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Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Unsolved Mystery of Human Behavior

Biology is not much help in our efforts to understand ourselves. When we came to think of the body as a factory, it was clear that it could be regulated by medical science. But there is no comparable model of human behavior, and therefore no way to regulate it other than by force or persuasion. The gap is filled by hypotheses about what drives us, ranging from those of Sigmund Freud to those of Konrad Lorenz, and offering explanations ranging from the subconscious to our genes. But the human being remains a stranger in a world he did not create. Some see him as the shadow of God; others see God as the shadow, a projection of man. In the words of Montaigne [a 16th Century French philosopher], we sleep on the soft pillow of ignorance. Indeed, human conduct is often irrational, for all its calculation aimed at physical survival. Even survival ceases to matter when a soldier, martyr, or heretic chooses to sacrifice himself for a higher goal. The drab, everyday routine of the average citizen, taxpayer-bread-winner, is adapted behavior and less instructive than a life lived to the limits. Limits that mark the zenith and nadir of what man is capable of. Extremes of conduct speak of aspirations that transcends the personal and challenge the sanity of standard human behavior.

A. J. Dunning, Extremes, 1990

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