A writer’s perspective on primal instincts, human nature, and capitalism


At the end of eighth grade, my class took a trip to Nova Scotia, in Canada. I don’t remember exactly where we stayed, and I don’t even remember a whole lot of the trip. I remember bits and pieces of the cruise we took up there from Maine, of playing Manhunt (a sort of combination between hide and seek and tag) around the buildings we were staying in, a campfire near the shore, and a Mortal Kombat-style arcade game involving dinosaurs. There’s one memory that stands out more than the others, and it was the first time I told a ghost story and the experience really clicked with me. The story I told was The Red Lodge, by H.R. Wakefield. It had been published in a collection called “More Tales to Tremble By”, and it had stuck with me for a variety of reasons. Reading it later, as an adult, revealed it to be… less good than I remembered. I don’t know anything about Wakefield, but the narrator of the story comes across as both an author insert character, and as cartoonishly pretentious. My telling was not verbatim by any stretch, just as close to the original as I could construct by memory. I told the story to my classmates, including a few spooky moments with silhouettes and faces in windows, and during the silence after I finished, there was a noise, and two shadows appeared on the frosted glass window of the outer door. If memory serves, it was a couple chaperones coming to join the storytelling, but for a moment it was as if the specters from my story had manifested in reality. It was the moment when I discovered my love of storytelling.

For a long time, my storytelling and fiction writing focused on various horror stories. I had some friends who’d get together weekly in college for ghost stories, and I periodically have Halloween parties that center around sharing various spooky and supernatural stories. When I started trying to learn fiction writing as a craft, I started with horror. As I worked, I came to think of writing in terms of the emotions it could conjure in the reader, and to think about various techniques. Ideally, I want to guide my readers through a landscape that doesn’t just contain a narrative of events, but also a variety of emotional experiences. I can’t really say how skilled I am at my craft, but I think it’s safe to say that with practice and study, I’m better than I was a decade ago. That’s not much, but it’s progress I can see, and I feel good about that.

One of the things I’ve learned is that some emotions are much easier to conjure and manipulate than others.

Using only words on paper (or a screen, or braille), how do you generate a feeling of surprised elation? How do you make someone feel hope? It’s easy to write about someone feeling those things, but to actually reliably make a reader feel them seems more difficult, at least for me. Satisfaction, awe, comfort, the feeling of doing something for the first time – humanity is blessed with a nearly endless spectrum of ways to experience the world, and some of them are very difficult to replicate outside of simply living the events that create them.

In my experience, the easiest ones are things like fear and disgust. Our reactions to threats are pretty universal, and pretty near the surface because they generally come from a need for some immediate action. Get away from the scary thing. Wash off the gross thing. It could hurt us. It could make us sick. Pretty much everybody has had some version of those feelings, and they tend to generate strong memories.

That means they’re also very easy to use in politics. It’s why various forms of fear-mongering tend to work so well, and why there’s so much focus on what some like to call “base instincts” or “primal instincts”. Triggering emotional states that demand immediate action puts other instincts and needs on hold, and if you can maintain those feelings in a group of people, it’s far easier to get them to move in the direction that you claim will make those feelings go away. It’s a nasty tactic, because it always works, and because there are real problems in the world.

It’s particularly vicious when it’s used by the people who create those problems in the first place. In atheist discourse, it’s sometimes said that religion convinces you that you’re poisoned (when you’re not), then offers you the fake cure to the fake poison. There are a lot of ways in which modern politics are similar to that, except that very often the “poison” isn’t fictional. The economic hardship that people suffer is very real, but we live in a system that makes it difficult to tell what exactly is causing it. That means that the people who constantly push for policies that make life worse for most people can then turn around and blame that misery on a convenient scapegoat, while offering a “cure” that, more often than not, will only make things worse.

Modern conservative politics, in the US and the UK, at least, amount to a vampire telling the villagers that their strange neck wounds and feelings of weakness are caused by a disease that makes them produce too much blood, and so the solution is bleeding, and the vampire will take the excess blood away as a service.

