Let us begin this discussion of our behavioral foundations with the origination of our species.
Modern humans fall into the Kingdom of Animalia, order of Primates, suborder Anthropoidea, which contains Hominoidea, which includes comprehending apes, Pongidae, and hominids, Hominidae. According to evolutionary evidence, hominids diverged from their genetic cousins, the apes, some 5 million years ago. (The Human Dawn, Time-Life Books, 1990, p. 23) The early hominids seemed to live primarily in Africa.
Approximately 2 million years ago, hominids then divided into two genera, Australopithecines and Homo. The Genus Homo distinguished themselves by their ability to make tools. Because this was so long ago the only tools that we can find are stone tools, mostly made from flint. It is from these stone tools that archaeologists can trace a cultural development.
In a broader sense the Genus Homo had a capacity for technology, which other creatures did not. Although tools and technology are similar, there is a basic difference. Some animals use objects in their environment to their advantage. Some humans might create a unique tool that works very well. However, it is not technology unless it is transmitted culturally. While many animals might use a tool to accomplish something, the Homo was able to create a tool and transmit this information to the next generation of Homos. This ability to transmit information across generations we will call technology.
Most animal transmission is genetic. The mothers of our closest animal friends, the cats and dogs, teach their offspring all they need to know in less than a year. The creature, whose biology is most fit for his ecology, will likely breed and transmit this fit gene pool to the next generation. While this type of genetic transmission is active in the evolution of the species Homo, culture itself becomes a factor in the process. Many scientists believe that it was culture selecting for memory and the ability to communicate that rapidly transformed the primitive homo habilis into homo sapiens sapiens. Due to its connection to natural selection and thereby genetics, cultural transmission assumes an incredible importance for the homo species.
Cultural transmission from the most primitive Homo onward has always included technology,. While we can only guess about the culture of the early homos, we do know that they transmitted their stone technology from generation to generation for millions of years. Thus, in some ways, the Homo species could be called the technological animal.
Technology is more than the using or making of tools. It is the cultural transmission of tool making. As such, technology is intimately linked to culture. In a similar way, the genus homo is linked to culture. Originally it was thought that because of humans came culture, but it is now realized that humans can’t exist without culture. What this acknowledges is that every Homo, including the first, passed down a tool technology. This tool technology, itself, favored certain homo branches over others in terms of evolution. Over millions of years, technology based upon cultural transmission provided a significant selection mechanism for the evolution of the homo genus.
Culture does not have to include technology. However technology grants an evolutionary advantage. Hence it is technology that binds cultures together. The art forms or religious manifestations are also important cultural glue, but do not necessarily grant an advantage. A superior technology enables human societies to survive, thrive, and dominate others.
We always hope that the morally ‘good’ culture wins out. But, as we shall see time and again, the morality of compassion, cooperation, and treating all people with respect has very little to do with cultural survival. Conversely, technology has everything to do with it, specifically the military application. While the competition for cultural survival led to a relatively steady evolution of technology, especially military, this same cultural competition frequently led to the devolution of human rights, as we shall see.
In the competition of species for an ecological niche, the more fit survives and the less fit becomes extinct. Fit has a number of meanings. First it can mean the creature that propagates more or is better able to feed itself because of speed or other attributes. This fit is based upon neutral competition. The second type of ‘fit’ has to do with aggressive competition. Here one species attempts to exterminate all other species competing for the same ecological niche. While the first ‘fit’ applies to the prey, the second ‘fit’ is appropriate to the predator.
While the smaller deer may have been able to escape the larger predators by its swiftness and ability to hide, it did not systematically attempt to sabotage the larger deer in order to have the ecosystem all to themselves. While occurring in certain other animals, this systematic destruction of species in the same ecological niche seems to be especially true of the Homo species, as we shall see. This ecological warfare that Homo has waged has served to put him in a dominant position upon the earth, while simultaneously threatening the very eco-system that he has encouraged.
