understanding human nature

Understanding Human Nature: Thoughts From M. Scott Peck

So, last Friday I spent a riveting evening alone with my books – sounds about as badass as my Magic the Gathering tournaments in high school. Anyway, I was reading through M. Scott Peck’s lectures as recorded in “Further Along The Road Less Traveled,” and I found this amazing piece I just need to share. Read it, reflect on it, and wrestle with it. Heck, burn it – whatever, I don’t care, but first study (at least a delayed cursory glance) this fascinating account of one man’s thoughts on the nature of being human, and if you’re feeling reckless, share your thoughts on the subject as well.

So the other response I most commonly make when people ask me, “Dr. Peck, what is human nature?” is to say there is no such thing. And that, above all else, is our glory as human beings. What distinguishes us humans most from other creatures is not our opposing thumb, or our wonderful larynx which is capable of speech, or our huge cerebral cortex, but it is our dramatic relative lack of instincts or performed, preset inherited patterns of behavior, which give other creatures a much more fixed nature than we have. 

I live in Connecticut on the shores of a large lake and to that lake, every March when the ice melts, there comes a flock of gulls, and every December when the lake freezes over, the gulls depart, presumably for parts south. I never used to know where they went, but some friends have recently told me that its Florence, Alabama. 

Whether there are migratory gulls or not, scientist’s who have studied migratory birds have come to realize that they are actually able to navigate by the stars. They have built into them – through heredity – complex patterns of celestial navigation which enable them to land in Florence Alabama, right on the dot every time. The only problem is that there is no particular freedom about it. The gulls can’t say, “I think this winter I’d like to spend in Bermuda or the Bahamas or Barbados.” It’s either Florence, Alabama, or nothing. 

What distinguishes us human beings, on the other hand, is the extraordinary freedom and variability of our behaviors. Given the wherewithal, we can go to the Bahamas or Bermuda or Barbados. Or we can do something totally unnatural and, in the middle of winter, go north to  Stowe, Vermont, or to the mountains of Colorado and slide down ice hills on little slats of wood or fiberglass. This extraordinary freedom to do the different and often seemingly unnatural is the most salient feature of our human nature. 

Nowhere was this better described than in The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White. To paraphrase and condense a tale from this wonderful book, it was back in the very early days, when all the earth’s creatures were still in embryonic form. God called all the little embryos together one afternoon and said, “I’m going to give each of you whatever three things you want. So come up here one by one and ask for whatever three things you want and I’ll give them to you. 

So the first little embryo came up and said, “God, I’d like to have hands and feet in the shape of spades so I can dig myself a safe home underneath the ground, and id like to have thick, furry coat to keep me warm in the winter, and I would like to have some sharp front teeth so I can chew on the grasses.”

And God said, “Fine, go and be a woodchuck.”

Then the next little embryo came up and said, “God, what I like is the water, and I’d like to have a flexible body so I can swim around in it. I’d also like to breathe underwater with some kind of gills, and id like a system that will keep me warm no matter what the temperature of the water is.”

And God said, “Fine, go be a fish.”

God went through all the little embryos until there was just one left, which seemed to be a particularly shy little embryo – perhaps for the biblical reasons I’ve already discussed. It was so shy that God had to motion it forward and ask, “All right little embryo, what three things would you like?” And it said, “Well, I don’t want to seem pre-presumptuous or anything. It’s not that I’m not…ah…grateful, because I am. But…but I was wondering if maybe…if it was all right with You…I could stay just the way I am – an embryo. Maybe sometime later when I’m smart enough to know the three things I really want, I can ask You for them then…Or maybe…if You want me to become a certain something, you can give me the three things You think I need.” 

And God smiled and said, “Ah, you are human. And you because you have chosen to remain a perpetual embryo, I will give you dominion over all of the other creatures.”

Of course, most of us throw our embryohood away. As we get older, we become set in our ways, fixed in our nature. Watching my parents and other people as they entered their fifties and sixties, it invariably seemed to me when I was young that they become less interested in new things, more and more convinced of the rightness of their own opinions and worldviews.  

Indeed, that was the way I thought it had to be, until I reached twenty. During the summer of that year, I went to live with the noted author John Marquand, who was sixty-five at the time, and he blew my mind. I found that this sixty-five-year-old man was interested in everything, including me, and no sixty-five-year-old had ever been seriously interested in unimportant little twenty-year-old me before. He and I used to argue late into the night most evenings, and I could actually win some of those arguments. I could actually change Mr. Marquand’s mind. In fact, by the end of the summer, I would see Mr. Marquand changing his mind about three or four times a week. I realized that this man, rather than having grown old mentally, had grown younger, and was more open and more flexible than most children and adolescents. 

It was at that point, for the first time, I realized that we do not have to grow old mentally. We do have to grow old physically. All of us will eventually become decrepit and die, but most of us do not have to stop growing mentally. So it is that – while we may usually toss it away – this capacity for ongoing change and transformation is the most salient feature. 

-M. Scott Peck

What do you think? What is it that makes us human? Look forward to your answers!

Timmy G (2019).

understanding human nature

One Response

  1. Jordan Gee November 4, 2019

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