Apes and Angels (Rosh Hashanah 5779)

We’re still in the Stone Age. Or rather, our minds are.                                 

I’m not kidding. The human brain has evolved very little since we were hunter-gatherers in the African savanna and it still uses the same adaptive behaviors that we learned escaping from lions and looking for edible berries.  

I’m talking about things like the “fight or flight” response, phobias, courtship, relationships with strangers, altruism, and more. In fact, an entire field of study called evolutionary psychology tries to explain most of what we do in terms of the evolutionary advantage it provides us. We develop stereotypes and biases because they are time-saving mechanisms, particularly useful for deciding fast whether an approaching band was friendly or hostile; we enjoy learning because knowing stuff about our environment gave us better chances to survive; we can’t resist gossiping because, in the primitive band, information about others was a valuable advantage; and we seek social status because it gave us a competitive edge for choosing mates.

Quantum Physics? Baseball? Complex political systems? The Kardashians? Twitter? It’s all a byproduct of those neural circuits that our brains developed to make us survive in the wild. Even empathy has evolutionary explanations; our survival against stronger predators depended on collaboration, and you can’t collaborate if you don’t understand others. And it’s not just our strengths that come from our ancestral origins; our weaknesses do, too. Evolutionary psychologists will claim that many of the problems and anguishes we experience today stem from the fact that those ancient mechanisms are woefully adapted to modern life. (For example, triggering the “fight or flight” response in situations for which it’s useless, like a traffic jam or a shouting boss).

In sum, behind our veneer of sophistication we are just advanced apes with smartphones.  

Is it just me or evolutionary psychology is both fascinating and depressing? It’s fascinating because you can see how our nature came to be. But it’s depressing because it makes us wonder whether we can really transcend our nature. Are we really owners and masters of our thoughts or they are conditioned by evolution to guide us in a certain direction? Are our emotions what we think they are, or just neural circuits that our experience as hunter gatherers imprinted in our brains? Can we choose to behave in certain ways or are our basic reactions and emotions inescapably coded in our DNA?

Perhaps most importantly, can we really learn? It’s self-evident that we can learn skills, but can we really change and improve our basic human traits, or are we condemned to repeat our patterns of behavior? Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar (ethics) religious movement, famously said that it is easier for a person to master the entire Talmud than to fix one negative attribute about himself.

Looking at the news these days, one has to wonder. What pains me the most about our convulsed times is that as a human society we don’t seem to learn. We are repeating the same mistakes we have made so many times. Shouldn’t have we learned by now, for example, that both right-wing and left-wing authoritarianism and totalitarianism produce suffering and death? And yet, in a recent survey almost half of Britons said that they’d prefer a “strong leader to elections and parliament”. Everywhere, there are dictators and aspiring autocrats attracting huge followings, as if the past hasn’t taught us anything. We seem not to be able to transcend our ape-like instincts: in times of perceived uncertainty, look for the alpha male to guide you. Hasn’t the world learned already what antisemitism is and what it leads to? And yet, on both the Left and the Right, the world’s oldest hatred is showing a healthy comeback. Shouldn’t have we learned already that demonizing a specific group (Jews, Latinos, Muslims) always ends in disaster? Yet, like the troglodytes we still are, we resent members of “other” bands. We know that cognitive diversity makes us smarter, and yet, we still gravitate towards the safety of those who think like us and confirm our biases. And needless to say, as Jews: haven’t we learned already what happens when we attack and demonize each other? And yet, here we are, in probably the most self-hate-filled time since the fall of the Second Temple.

Our current embrace of the tragic mistakes of the past, especially our fascination with authoritarianism, is inexplicable. Because, as opposed to previous generations we do know how the story ends. We do know that populists from left and right always end up driving their countries to the ground, so why do we support them time and again? Unless, of course, we accept that we can’t escape our ape-like nature. We may coat our behaviors and beliefs in sophisticated arguments and ideologies, but we are doing nothing but putting lipstick on a (highly evolved) monkey.

Rosh Hashanah celebrates a symbolic anniversary of the creation of humanity. So it is appropriate that on this holiday we reflect on what makes us truly human. A hint: it’s not to surrender to our primate instincts, but to transcend them. “Who is strong?” asks Shimon ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot, “The one who conquers his instincts”. (Avot 4:1.) True, like all animals, we’ve been conditioned to act and react in certain ways. But unlike other animals, we have the capacity to examine our actions and reflect on them rationally. Indeed, like other primates, vast sections of our brains are wired in specific ways, but they have something uniquely human: a highly developed frontal lobe that can reflect, analyze, and override our instincts. No other species asks “why”; no other species has the capacity to second-guess its evolutionary mandates.

One of Judaism’s great innovations is to recognize humanity’s dual nature. Bereshit Rabbah 8:11 says that God created humanity with attributes of both the animals below and the angels above. But Judaism also recognizes that you are not born fully human; you become so. “The designs of man’s mind are evil from his youth,” says Genesis 8:21; only by cultivating virtues do we overcome this inclination. Becoming truly human, then, is being able to doubt our instincts, to reject knee-jerk reactions, to escape biological determinism and carve our own path. Above all, being human is being able to learn and grow in our humanity. The Hebrew Bible is full of imprecations for us to learn from past experiences. That has never been easy; not in vain does the Bible need to remind us 36 times to love the stranger; we hadn’t fully learned it from our experience in Egypt. Not in vain do the books of Judges and Kings warn us time and again about patterns of mistakes and blunders that repeat themselves as if we couldn’t examine what we did wrong last time.

Judaism is not naïve. It recognizes that becoming truly human is a lifelong quest, one that requires courage, compassion, and discipline. We’ve all had that feeling of butterflies in our stomach, of cold sweats and rapid heartbeats, when we are about to defy our instincts, when we are going to follow the dictate of our noblest values rather than the path of least resistance. Judaism reminds us of what Erich Fromm put this way: “Man’s main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is”—not what he is condemned to be.

At this season, we are offered the magnificent gift of the Yamim Noraim, this time in which we can reflect, analyze, and learn; this time in which we can safely doubt ourselves, our community, and our world; this time in which we can show ourselves that we are not caught in a hamster wheel from which there’s no escape. During these days, we can prove that evolutionary psychology doesn’t mean each of us can’t choose at least some of our own evolution—that we do learn, that we do have the capacity to become more human year after year and generation after generation.

This Rosh Hashanah, let’s challenge ourselves to grow truly human. Let’s reach out to ourselves and to one another; let’s exercise those human qualities that get rusty over time: compassion, empathy, and love. As we celebrate our humanity, let’s use the uniquely human capacity of imagination to dream up a future that is different and better from our past.