propensity for pair bonding built on top if it, and all of this influenced by culture, which is changing at the speed of light, compared to biology.  Nature and Nurture.  Truth is, we come by sexual confusion naturally.  So, what is natural?  What is right? And what is wrong? 



Dr. Helen Fisher, one of the most respected researchers on the science of love, has come to the conclusion that there are 3 stages of love that are universal in the human species.  She defines these as LUST, ATTRACTION, & ATTACHMENT. 


The evolutionary dice are constantly at play, but there is never an end result in mind.  What matters is each moment of survival and the survival of one’s genes into the future.  Eons of time have gone into programming plants and animals for this way of being, and survival is the primary drive for all living things.  Everything else we do is secondary--playing tennis, or guitar, getting a job, going on a vacation, reading a book.  Whether any of us want to have genetic legacy or not, we are programmed for sex and reproduction.  We don’t have to be conscious of it, for it’s automatic, like breathing air.  Once ignited in a species, desire can take many twists and turns.  For example, animals can, and do at times, become homosexual, but the underlying drive for all sex drive is still reproduction, the same as a heterosexual couple using birth control who are enjoying sex without any thought of conceiving a child.  Nature made sex wondrous as a way of perpetuating life.  If sex wasn’t the most “fun” thing in the universe everything would go extinct. 


It is very important to understand the root motivations behind our behavior, which are hidden from consciousness but drive the whole show.  Our genes are pushing us to be successful, to make money, to be attractive, vigorous, athletic, talented, because all of these are at work to make us desirable, to have greater sexual access, and to ensure our genetic legacy.  Regardless of age, we still want to appear youthful, fertile, with our mojo intact. 




Incredibly powerful chemicals evolved in our brains to ignite the process of Love, and that brain chemistry activates hormones in our bodies to make us feel.  Throughout species, Testosterone and Estrogen are produced to make males and females fall in lust.  This has nothing to do with long-term bonding, but it creates a frenzy of sexual desire.  It is the basic engine of reproduction, revving everything in the body toward one act—that of copulation.   Once the ball is rolling the ball has to go somewhere, but we humans are complicated, and lust alone does not necessarily lead to consummation.  We have layer upon layer of culture, education, religious training, moral codes, conceived to keep our most base instincts at bay.  The courtship process, that will ensue, is wired in us (and in other species) to put the brakes on—to prevent automatic intercourse.  And first, the female must decide if a tryst is worth her time and energy or if it will be a dangerous trap leaving her with no one to sit on the eggs.  Lust is the beginning of madness—Romeo, having just broken up with his previous girlfriend, now sees Juliet, and soon after initially lusting for her, he is hooked—


Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, 
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she. . . .
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eye in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night. (II. ii. 2-6, 19-23) 




The second stage of love consists of both euphoria and agony as new brain chemicals emerge that make us crave our beloved and pine when he or she is gone.

People become extremely energized, mad, obsessive, without sleeping or eating (and indeed, there are many traits in this phase that actually mirror insanity).


Testosterone and Estrogen

These are the underlying engines that motivate sexual desire.  The hypothalamus of the brain stimulates the sex hormones, with both playing a part in men and women (testosterone increases sexual desire in males and females).  Men produce 10 times more testosterone than women.




Known as noradrenalin, this hormone (along with its close relative, Dopamine) brings on giddy, euphoric behavior, an increase in energy, alertness, and also leads to decreased appetite and insomnia.   This hormone makes the heart race—brings on feelings invincibility as the hormone circulates throughout the body, making all systems ready for consummation.




This chemical fuels pursuit, reward, chase, makes us perceive a target—wanting the bull’s eye.  More powerful than cocaine, it makes the object of one’s desire seem the most rare, the fairest in the land, without flaws.  And at this point the brain actually shuts down critical thinking that would sow any doubt regarding one’s love—nature’s way of moving the reproductive process along to its natural conclusion—pregnancy.  Dopamine creates the bliss of the Honeymoon Phase, with cooing, pet name calling, cuddling, and an intimacy that excludes others, but eventually dopamine levels decrease to normal levels, sinking to the lowest point at about 4 years, which leads to a decline in attraction. 