And maybe the exact nature of the problem changes. Maybe, in time, people notice that it doesn’t seem to be a disease, so they’ll find something else. We used to think it was a disease, but now it’s those new, different-looking people who’ve moved to town. Sure, the problem pre-dates them, but there were always travelers coming through before, and strangers living in the nearby forest, so maybe it’s THEM causing the problem. The solution is to give all the different-looking people to the vampire, and he’ll deal with it from there. And when, after all the strangers are gone, and anyone who looks different has been eliminated, or scared off, well, the problem’s still there. Maybe it’s a disease. Our ancestors thought it was a disease, and it sure seems like things were better in the past, so maybe we should rely on their traditional wisdom, and return to the old ways, and start that bleeding ritual.

And so it keeps working until the people realize that no matter the exact nature or explanation of the problem, the solution proposed by the local ruler always seems to result in a lot of blood being given to him, in one form or another, and maybe that is the problem.

Maybe we should try doing without that ruler.

And that’s when the spell can be broken.

I think we’re close to such a moment now. The pandemic has created a situation in which the “leaders” who have been offering cures like “do capitalism harder” or “give more money to rich people” are now pushing us towards the even more immediate and scary danger of a plague. It looks like their intentions aren’t so “pure” after all, and maybe those nasty weirdos who’ve been ranting about vampires for all these years have a point.

And as many of us stay home, and isolated, we’re discovering that we’ve got other primal needs that go beyond the immediate desires for food, shelter, safety, and sex. We need community. We need other people, not just to fight against immediate threats, but because community is part of what it means to be human.

There’s an old saying, with which everyone is no doubt familiar – money doesn’t buy happiness. These days it’s often used to tell poor people that they shouldn’t look to material wealth to solve their problems. After all, there are plenty of unhappy rich people, so we should all seek happiness through other means. Try to just enjoy your work more. Maybe find a hobby during all that free time you have. Get more sleep. Meditate. Practice a religion. Find happiness in some way that doesn’t mean rich people become less rich.

That saying is true. Money does not buy happiness. Having your material needs met does not buy happiness. What it buys is the freedom to pursue happiness. It buys us time to think about what actually does make us happy. It buys us time with other people, to use for things other than merely struggling to get by. It buys us time to ponder life, and practice skills, to enjoy music, and to play games.

It buys us time to tell stories, and to hear them told.

When we spend all of our time and energy simply on getting money, that’s time and energy we don’t have for pursuit of happiness. We live in a world of astounding abundance. We grow more food than the global human population is capable of eating. We have so much material wealth that we simply throw away things when they are less than perfect. And at the same time, people have to work endlessly just to make ends meet. It’s a contradiction. Something is wrong, and everyone can tell, so explanations are constantly created, and justifications offered. And as the whole population suffers, and seems to be constantly moving from one fear to the next, the aristocracy is reaching ever-loftier heights of prosperity and excess.

And the plague has shown us that as well. As hundreds of thousands have died, and millions more grow ever closer to destitution, a tiny handful of people have been adding incomprehensible amounts of wealth to their hoards, and their servants have been working hard to make those easy emotional plays. They want us to be afraid, and disgusted, and angry. They want us to believe that conflict, terror, greed, and rage are the essence of humanity, and that we can only make the bad feelings stop by making the “bad people” go away. Immigrants, people of a different color, “anarchists”, “antifa” – anyone who seems to be causing disruption, they must be the cause of all that misery you were feeling.

If we just get rid of them, things will get better.

Removing the socialists didn’t help? Well, they must have had allies. They sure did seem to like those union types, so we’d better get rid of unions.

Removing the unions didn’t help? Well, we’ve always said the immigrants were a problem, and there’s still a lot of them around.

Removing the immigrants didn’t help? Who’s next? Who’s really causing all our problems?

Yes, I’m talking about that poem.

Yes, we’re talking about fascism.

This is the natural progression as the hoarding of necessities creates artificial scarcity. It seems like there’s not enough to go around, even though there’s more now than there ever has been, so the problem must be that someone’s taking it all. It must be those mean people who’re always saying that they’re being mistreated. Everything seemed fine before the strange people at the bottom of the boat started complaining about leaks.

