On Our Human Nature

By Roy Hanu Hart, M.D., aka Doctor Faith on July 5, 2011

Aristotle defined man as a political animal. In my case, he was only half right. I don’t have a political bone in my body, but I am a member of the animal kingdom. I belong to that illustrious species, Homo sapiens, that sits atop the kingdom. I’m in a rarefied realm, one, which I hasten to add, I share with about 6-billion others.

However, there are times when I wonder if some, perhaps more than some, judging from their behavior, really belong to the same species as I do. As a corollary, there are moments when I wish I belonged to a different species.

Today there is only one surviving  member of the genus Homo, a single species, sapiens. Indeed, we are brothers and sisters under the skin, as the Good Book proclaims and biology confirms. Only we don’t behave toward one another as the Linnaean nomenclature has labeled us, Homo (man) +  sapiens (wise).

Christianity dwells on man’s sinfulness, blaming our original progenitors, Adam and Eve, for having started the sin problem while occupying  a uterine paradise not-too-many thousands of years ago. The original sin, disobeying the commanding voice of God, stuck to their protoplasm, and supposedly has been passed down as a dominant gene from generation to generation. Thus we are all inherently sinful. So goes that theory.

The Christian view of man’s sinful nature comes right out of the Hebrew Bible, but modern Jews, unlike those in biblical times, don’t dwell on sin as Christians do. If nothing else, the Adam-and-Eve tale does help explain, to the satisfaction of many, why we err morally and ethically.  

Some of us may look at the subject of man’s tendency to waywardness from a different perspective. The approach I embrace presupposes a world much older than the one Western religionists envision from their reading of the Book of Genesis.

I first encountered that alternative understanding  in my neuroanatomy course as a medical student in 1960. I’m referring to neurologist Paul MacLean’s triune brain theory. “Triune” refers to something threefold, such as the triune God of Christianity.

MacLean’s triune brain is composed of three layers, an older, newer, and newest layering. The oldest was laid down millions of years ago when reptiles dominated the earth. It was not replaced when mammals made their appearance but was layered over. The same layering process occurred when primates appeared, culminating in the highest developed layer, the prefrontal cortex in man. The layers are interconnected. We are still at the mercy of our oldest layer, our primitive, reptilian brain at the bottom of the brain heap.

Mother Nature has made us what we are, following along God’s plan. We may be a little lower than the angels, but we are part of the animal world. That is our reality.

When Charlie Allnet (Humphrey Bogart) tried to rationalize his drinking and slovenliness to the missionary Rose Sayer (Catharine Hepburn) in The African Queen with the words, “It’s human nature,” she responded, “Nature, Mr. Allnet, is what we are put in the world to rise above.”

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