The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Entertaining Ideas: Charles Knott

What is the Human Species?

One of the fundamental questions The Grapevine attempts to answer is "What does it mean to be human?" I have been reading a book by Dr. Anthony Stevens, a physician and Jungian analyst, who points out how important it is that anyone who wants to understand human behavior have a baseline concept of what humans are when they are living balanced lives at one with their own nature and at one with the environment. While thinking about these things, an interesting memory from childhood came to me.

My father attended a conference held by the corporation he worked for. The number in attendance was so large that the conference had to be held in a rented movie theater. When the conference began, the speaker flashed the image of a man's face on the screen and asked who in the audience knew him. There was a long moment of silence, then the audience began murmuring, and then murmuring more loudly and more impatiently. It seems everyone felt they knew this man, but nobody could positively identify him.

The mystery was resolved when the speaker confessed that there was a hidden camera at the entrance to the theater and that a photograph had been taken of the face of each man who entered. These photographs were then merged into a single image. So the face on the screen was the face of every man in the room, but seen at once, collectively. The men were so much alike as humans that their slight differences blended seamlessly into Everyman.

The depth psychology of C.G. Jung posits that operative in all of us is a composite of all the human lives ever lived; that composite, which also integrates the experience of evolution, functions in relation to our individuality, or ego. It functions autonomously and separately and actively communicates with us throughout every moment of our lives whether we are aware of it or not--and we very often are not. Jung refers to this composite, psychological organ, or separate mind, standing outside time and space, as the collective unconscious. He often personifies it as a two million-year-old person, or Self, who lives in intimate, continuous relationship with our personal self, or ego.

The Two Million-Year-old Self is the title of the book I have been reading and rereading by Dr. Stevens, who entertains in the book, in addition to material from Jung’s work, some relevant ideas from evolutionary anthropology.

As I think about the ideas presented by Stevens, I remember a peculiar moment of my own at Zoo Atlanta. Believe it or not, our beloved gorilla Willie B. and I were once members of the same wedding party! One of the zoo keepers (the one assigned to Willie B) and his bride chose to take their vows at the zoo, near Willie B.'s open air habitat. About the time the man said "I do!" we could hear the gorilla’s bellow coming at us from the short distance away. I turned to see him beating his chest as if to say, Be a strong mate!

Some time after that I stood in front of the cage of Willie B. and looked at him looking at me. But then I did my best to look at myself through his eyes. As a creature who had gazed at a huge number of people passing before his quarters at the zoo, what was he seeing now as he looked at me against all his accumulated impressions of my species? I wondered how he was sizing me up. I also wondered what he thought of the similarities and differences between our species, specifically, the difference between himself and me. I could feel some communication between us. He seems to me now to be an emblem of the two million-year-old Self, which, according to Jung, is the source of our dreams; our dreams are commentaries by the Self on our individual lives, past, present and future. The impact and purpose of dreams often is to nudge us back towards some base line of proper human functioning when we go too far astray.

What does the two million-year-old Self think of you and me and the lives we are living? If we would know, we must observe our dreams.

What I am about to say is yet another digression, but stay with me--that's how my mind works, and what I'm saying might eventually make sense.

I like animal shows on cable television. I especially like to watch people handle dangerous animals. I confess that recently I watched "Gator Boys," and, as usual, was absolutely fascinated. Then one of the boys made the point that wrestling a gator is not as hard as it looks "because they always do the same thing." Here was an important secret: the alligator has an extremely limited repertoire of behaviors. In other words, presented with the same situation, it always makes the same moves. If you want to wrestle it, you can always win simply by making the right countermoves. I don't wrestle gators myself, nor was meant to, but now at least I know the Gator Boys' secret. And I generalize from this to say that one way of defining a species is by cataloging its repertoire of ingrained or hardwired behaviors. What is an alligator? It's an animal that looks like and behaves exactly and predictably like--well, like all other alligators. I'm sure there are minor differences, but all alligators are so alike that the Gator Boys can wrestle any of them and win.