(Helen Fisher has found, through studying tribal societies around the world, that this is a corresponding sharp increase in divorce at 4 years, which also coincides with the child being old enough to no longer need parents keeping a 24/7 watch.  At this point, the child can join the gang of other kids in the village during the day, playing with them, which takes some of the burden away from the parents). 



Oddly enough, serotonin levels drop during the phase of Attraction.  People with OCD also have low serotonin, and the brain in now in a similar state of obsession over the beloved.  The presence of the beloved is the only the cure for this particular disease.  Helen Fisher has warned that Prozac and other anti-depressants that boost serotonin levels actually hinder the process of Love by blunting the obsession necessary to bring a relationship to fruition.  The artificial drug chemically takes the place of one’s lover and the brain no longer senses the need for the real thing.





This chemical, instrumental to the bonding of mother and child, is THE brain chemical of attachment, making us bond with another.  As Darwin pointed out, the mother/child connection is the beginning of love across species, and evolution has used this neurochemical throughout the animal kingdom to create relationships.  It  is released in mammals through breast-feeding, orgasm, and touch.  It is the essential glue holding people together.  But this powerful neurochemical can also lead to extreme jealousy, over-attachment, exclusion of others, clinging behavior, and it can work to undermine the pair-bond if not controlled.  Nature is never a perfect system, never designed, but only an ongoing experiment built upon those who survive, for whatever reason.  It is their genes who enter into the future.  As we have seen, we come by our conflicts naturally.



Vasopressin is the hormone that helps to determine monogamous or promiscuous relationships. While both males and females have vasopressin, it is more prominent in males due to the way it interacts with testosterone.  Studies in voles showed that variations in in receptors between highly related species (meadow voles and prairie voles) lead to promiscuous or monogamous behavior (prairie being strictly monogamous).  Variations in gene coding for vasopressin in humans also help determine if a man will tend toward faithfulness or not.  (Variations in gene RS3 334 affect how men bond with their partners). 




When things fall apart, the brain goes into physical pain that’s the same as getting off an addictive drug or behavior.  This is real.  At the same time, those regions of the brain that activate attachment, craving, longing, and romantic love, are all still alive, so this is a complete breakdown and descent into madness.  It’s not all in your head.  Your brain and body are under assault, but the pain will decrease over time.  There are strategies one can employ to help in the recovery. 


Nature has programmed us for love as part of the mating game, and everyone naturally has the disposition for falling into love addiction.  Love evolved in order for a couple to stay together to raise a child, and there are few things more powerful.  This is why a breakup can seem unbearable and become one of the most painful things that humans endure.  Almost all the Blues songs are about love gone wrong, and poets/songwriters from every culture have dealt with the agony of love through the arts.



While evolution and biology have programmed we humans to go through specific sequences when it comes to love, culture is also a constant that tempers innate impulses. Still, in societies that deny romantic love and freedom to choose, with arranged marriages and stultifying proscriptions for how women and men must behave, the ancient biological patterns still exist, and they will find a way.  A remarkable collection (Songs of Love and War) of contemporary songs from Afghan women who are forced into arranged marriages, whose husbands and sons beat them, and who are made to work in the most incomprehensible conditions where no love exists, shows that even in such a deadening culture where women are never exposed to models of romantic love there is still an incredible longing for it. In this culture, where women see their only way out as suicide, they still write wrench- ing love songs that almost always describe illicit affairs, defying all the powers that be and putting themselves in jeopardy:

You were hiding behind the door,

I was stroking my naked breasts

 and you caught sight of me.


I will gladly give you my mouth,

But why stir my pitcher?

 Here I am now, all wet.


First take me into your arms and hold me close,

Only then will you be

able to join my velvet thighs.

