From Trust to Domination

Tim Ingold speaks several times to an important theme that seems to be rarely understood by most people. This theme is the divide between humans and animals that either illusory or ignored. That is, either the social reality that humans have constructed has created an apparent division between humans and animals (i.e., we live “up here” in our social and material world, while they live “down there” in nature), or in an effort to protect ourselves from the uncomfortable realities of our existence, we ignore the day-to-day evidence of our primal past (e.g., wisdom teeth, vestigial remnants of our plant-eating ancestry).

The human brain, structurally speaking, isn’t much more than a primitive brain with regulatory functions on top. In other words, the impulsive, emotional, primitive structures that rest directly on top of our spinal cords have a cortex on top of them that controls and inhibits them. Abstractly, the organization of the brain is not much different from the organization of human relationships with the natural world. That is, the impulsive, emotional, primitive species on earth are regulated by humans who are “above” them much like our neocortex (“neo” meaning “new”Smilie: ;) regulates–and is physically above–the primitive structures in our brains. The analogy kind of resembles a fractal if you think about it (i.e., the same pattern is found in two different levels of analysis — those levels being the brain and the ecosystem). This shouldn’t be surprising, as the brain and its environment evolve in parallel.

However, what makes us human is not our being “above” the rest of the world, but–as Ingold alludes to–the intermixing of our primitive, emotional selves and our “higher” selves (i.e., our reasoning, controlling, thinking, planning self). Continuing off the above fractal pattern, just as our individual personalities, behaviors, thoughts, etc. are a product of the interaction between our emotional brain structures and our “higher” ones like the frontal lobes (i.e., we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have love and fear, but we also wouldn’t be if we didn’t have thinking and planning), the human species is a product of the interaction between itself and the animal world. Take away one, and I’ll say you don’t have the other.

Ingold refers to hunters and gatherers as being immersed in the natural world, such that they don’t perceive any grand distinctions between themselves and the animals they hunt. Hunter-gatherers are “correct” in that the distinction is most certainly an illusion or social construction, but I might argue that this separation, real or not, is part of what makes us human. We may also need to perceive this distinction to protect our fragile selves from existential anxiety.

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