But, putting gators aside, is there a human repertoire of behaviors? Can they be catalogued, and do they make all humans alike in a broad sense that is called "human culture"? Jung takes up the question and argues that the range of human behaviors is large, but finite. Jung wrote,

Although the changing situations of life must appear infinitely various to our way of thinking, that possible number never exceeds certain natural limits; they fall into more or less typical patterns that repeat themselves over and over again (as cited by Stevens, p. 14).

He calls these typical patterns "archetypes," and says they correspond to the "average run of events" in human life. He writes elsewhere that the archetype is an image of instinct: that the appearance of a particular image, either from without or from within, releases predictable instinctive behaviors in humans. Stevens says archetypes "choreograph the basic patterns we dance to throughout life" (p. 10).

An example comes to mind of a situation in my own life that constellated an archetype: I walked past the entrance to a department store just as an unattended toddler walked out of the store, across the sidewalk, and towards a street roaring with traffic. Instantly, I leapt forward and scooped up the child in my arms. The archetypal image of a child walking towards danger, as they have done throughout human history, released instinctual rescue behavior in me.

Like the alligator, we are programmed--in this case, I was responding to my ancient programming to protect a child approaching danger. I didn't have to think about it; I just did it because I was seized by an overwhelming compulsion. This irresistible compulsion was instinctual energy released by the appearance in my perceptual system of an archetypal visual image.

We don't have to think about such things—we react reflexively. My decision to react was made for me eons ago, and for the sake of the endangered child I did not need to waste time thinking and reinventing that decision. I reacted predictably, with the reflexivity of the animal that I am.

How many such behavioral and emotional responses are hardwired into the human organism? Answering this question tells us a great deal about what it means to be human.

It has often been said that humans are animals that create culture, and Robin Fox (1975) points out that the cultures we create are identical in their broad outlines. According to Fox,

No human culture is known that lacks laws about property, procedures for settling disputes, rules governing courtship, marriage, and adultery, taboos relating to food and incest, rules of etiquette prescribing forms of greeting and modes of address, the manufacture of tools and weapons, cooperative labor, visiting, feasting, hospitality, gift giving, the performance of funeral rites, beliefs and the supernatural, religious rituals, the recital of myths and legends, dancing, mental illness, faith healing, dream interpretation, and so on (as cited by Stevens, p. 15).

There are those who argue that these behaviors are learned after birth, but I believe it is self-evident that all humans learn and express these cultural norms more or less instantly and automatically upon being exposed to them; therefore, I believe humans are, at the very least, predisposed to learn them--in other words, the potential for learning these norms is inherited and readily available when the time for learning arrives. The easiest "for instance" that makes this case is the ease with which young children master their native language.

No adult can master a new language as rapidly and efficiently as a child masters his or her own native language. This process in the child involves "learning," and "environment," but it is learning greatly assisted by genetic inheritance, which includes biological, or instinctual/archetypal readiness to master the task. Once that readiness disappears a few years later, learning a new language is immeasurably more difficult.

There are scientists who deny the archetypal theory and claim that all biological organisms begin life as a blank slate and learn everything they ever know by a process of trial and error and reward and punishment, but despite their brilliant contributions to learning theory--they can teach pigeons to do truly remarkable things--the case against this behaviorist belief in the so-called tabula rasa, or blank slate, is overwhelming. Any adult who has ever tried to master a new language as rapidly as a toddler masters his or her native tongue will agree. The toddler always wins because the toddler has the archetypal advantage. The biological readiness, by virtue of evolutionary inheritance, in undeniable.

Even experimental psychologists who train animals in order to study and illustrate learning theory can only train them by elaborating "species-specific" behaviors. Hence, you can teach a chicken to dance because a chicken naturally scratches the ground; the scratching can be modified through rewards and punishments for moving this way and not that way until something that looks like a dance results. But you can't teach an animal to do something that does not resemble what it is already programmed to do. For example, my Black Lab was a great bird hunter, but could not be taught to guard the house—he was always roaming around somewhere else and was not suspicious of strangers; my bulldog was a great watchdog, but could not be taught to hunt birds—he was unhappy any time he was forced to leave the yard and, since birds were not trying to break into the house, they were quite irrelevant to him.