Current science shows that our desire for and reasons for selecting mates involves much more than “rational” choices consciously made by family members or even the lovers themselves. These songs attest to the more powerful and ancient set of biological impulses that are set in motion during puberty. As mentioned previously, longing for romantic love is a universal human phenomenon. While love is built upon the brain-wiring foundations for attachment we see in other animals, in humans that neural wiring has been altered over thousands of generations to become unique. It is nature’s way of flooding the brain with chemicals for both mating and attachment, leading to a kind of intimacy that goes far beyond anything else in the animal world. But it’s a game of high stakes, constant assessment and reassessment, a psychological thriller full of paranoia, all-consuming lust, jealousy, and madness. As Shakespeare said, “If thou remember’st not the slightest folly/That ever love did make thee run into/ Thou hast not loved.” Shakespeare constantly parodied the insanity of love in his plays, from Romeo and Juliet to Twelfth Night, showing us in dramatic form what fools we can become.

In today’s technological stew, with the related necessity of people needing to develop careers that take many years to foster, culture is shaping how the biology of love will be played out.  For many women and men the demands of college and career mean that childbearing is put off to a later and later date.  The exception is with those involved in fundamental religious communities where sex before marriage is still frowned upon and early marriage is promoted.  But the greater societal shift in dating practices seems to mimic those of the Playboy era of the 50s and the Free Sex era of the 60s, with some alterations.  People in their teens and twenties tend to hang out in mixed groups where boys and girls are friends and equals (this is certainly a change from the earlier sexual revolutions, where women were still looked upon as second class citizens), and hookups are the name of the game.  For many, a sexual encounter is seen as a thing of the moment, and the default expectation is that there isn’t any.  The hookup culture attempts to keep emotional involvement to a minimum, lasting just the night.  But, of course, neurochemicals will be released during sex that still have a powerful affect toward attachment and must be kept at bay through conscious attempts to override them.  When asked, most young women in their 20s involved in hookups still dream of an eventual marriage in the future, with a cake, gown, and a faithful husband.  So the dream of monogamy is not dead.  While another factor in today’s non-attached love culture, as mentioned previously, is the widespread use of serotonin-uptake-inhibitors, such as Prozac and Zoloft, where the neurochemical takes the place of flesh and blood interactions.

The prevalence of divorce has also changed the way people in Western culture deal with love.  With religion greatly diminished, there is freedom to break up a relationship, even one with kids, that did not exist a generation or two ago.  The definition of family has also changed, now including “blended” families and familial relationship patterns such as polygamy, serial monogamy, gay and lesbian marriage, and more.  Humans have always been experimental, but now our varieties of entanglement are relatively out in the open.  One informant from Dallas, said that in upper class circles of that notoriously conservative city the trend today is for people to stay married while still having multiple sexual partners on the side.  These are still somewhat covert, yet they seem to be commonplace and generally accepted.    Ironically, as different types of pairing are allowed, at the same time, across the United States more people are living alone than ever have before, and more people are having less sex than every before.  At the same time, an odd exception is the elderly in senior communitiies, where venereal diseases has skyrocketed as the bounds of traditional relationships, through either death or divorce, have left many seniors free to pursue numerous sexual partners.

But probably nothing has changed the culture of love and courtship in the last 15 years as much as Online dating, with 40 million American now participating in online dating sites, with nearly early 19% of today’s relationships being formed initially online, compared to friends (17%), college acquaintances (15%), and people met at work (12%).  Many online daters are people who have raised families, gotten divorced, and are now finding themselves in unknown territory, where rules and expectations are not clear.  As digital media has changed the way we read (our eyes quickly scanning the screen, picking up keywords without reading closely), we also scan online dating sites, glancing  at photos (mostly of poor quality), while trying to assess if this person would be a good date, a one-night stand, or a permanent partner.  It’s put millions of human beings in a quandary.  For, are our intuitions sound or mere fantasy?  Is there any correlation between a face shot and what we believe that face to represent?  Studies have shown that (of course) when we see a very good-looking individual the neurochemical dopamine is released into the brain.  (By now, most people are aware of the fact that “beauty” (symmetry, the golden triangle, youth, clear skin, attractive body proportions often signal health and fertility, which is why nature made us find these traits attractive in the first place). There is a visceral effect in the brain and body when we see a pretty person.  But of course that does not predict that a successful relationship will ensue.  Beyond the lust stage there has to be more—an intellectual and emotional connection built upon numerous components and interests. 

