Life versus Non-living Matter

This description begins with a comparison of the human's responses to the environment with those of other living things. The responses of a human being to the environment resemble the responses of other living creatures more than they resemble the responses of non-living matter.

This may seem obvious, but it is meaningful. Let us look at what we mean.

In general, non-living matter is passive in response to its environment. Give a chair a push and it is pushed. A billiard ball moves away from the cue-ball in a way largely determined by the momentum of the cue-ball, the angle of impact, the elasticity of the materials, etc. The general description of non-living matter's response to the environment is that it is passive, it is "pushed around" rather than "taking charge." (There are beginnings of active, organizing responses to the environment, even in non-living material. A seed crystal, for example, suspended in appropriate solution will "organize" the randomly oriented ions about it into a large crystal patterned after its own structure. Protoplanets will apparently grow into planets by attracting and accreting dust and debris from the primeval dust clouds. This is not the dominant behavior of non-living matter, however.)

The distinctive characteristic of living creatures, however, is exactly their active response to the environment. Living creatures tend to impose their organization on their surroundings. In the simplest, common-denominator way this is done by consuming a portion of the environment as food and reproducing. Thus a heap of relatively unorganized compost, when exposed to a pair of well-organized earthworms, will become converted in part and in time into a heap of organized earthworms.

Living creatures impose their organization on the environment in other ways besides ingestion and reproduction. The great Minnesota iron deposits, the chalk cliffs of Dover, the coral reefs of the Pacific are all sizeable structures achieved by the active, selective responses of certain microorganisms to the environment. The work of a colony of beavers can alter profoundly the surface geology of the valley they select for a dam.

Human beings, too, consume part of their environment for nourishment and, by reproduction, convert part of it into new human beings. Our numbers exceed three billion planet-wide. We are, par excellence, the living species that pushes the environment around in other complicated ways as well. We mine coal and metal, dam and bridge the rivers, terrace the hillsides, toss satellites into orbit, and prey upon all other species for food, raw material, decoration and sport.

To repeat, human beings are like other living creatures in their active responses to the environment more than they are like non-living matter with its overall passivity to the environment.

The Human Difference

Human beings are different from all other living creatures in the kind of active responses they make to the environment. What is this difference?

All living creatures with the exception of humans are able to respond actively to the environment only on the basis of pre-set patterns of response. These patterns are fixed in the heredity of the individual creature and are very similar to the patterns of other creatures of the same species or strain. The number of available patterns of response may be small for a simple creature and large for a complex creature, but the number of such patterns is finite and fixed in either case. These patterns can become disorganized and damaged during the lifetime of the individual creature, but they will not improve except through a process of maturation which is itself a pre-fixed response. A fine bird dog can have its delicate response patterns ruined by mistreatment, but the dog breeder will not expect better patterns of response than are called for by the particular dog's heredity.

These response patterns are usually called instincts, and the word is a good one if not carelessly applied to humans. When new response patterns do occur in a given hereditary line, this will be regarded as an evolutionary leap, a mutation. It will represent the emergence of a new strain or species.

Since the available patterns of response are fixed and limited in number for any one living creature other than a human, each such creature must categorize, i.e., it must meet a very large number of different environmental situations by lumping together those which are similar and meeting them with the same response. This type of behavior seems to have satisfactory survival value only for the species, not for the individual (speaking statistically).

One can apparently equate pre-set pattern (instinctive) behavior and species survival. When a given species' set of pre-set response patterns works well enough, that species survives. When it does not, that species dies out. Many species of living things have died out in past times and their one-time existence is known to us only by their fossil remains.

This kind of behavior does not carry a very high survival value for the individual. It permits the species to survive only in association with massive reproduction rates.

A pair of codfish are reported to set about 14 million baby codfish adrift on the ocean currents each spawning season. Each of these baby codfish is equipped with the typical codfish assortment of pre-set response patterns. Each is able to respond to the environment only in codfish ways, not in ivy vine ways or butterfly ways.

These codfish response patterns certainly have worked well enough until now that there are still many codfish in the ocean. Yet the individual survival chances of one of these baby codfish would be far from what we would desire for ourselves, since, on the average, only two of these 14 million baby codfish survive to be parents of the next generation.

The overall behavior of all forms of life except human can be characterized as active response to the environment, a tendency to impress the surroundings with one's activity, but only on the basis of rigid, pre-set, inherent response patterns which can only roughly approximate the kind of behavior needed for survival in a particular circumstance.

A human being is different. The central feature of our humanness is a qualitatively different way of responding actively to the environment. Whether this essential difference was acquired by evolution or by creation makes no difference in understanding and using it.

This "human" ability seems to consist precisely of an ability to create and use brand new, unique responses to each new, unique situation we meet. When we are functioning in our distinctive human way we do not have to, nor do we, use any pre-fixed, inherent or previously worked out responses, but always and continuously create and use new precise responses that exactly match and successfully handle the new situation which we confront.

Let us stress this definition. We are not saying that a human being is quantitatively more complex in his/her behavior than an angleworm or a dog, in that the human can choose among a larger number of pre-set response patterns than lower animals can. We are saying that human behavior is qualitatively different than the behavior of other forms of life in that the human being can and does continuously create new responses all through the lifetime of the individual.

This essential difference has not been clearly faced in past theories or models. The long, persistent attempts by experimenters to understand human intelligence on the basis of their experiments with laboratory animals, for example, have led to more than one "dead end" school of psychology which explain everything about human beings except our "humanness" and which have been intuitively rejected by thoughtful people because of this.