And so we’re distracted from those emotions that can lift us up, as a species. We’re distracted from what makes us human, and told that what really makes us human is our aggression, and our lust, and our greed, but since that’s not all YOU want out of life, because YOU are a good person, well, it must be those other people who aren’t like US. WE just want to live our lives, but THEY are constantly demanding more. THEY can’t get past their primal instincts. THEY will never be satisfied, so the solution is to remove them.

But it’s a lie. Its the new musician blasting loud notes in your ear and telling you it’s the essence of music. It’s the pulp horror writer telling you that the disgust and fear they can make you feel is the essence of storytelling.

Those are valid and important emotions. They are real instincts that are absolutely part of being human. They can be used to save lives, to educate, and to entertain. Just as some people enjoy pain in sex or in athletic pursuits, so to can we enjoy fear, disgust, anger, and greed.

But in constantly telling ourselves that those are the core of humanity, and that a society driven by those instincts will be better for everyone, we are denying most of what we are. The Tumblr post that inspired this essay puts it well:

https://nonlinear-nonsubjective.tumblr.com/post/618759256643174400/people-talk-all-the-time-about-primal-instincts

I believe that the pursuit of happiness should be a right afforded to all sentient beings, as much as possible, and throughout history it has always been those other, less “urgent” instincts that have brought us closer to that goal.


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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for this. There is such a tendency in our culture to treat conflict, violene, etc. as both serious (as they are!!) and somehow more fundamentally human than other things like kindness, mutual aid, and friendship. (You are in the good company of some great philosophers and scientists, none of whom can be accused of ignoring the dark side of life — Seneca, Montaigne, Emerson, Dewey; Kropotkin; Frans de Waals. The list can be extended…)
    It seems very important to keep arguing that people can learn to be more life-affirming — and these “basic instincts’ can be rsources for anyone who’s decided to undertake some of that learning. There is a strong stream in our culture of mockery for efforts at “consiousness raising” (one version of it is the Trumpian/reactionary ridicule of “political correctness”). Of course any time one tries to be self-conscious one can overthink, be over-serious or over-zealous — but if one is in a community of people who care about progress and the pursuit of happiness — not as an abstraction, but as actually experienced by real people — then one’s friends can help re-center…Progress of this almost always takes a zig-zag. path!

  2. StevoR says

    believe that the pursuit of happiness should be a right afforded to all sentient beings, as much as possible, ..

    Absolutely 100% seconded here and quoted for truth.

    ..and throughout history it has always been those other, less “urgent” instincts that have brought us closer to that goal.

    Okay, what? This bit I don’t grok. Throughout history they’ve been saying to those who aren’t privileged to “go slow” as Nina Simone put it in Mississippi Goddamn Is that what you are referring to, the constant putting off of more fairness, more equality because it inconviences those who don’t like the idea or more fairness and equality? Because tradition, the treacly glued down, sticky comfort of those already well off i.e. socio-cultural inertia. Who are still kicking and screaming against science and the reality which has a liberal bias?

    I hope and guess that’s what you meant and quite likely its my present lack of sleep but not quite grokking that last bit here.

  3. says

    In this case I’m categorizing things like “fight the enemy”, “get away from the bad thing” and “hoard the food so we don’t starve” as the more “urgent” instincts that demand immediate action, vs. forming community, befriending people, making art of various sorts, and telling stories as the less “urgent” ones that can be done when you’re not actively under assault.

    I think that’s my bad for not writing clearly.

    The reactionary opposition to change often seems to be justified by the more negative interpretation of “human nature” and “base instincts” – the idea that some humans are inherently more “savage”, and that humans need an authority to MAKE them be good, otherwise we’ll all just attack each other and live like animals.

    It’s not that the things they fixate on aren’t a part of human nature – they are – it’s just that they’re only one small part of the bigger picture.

    But reactionary rhetoric/propaganda/media is all about triggering fear and disgust. Talking about the scary black men, and the scary Muslims, and the scary Chinese communists, and all the human feces from homeless people in California, and the “disease ridden immigrants”, and other BS propaganda like that.

    It’s all to keep people in that state of feeling under assault, like they need to be ready to fight some enemy at any moment, because they’re surrounded by “enemies”, and all humans exist in a constant state of competition and conflict with each other.

    Vs. the natural tendency to form communities, and alliances, and art, and so on.

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