 Still, looks matter.  Anyone who has embarked upon online dating has experienced the scan—the half second evaluations that trigger a yes or no.  We think that we are making logical judgements based upon reliable intuitions, that someone looks intelligent or not, for instance.  But studies have found that women’s intuitions in correlating facial traits with intelligence in men tend to be accurate, the opposite is not true for men.  A possible explanation for this has to do with the different mating strategies men and women employ, due to biology and evolution.   


Women prefer dominant men as extra-pair sexual partners while at the same time they seek men who are more willing to invest in their offspring as long-term or social partners [52].  It is known that while in the fertile phase of cycle and probably in search of good genes, women prefer creative intelligence to wealth especially in short-term mating [18].  On the other hand, a woman seeking a long term relationship could prefer a less intelligent but honest man, who compensates by long term provisioning, protection and a greater investment in childrearing. (

Overall, studies of online dating show that men judge more on looks, while women judge more on income.  )  And this follows a pattern seen in all dating throughout the world.  As a woman finds herself closer to commitment, financial security trumps looks and intelligence, while men remain constant on looks as their number one criteria. 

by David Williams








Our species, alone in the animal kingdom, searches and demands answers to these questions,

and they are still the primary questions we ask.  In primordial times, after the rise of language, people made up songs, stories, myths, that explained their origins, as well as their place in the universe. This was the imagination at work in brains that had become massive, packed with 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synaptic connections—brains that mapped the physical and social environments—causing us to ponder in ways none of our relations had ever been able to do before.


But eons prior to that, even our most distant animal relatives were intuitively aware of cause and effect—you do this and such is likely to happen. Climb a tree to get away from a leopard and you might not end up as a meal.  Pick a ripe fruit, eat it, and feel good.  And, our hunting relatives knew it took stealth to secure prey.  Intuitively, they had to imagine a story without words, one that featured an actor, a verb, and an object: I have to sneak up on this little monkey, snatch it in a nanosecond, and bite its head off (the preferred method of eating meat by chimps), without getting attacked myself.  If the hunt succeeded, our ancient ape relative got a delicious protein snack high in fats, and all due to a plan.  For hunting takes insight as well as persistence, which is why predators have tended to evolve larger brains than herbivores. Survival depended upon them figuring out their moves ahead of time, creating a narrative. But that was not the only force that led to super brains on the planet.  Evolving the largest brains on the planet was the result of something else.


We can thank our Haplorrhine ancestors for our super brains, as this line of apes diverged from the Strepsirrhin line some 74 million years ago, and they began to develop extraordinarily large frontal cortexes, larger than those found even in the smartest carnivores. The main theory for why this happened is Social.  It takes a big brain to figure out what the other members of one’s flock, troop, or pod, are up to.  Increased brain development seems to have stemmed from the need to comprehend intricate social relationships.  Survival in a group depends upon being cognizant of what is going on in your immediate community.  Keeping track of other intelligent beings within a social group of 100 or so individuals (as in chimps, orangutans, gorillas, dolphins, elephants, pigs) seems to have been the leading factor that pushed intelligence to its highest levels, as the answers to these questions had to be known:


Who is doing what to whom, who is on top and who is at bottom, who is having sex with whom and who might have sex with me, who can I trust to form an alliance; who might give me food if I need it; who will steal my food from underneath my nose; who will allow me to groom then and thereby allow me rise up the social ladder; who will stab me in the back?


In addition, Pair-Bonding, in social mammals and birds, was another strong driver for brain growth, for navigating the requirements necessary for mating rituals and an ongoing

relationship takes finesse (parrots, crows, gibbons, for example). Of course, in our species pair-bonding (almost unique among primates, only some 3%) also arose as a mating strategy, further upping the ante for continued brain power.


