The Irrational Human

What – if anything – sets humans apart from other animals? I’ve discussed this before and concluded that there really isn’t any significant difference at all; we are simply hairless apes. (See Becoming Animal). But an article by anthropologist Jonathan Marks has made me think again. His proposal is radical: it’s not reason that sets us apart from other animals; it’s the power of irrational thought.

Compared to other species we’ve studied, humans are pretty good at rational thought and rationality has been held in high esteem in the West from at least Aristotle. But Jonathan concludes that humans “evolved to be at least as non-rational as rational” and gives some delightful examples. In the 1920’s the anthropologist Margaret Mead constructed a IQ test for Samoans that asked them to choose the best path from point A to point B. Her rational ethnocentric assumption was that the best path meant the shortest path, but her Samoan respondents chose the prettiest route.

More recent research in anthropology, psychology and neuroscience provide extensive evidence against Aristotle’s belief that humans are rational animals. Dan Ariely gives a good overview in Predictably Irrational, while David Graeber and Daniel McFadden make mincemeat of the nonsense that is economic consumer choice theory.

Jonathan Marks takes all this a step further, focusing in on language and culture. The most essential aspect of human thought and language is that “it is rooted fundamentally in the invisible, the imaginary, the non-physical. How is that rational?” Language enables us “to talk about what was, what might be, and what ought to be. It opens up a world of temporality, of possibility, and of morality. … we [can] talk to people that aren’t there, cultivate aesthetics, enter revelatory trances, and discuss possible worlds that are neither part of present experience, nor directly connected to surviving and breeding.” The human mind is “rooted in symbolism and metaphor, rather than in logic and literalism”. To sum up, culture is both irrational and fundamental to being human.

Boucher exhibition poster with graffiti

Our language and culture have created “a make-believe world, a fantasy”, which provides both structure and meaning to our lives. Jonathan notes in passing that “the important stuff in human evolution here is not going on within human brains, but between human brains.” Given that language and culture give meaning to our lives, we might argue that what goes on between between us includes all the important stuff in human existence.

Jonathan’s proposal turns conventional thinking on its head and, if correct, has all kinds of ramifications. I can foresee many debates related to Bodymind Place themes. For example, does Jonathan’s theory present a challenge for rational therapies like CBT? Perhaps. It certainly seems to validate the humanistic forms of psychotherapy and counselling, which are so often engaged with the invisible and the imaginary.

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