So, what is the Self—that is, the place where the behavioral release mechanisms, or archetypes, reside? We can answer this question by analyzing our present behavior, but we need to see it against a background of our evolutionary past, because our behaviors do not arise only from what each individual has learned since birth. Stevens argues that they arise from our psychological and physiological inheritance, i.e., our evolutionary past, or what Robin Fox calls "the basic social parameters of the environment of human adaptedness." Answering the question of what humans were like when they were really at one with themselves and the world around them, functioning as they are meant to function, Fox believes this basic state was found in the Late Paleolithic age, some 15,000 to 40,000 years ago. He says at that point we were fully formed modern homo sapiens sapiens; we had reached the top of the food chain and were doing quite a bit better than the other carnivores. But then, it all began to go wrong .... (as cited by Stevens, p. 66).

Fox argues that in the Upper Paleolithic age a balance existed between the organism, the social system, and the environment. In other words, it was the human situation as it was meant to be. Life was no doubt extremely difficult and brief, but the individual life was in balance with its group and with the natural environment. Fox believes that the organic group in which our species lived for 99.5% of its existence consisted of about 40 to 50 individuals, made up of approximately 6 to 10 adult males, about twice that number of childbearing females, and about 20 juveniles and infants. These were extended kinship groups, constituting "the archetypal society of our kind."

Fox believes these groups did not function in isolation, but came into frequent contact with other similar groups—

... hence the universal human rituals of greeting, visiting, feasting, making alliances, marrying, and warring. These compact, extended kinship groups of 40 to 50 members knew one another intimately and shared the same values, rules, customs, and mores, their beliefs being sustained by myth, ritual, and religion. In all of them the family was the central institution, whether polygamous, monogamous, or polyandrous (as cited by Stevens, p. 67).

Then two things happened to disturb this balance: The ice age, which forced large numbers of peoples in southwest Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia to live in much closer proximity, and the discovery of agriculture and animal husbandry. These changes brought about "civilized societies--e.g., classes, castes, power elites, armies, empires, and the exploitation of subject peoples.” These changes clashed with the previous life style that had fulfilled the social needs of the paleolithic mind. What we call history "is merely the most recent catalogue of the products of this collision” (Fox, as discussed by Stevens, pp.66-67).

And, as for dreams, from this perspective, they are commentaries on our lives made from the vantage point of the collective paleolithic mind within us that lives in relation to the modern ego. It is known as the collective unconscious and is often personified as a creature. Again, dreams are expressions of the archetypes, and archetypes are inherited modes of behavior, hard wired into our brains through evolutionary patterns of adaptation from our paleothic past. Dreams, made up of the images produced by the archetypes, often make corrective commentary on our lives. Speaking from our evolutionary past, they comment nightly and council us not to stray too far from the values and habits established during tribal living as hunter/gatherers.

Of course, we must also keep in mind that the brain of the hunter/ gatherer was itself the product of evolution through various stages of reptilian and mammalian life, and those energies are still present in us as "the triune brain." So, taking into account successive, still-functioning evolutionary layers of the human brain, each of us is also a crocodile and a horse! (MacLean, 1973, as cited by Stevens, p.21)

What does Willie B. think about me and the life I'm living? Where, according to him, do I succeed and where do I miss the mark? He tells me each night in my dreams. The Old Wise Man who makes his influence felt in our dreams is a composite of a crocodile, a horse, an ape and a tribal elder speaking to us from the Upper Paleolithic age, the last time in our history when, according to these arguments, we lived properly balanced lives.

I suspect we ignore the nightly counsel of Willie B. at our peril.


Fox, Robin. Encounter with Anthropology. London: Peregrine, 1975.

________. The Search for Society. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

MacLean, Paul . The Triune Concept of the Brain and Behavior, edited by T.J. Boag and D. Campbel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973.

Stevens, Anthony. The Two Million-Year-Old Self. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1993.

Copyright 2014, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.