These likely factors fueled intelligence as we moved from ape-women and ape-men toward more recognizable human forms.  But there was never any demarcation line in evolution where Apekind suddenly became Mankind.  Even today, we retain our primate traits, from our opposable thumbs and ability to brachiate, to the wiring in our brains.  It was a slow and gradual process over the course of millions of years that led to us.  And as our species became more intelligent and aware (categorizing the natural word through language, developing ever more complicated cultures) the concept of Intention become an ever more important tool for assessing the social and physical landscape.


Understanding Intention requires having a Theory of Mind, an intuitive understanding that other members of one’s group are mentally similar—that others besides yourself also have desires, motivations, and agendas.  Since the Group is necessary for social animals to exist in a hostile environment, keeping in the good graces of others is essential, but it takes savvy, skill, and a great deal of diplomacy.  While other social animals (apes, birds, and dogs) exhibit Theory of Mind, in homo sapiens this trait became ever more pronounced in our attempt to figure each other out.  But eventually the Theory of Mind concept jumped from the Social to the Physical world, as a way of explaining nature itself. 


If a rock was hurled at you, it made common sense to believe there intention behind it (since rocks do not usually behave like this on their own).  That required a Being not unlike yourself, to have set the ominous act in motion.  SOMEONE (subject or actor) HAS TO DO (verb) something to SOMEONE ELSE (object).  This is Story, and it is embedded in the very structure of language.  The rock thrower had to be someone with a mind that was deliberate and willful.

The Mythic Mind was born and the Theory of Mind expanded.  Primal people began to think that all things were alive, inhabited by an animating spirit that possessed intention (a rather profound belief).  When it rained or snowed, when lightning stuck a forest, an earthquake shook the earth, it was because SOMEONE caused it to happen.  Hence, the gods were born as the unseen actors, and they began to take on more and more prominence as human cultures advanced.  But the gods were universally devoid of any discernible moral sense.  Instead, they tended to have the same attributes as the humans who created them—angry, jealous, cross, revengeful, sexually desirous (male gods often lusted after human females and sometimes mated with them), petty, while occasionally showing benevolence. The characteristics of the gods branched out into Polytheism, with each deity representing a different part of the human psyche. 


The Mythic Mind created a universe that plugged us into something greater than ourselves.  No longer did humans just live and die like other animals and our chimpanzee cousins, for now we lived in a cascade of ideas, stories, and songs (which acted as magical tools for every aspect of life.  These gave people a life filled with purpose. Everything became symbolic, a representation of divine revelation, as religion became a more prominent force.  Applying Intention to the universe brought order out of chaos, for there was now a reason behind every cause and effect.  Being responsible for the world, the gods could also now be placated, appealed to, and spiritual specialists emerged, shamans, who found ways to enter and return from the spiritual world with advice and wisdom.  Priestly classes arose as humans shifted from living as egalitarian hunters and gatherers (the way humans had since the beginning of time) to agriculturists, city dwellers living in state level societies with new categories that formally encoded hierarchy and status into caste systems—dividing people into—farmers, bosses, laborers, royalty, artisans, soldiers in standing armies.  In these societies, the gods could be appealed to through gifts to a priestly caste, who served as intermediaries between the mortal and the divine.  Sacrificing a sheep or a goat or a chicken became the act that might appease an immortal deity.  


People figured things out in every culture—but in different ways.  Now there were answers good enough for people to get by in their daily lives, but the answers were usually wrong.  For no one had figured out that Verification might be a sound idea.  People in societies around the world (not all) believed any made-up story of the culture in which they were raised, stories that had nothing in common with each other.  From the Greek—a Cosmic Egg were birthed Gaea (Earth) and Uranus (Sky), deities who created the earth, its creatures as well as the Sun, Moon, and Stars.  From the Hopi—Spider Woman, a goddess, realized that the other gods who had created humans and animals did not make them alive, so she gave them souls. From the Aztecs—they had to feed the god Huitzilopochtli with human hearts and blood in order to keep the sun moving across the sky.  There are hundreds and hundreds of Creation Stories that include archetypal gods and demi-gods who brought forth the stuff of life in different ways.  