One last point before we move on, cultures tend to hold onto their technology over their beliefs. A few items support this viewpoint. We shall see that Stone Age technology was consistent over a diverse geography for hundreds of thousands years. This same stone technology was even spread between subspecies of the homo species. The only way that the traditional technology changed was through the introduction of a ‘new and improved’ skill.
Furthermore we shall see that an old technology would regularly be adapted to fit the environment rather than originating a new skill to deal with new problems. Rarely do humans abandon their technology. Over the thousands of years that humans have been around, we see an incredible diversity of religious expression, while seeing a relatively limited range of technological expression. Furthermore while religious conversion is a complicated and uncertain process, technological conversion is almost immediate. While the amount of religious diversity is mind-boggling in modern times, our technology of cars, computers, CD players, and TVs is globally consistent. It is evident that holding onto our technology is incredibly important to Genus Homo.
Like an organism, culture attempts to preserve itself. In this light, the human being frequently considers the existence of the culture as more important than his very life.
This is similar to the Wolf Pack where the wolves will sacrifice themselves for the Pack in order to kill the larger elk. One wolf will grab onto the neck of the elk. In a death grip, he doesn’t let go but is shaken to death by the elk. But the damage is done. The elk bleeds to death, feeding the Pack and furthering their survival. The individual wolf willingly gives his life for the collective Pack.
Humans are similar in their devotion to family, clan, tribe, city, or country. Many men will say that if they didn’t risk their lives to protect their family, they wouldn’t be able to live with the guilt. Judas Iscariot commits suicide after betraying his friend, Jesus, for money. This is a common theme in literature. Due to guilt, the betrayer of family or friends or country drinks himself to death or otherwise behaves in self-destructive fashion. The point here is that individual humans are of less worth than the collective culture, even unto themselves. Human beings will regularly sacrifice themselves for a greater cultural cause. This is a built in human universal, not specific to unique societies.
Although not held together by a cell wall, the larger social structure behaves as an organism. Built into our deep genetic programming is the idea of sacrifice for the collective organism. As an example, soldiers risk their lives to protect the culture. Although there are always personal reasons for joining the army, such as potential for fame, glory and adventure, the underlying motivation is the preservation of culture. Indeed the adulation and glorification that accompanies this self-sacrifice for the whole is based upon the ratification of behavior that furthers the existence of the social organism, not the self. In this sense, we are born to serve the collective cultural organism rather than our own individual needs.
The urge for self-preservation certainly applies to every creature. However, the species and culture have a greater drive for self-preservation than does its parts, i.e. the individuals it consists of. In many instances, the being will experience self-destruction for the good of the whole, whether bee, ant, or soldier in the army. Society even praises the warrior for his suicidal behavior, if it furthers cultural survival. Cultural continuation rates far higher than individual survival for most humans.
How noble; how inspiring; how brave. These phrases, indeed these emotions, are there to ensure species preservation, not to ensure personal preservation. Selfish, self-serving, only thinking of himself, are just some of the pejoratives used for those who won’t sacrifice or compromise themselves for the Greater Good. Preservation of culture is regularly perceived as more important than preservation of self. This motivating factor is huge for human beings.
In some ways, this trait goes back to when animals broke away from plants in the genetic scheme of things. Plants only procreate for preservation. They don’t sacrifice themselves for the whole. Animals are quite different in this regard. Ants and bees sacrifice themselves to protect the queen. The parents of many species will voluntarily give their lives to protect their offspring. For animals that depend upon a social network for survival, defending this collective organism, i.e. the species or culture, assumes utmost importance. At this point, the group mentality comes to the fore. The group becomes the creature, with its individual members programmed to sacrifice themselves for the collective organism.