We usually call this special human ability of ours our intelligence. This word is suitable and will generally be understood if we first draw a sharp line, as we have done above, between this flexible, creative, human intelligence and the rigid, pre-set responses of plants and animals. Intelligence in our human sense creates an endless supply of new, tailored-to-fit responses to the endless series of new situations we meet.

The behavior called "intelligence" in animals is based on categorizing, classifying and lumping together of different situations which are somewhat similar and meeting them with one rigid, pre-set response.

A moment's thought will make it clear that a human being never confronts an "old" situation. There are no identities in the physical universe, not even two electrons are identical. Certainly anything as complex as an environmental situation for a human will never be repeated exactly.

The Operational Procedures of Intelligence

This special human ability of ours seems to work as follows:

  1. It continuously receives from the environment a great volume of information, coded in neural impulses, from the excellent battery of sense channels which each human possesses. This vast computer-like ability of ours receives many kinds of visual information from our eyes, many kinds of audible information from our ears and skull bones; it receives taste information, smell information, temperature information, balance information, and kinesthetic information from our many other sense organs.
  2. This vast volume of information coming into our intelligence is continuously and quickly compared with the information already on file in what we usually call our memory, information from past experiences which we have already understood. Similarities between the incoming information and the information on file are apparently noted, as well as the ways in which similar experiences in the past have been successfully met.
  3. At the same time, this incoming information is contrasted with the information already on file; i.e., the differences are noted as well as the similarities. The incoming information is understood in relation to other information, in its similarities and differences to other data, not ever as a concept by itself.
  4. The information of how similar experiences were handled successfully in the past is used as a basis for constructing a suitable response to the present situation. The differences between the present situation and the similar past situations are, however, allowed for, and the actual response becomes tailored-to-fit the present exactly, as far as the available information allows.
  5. The new information from the current situation, having now been evaluated in terms of both its similarities and differences to other information, now goes on file in the memory as useful material with which to evaluate later experiences. We are better able to meet later experiences because of what we learned from the previous one. (This effect, for instance, will be very noticeable in beginning a new job in a new field. What is learned in the first week makes the second week comparatively easy to handle.)

This evaluation process is conducted both on aware and unaware levels. Usually the great bulk of evaluation takes place without aware attention, which is reserved for the most interesting or critical information. The assumption made in many theories that awareness and unawareness mark the boundaries between rational and irrational processes turns out to be misleading and is expressly not included in this description.

How Much Intelligence?

This ability, this flexible intelligence, is apparently possessed by each of us in such a very large amount as to be difficult for us in our present conditions to envisage. (This capacity is destroyed or diminished permanently apparently only by physical damage to the forebrain). Apparently if any of us could preserve in operating condition a very large portion of the flexible intelligence that each of us possesses inherently, the one who did so would be accurately described as an "all 'round genius" by the current standards of our culture.

This is not, of course, the impression that most of us have been conditioned to accept. We have heard, from our earliest age, that "Some have it and some don't," "Where were you when the brains were passed out?", "Don't feel bad, the world needs good dishwashers, too," and similar gems. These impressions and this conditioning, however, seem to be profoundly wrong. Each of us who escaped physical damage to our forebrain began with far more capacity to function intelligently than the best operating adult in our culture is presently able to exhibit.

The adult who does function extraordinarily well compared to the rest of us, and whom we do call a "genius" in our admiration and respect, seems to be not someone who was endowed with extra ability to be intelligent when the rest of us were "hiding behind the door," but rather someone whom circumstances allowed to keep a considerable portion of his/her flexible intelligence functioning while everyone around him or around her was having theirs inhibited and interfered with.

A Schematic Diagram

A schematic diagram of this ability can be made by enclosing a large area with a closed curve to represent a large amount, a genius-sized amount, of this ability to think flexibly. (Fig. 1)

figure1(Figure 1)

We sketch some rectangular filing cases around the top of this closed area. These represent our memory storage. Here the information from good experiences is filed after being understood in terms of similarities and differences to other data. (Fig. 2)

figure2(Figure 2)

We locate the environment below the curve in this schematic with a funnel leading from it to the intelligence, and little doorways (our sense channels) in the wide entry. (Fig. 3)

figure3(Figure 3)

On this diagram we will trace the natural functioning of a human and the occurrence of damage and mis-function.

What are we like inherently?

First, we are enormously intelligent. We have a very large capacity to respond to the environment continuously in new, precisely successful ways. This intelligence seems to be the essence of our humanness.

The second essential characteristic is a feeling or attitude.

Other Inherent Characteristics

Apparently, the natural way for a human being to feel is zestful. Inherently, a human being "gets a whale of a kick" out of living. He/She views problems as interesting challenges to be solved with enjoyment, not as occasions to be depressed or anxious or irritable.

The third basic human characteristic fits well with the other two. It is the natural relationship between any two humans.

This relationship seems to consist precisely of enjoying affection to another person, enjoying affection from another person, enjoying communication with another person, and enjoying co-operation with another person.

Vast intelligence, zestful enjoyment of living, loving, co-operative relationships with others-these seem to constitute the essential human nature.

All the rest of human behavior and feeling except these three innate characteristics and their results is acquired, is not inherent, is the result of something having gone wrong.

All repetitive mistake making, all failures to handle the environmental situation well, all the terrible feelings which enclose adults so much of the time, all the miserable relationships that are common between adults in our societies; all these spring from a single common kind of source.

Something goes wrong.

Certainly, if the above description of what the inherent human is like is valid, something has gone wrong. The vast intelligence, enjoyment of living, and excellent relationships with others which we have described as inherent are not in clear evidence in adults.

What goes wrong?

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Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00