Science could have erupted as early as 460 BCE, when the Greek philosopher, Democritus, refined ideas of matter (originated by his teacher, Leucippus) into a materialist view of the natural world.  The atomists believed that atoms were the smallest indivisible bodies from which everything else was composed.  But it would take until 1543 for the Copernican Revolution to get a toehold in Europe, ushering in the Age of Science, and another hundred years, 1688, to begin The Age of Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the Dark Ages intruded during the 2,000 years between Democritus and Copernicus, as the power of religion began to strangle any line of thought the contradicted what was revealed by God.  No verification was required in religious belief, only faith.  But the Scientific Method demanded verification of any theory, as well as experimentation, leading to results that could be repeated anywhere in the world, and the requirement for peer review, and a dispassionate examination of evidence.  In opposition to the religious mythology (especially once inscribed), science was open ended—for new evidence constantly required that scientific theories be updated, so that the truest representation of nature might be realized.  And Science would only consider natural causation in the explanation of physical phenomenon.  Magical thinking, the mystical mindset, the supernatural, and the magical, were abandoned as relics from a more primitive time.


Stories and songs arose naturally in the human mind, but the Scientific Method did not. For hundreds of thousands of years people lived in the state of the Mythic Mind, but the Scientific Method required a rigorous thought process that was unlike weaving a tale.  The Mythic Mind appealed to emotion, but the Scientific Method did not.  Science demanded a dispassionate, unemotional, approach.  Regardless of the fact that Science led to new medicines and technologies, eventually leading to unbelievable inventions (airplanes, smartphones, AI), the Mythic Mind did not vanish from the face of the earth. In truth Science and the Mythic Mind have continued to exist side-by-side in most societies around the world, as many people seem able to compartmentalize the two without ever addressing their contradictions.  


What does all this tell us about Human Nature?  Many religions (not all) insist we are created in the image of God, and animated by souls that will retain everlasting life.  In this sense, we are born as innocent Blank Slates (with the exception of the contrary idea in Christianity that we are also born as tainted sinners due to our Fall from the grace in the Garden).  And a blank slate implies that everyone has basically the same chances for success or failure, that who we eventually become is the result of Learning, Self-Discipline, and our own Virtue, or lack of it (Aristotle).  Science, on the other hand (going back to the materialist view of Democritus) has no use for the soul, or sin, or fables with no footing in fact.  Science does not need a god to explain existence, and it approaches questions of Human Nature from an atomistic view.  Darwin and Wallace’s Theory of Evolution, which emerged in the mid 1800s, explained who we are and how we got here through Natural and Sexual Selection.  According to Science, we are the result of all the forces of nature that ever proceeded us, the result of every movement of every particle or wave going back to the Big Bang.  Though made of Star Dust, Science does not believe we have Free Will, one of the cornerstones of Christian theology.  For Science, we have no more Free Will than a rock, if everything that came before us led to the moment we are in, the thought we are having, or had, or the actions that we take, or will.  Science does not offer emotional support.  Where the Mythic Mind plugged us into purpose with a cosmos ruled by divine and intelligent beings, the Laws of Nature do not come with emotional baggage: no congregational singing, no tent meetings.  The afterlife vanishes.  We are born and we die.  In this sense we were no better off than our earlier Apekind.  So, it’s no wonder that even as humans delight in their electronics, their meds, their freedom to soar through the sky, Science is not very popular.  The proportion of the population in the US who are Scientifically Literate remains at only 28%.  A huge chunk of the populous just eliminates science from their worldview.  They don’t want to think about it. Faith does the trick with much less struggle than plowing through the Scientific Method.  And faith gives us hope. 