Individuals will sacrifice themselves for the whole because of genetic programming, even though they might attribute the urge to noble intentions. While it is easy to inject heroic motives into the wolf or dog due their sacrifice to the whole, it is a little harder on the insect level to impute these higher motives. While it is hard to talk about insects in terms of brave, loyal, and true, it is easier to talk about pack animals, including humans and the need for species survival. Hence in the same way that insects and other pack animals are genetically programmed for the survival of the Collective over the Individual, so is the human genetically programmed.
The idea of individual sacrifice for the collective is entrenched in our underlying motivations. This is at the level of pre-cultural genetic conditioning. The genetic programming occurred before we even differentiated into mammals. As such, our genetic drive to protect the survival of the species over the individual is hardwired.
Must we as humans accept all layers of cultural and genetic conditioning? Of course not. Even though we have a tendency to follow our conditioning, we can resist this urge, especially if it is not in our best interest. Do we really want to resist the urge to protect our children from physical harm, even though it might place us in great danger? Definitely not. However, it is important to differentiate whether one is protecting one’s children or just protecting a principle.
As it is buried in the deepest levels of cognition, the urge to protect the species is definitely a motivating force. The species preservation urge can manifest on different levels. On the most primary level, it concerns children, then comes spouse, then parents, possibly then extended family or clan and then finally culture. The purest form is child preservation for species continuation. This is so fundamental that any who challenged this desire would be called subhuman or barbaric. In fact, resisting this urge to save one’s skin would generally result in devastating guilt.
However, the notion that a father should 'fight for his country' to 'protect his wife and children' is a corruption of the original genetic urge. As an example, fighting in overseas wars generally is not to protect the husband’s wife or children and might get the father killed besides. Instead of protecting his family, he would be actually compromising their lives.
Sometimes the identification of country with family is accurate. For instance, when an invading army is attacking the homeland and threatening to enslave the native population, it is appropriate to sacrifice one’s life for the greater community, even though the family might be left fatherless.
But great care must be taken when extending the genetic conditioning of child protection, into national aggression. To prevent an inappropriate misidentification of family with national identity, it is essential to clearly define boundaries. Two questions could be asked. Is endangering one’s life for the purpose of protecting the family or to protect the interests of the ruling class?
For the human, as a collective animal, the survival of the species is more important than the survival of the individual. On the most basic level, this manifests as the maternal protection of the young. The father expands this boundary to include the protection of both mother and child. The family is the fundamental triad that both generates and preserves the species.
The instinctive need to protect our young could easily be linked to the protection of the clan/tribe, as one of primary purposes of the tribe is species preservation. It is at this point that potential pollution of motivation occurs. Is the individual fighting to save the family or tribe? Sometimes these might be mutually exclusive aims. If family is not clearly differentiated from clan, then behavior can easily be confused.
On the next level, cultural preservation is linked to species preservation, via the tribe. An individual fights to defend cultural forms, just as he would fight to save his child. On the positive side, cultural forms maintain the social stability that is necessary for survival.
“As prehistory shows, it proceeded slowly enough even in regions most productive of innovation since it was inevitably opposed by the conservative forces whose essential role was to ensure transmission of the cultural heritage which alone distinguished men from the other animals. It is hardly surprising that these forces were strongest where the social inheritance was most exiguous. That is why progress was so extremely slow during the earlier phases of prehistory.” (World Prehistory, 1969, p. 29)
It is evident that species preservation is frequently linked to cultural preservation. 'Let us fight to protect our way of life', is a common phrase and rallying cry. Under this mindset, any who speak against ‘our way of life’ are certainly traitors, who deserve to be imprisoned or put to death. Those with this mindset will resort to extreme means to protect what they perceive as their culture.
In summary, humans seem to have an innate need to transmit culture and technology to the next generation. Indeed, this ability has fueled human social evolution. We also saw that the preservation of the species transcends the human need for self-preservation, as evidenced by the parents’ willingness to sacrifice themselves for their children. This ‘natural’ urge for species preservation has morphed into cultural preservation, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.