Yet, Science has destroyed many of the superstitions that haunted our species.  We no longer burn women at the stake for being witches.  We no longer chant over a person with cancer while beating a drum, hoping for divine intervention.  We no longer accept that millions must die of disease because it is “God’s will.”  We no longer give sacrifices of hearts to a sun god.  We no longer attribute disease or mental illness to spirit possession.  We no longer toss virgins into a volcano. And so on.  We live in two worlds.  Mythic and Rational.  But the Rational exists in a fragile state, for as Carl Sagan warned us many years ago, we are always in danger of the Dark Ages coming back, closing the door on Science.  We see the denial of Climate Change, the denial of History, the rise of insane Conspiracy Theories, which point to just how close we are to disaster.  Racial hatred, hatred of LBGTQ, hatred of ALL Others, ideas that have no relation to rational thinking, contribute greatly to the current escalation of fascism, exposing the fact that we have learned very little in our long journey across the globe.  Science tells us that we are all one species, arising originally from Africa, and that all of our differences are actually minute.  For all humans share 99.9% of our genetic makeup.  We live on common ground. 


So, Where Are We Going?  Where will our crazy Human Nature take us?  We don’t know.  But wherever it is, we will still carry the bodies and brains of our ancestors, even as we march into a Brave New World.  And how we interpret Human Nature is crucial if we want totackle any of the problems we face, from environmental to social.  Since we seem to learn nothing from History, we can still learn about who we are through studying our instincts and dispositions.  Neuroscience has opened the door for us to examine the brain in real time, challenging age-old paradigms shown now to be false.  Breakthroughs in genetics have done the same, helping us see the components that lead to many of our individual psychological problems, our physical quirks, our diseases, and our strengths.  And though there is still a Denial of Human Nature in some areas of the academic life as well as in the general public, in the scientific community there is no longer a debate between Nature or Nurture.  In the world of Science it’s generally accepted that genetics has the upper hand in forming who we are, maybe 60%, while culture and learning still play a significant part, but possibly as low as 40%.  This is a complete reversal of the Blank Slate that permeated our culture only a few years ago—a major understanding of who we are has completely shifted.


But this paradigm shift has many implications that must be considered, such as, Are we truly responsible for our behavior if we’re programmed by our genes and Free Will is gone?  We must continually reconsider Human Nature as science reveals more about who we are and what makes us tick, as Human Nature is the silent specter behind everything we do.  Our motivations, as well as our behavior, can no longer be seen as just a matter of self-determination.  It’s a complicated story, and the more we learn the more we see how many of our past beliefs were wrong—like old divisions between Emotion and Logic, which don’t hold up (even as Science demands a dispassionate approach).  Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says, “We are feeling machines that think, not thinking machines that feel.”  This means we must honestly reassess ourselves and become aware of what it will take to create healthy societies and to right our wrongs, as appeals to Reason continually fail.  There is much to sort through, but even without the Magical Thinking there can be hope--hope we can elevate ourselves, as Lincoln said, into “the better angels of our nature.”  And we can create purpose independent of the supernatural.  For imagining a Human Nature devoid of Free Will does not mean we are stagnant—only that what came before affects the now and the now hereafter. 


But WHY will always lie outside the purview of Science, even if science can help inform our opinions, for there is no experiment that will quantify WHY ANYTHING EXISTS.  In that sense we must always live in Mystery.  But confronting Human Nature we can do, which now means tackling a diversity of disciplines with our oft-jumbled minds.  For just like the gods we created, each of us is a mess of contradictions.  Research into the brain does not reveal a solid “self,” but rather a jelly-like organ full of many competing and contradictory circuits.  This is the very brain that created the fictional worlds we live in, such as money, politics, religion, and mythology, as our thoughts run simultaneously in opposite directions, with both Rationality and Emotion intertwined.  And even if Artificial Intelligence, with its laser ability to instantly embrace the entire world of information and knowledge, solves some of the problems that have vexed us throughout time, in the end we humans must still exist with our ancient impulses, endowed from evolution, which will ultimately determine our fate.  A new and constant reassessment of Human Nature is in drastically in order if we are to fix the many messes we have made, the many bombs we have devised. Our survival depends upon it.  

bottom of page