Saturday, December 7, 2019

Your Inner Animal

It's strange. There are all kinds of different challenges that modern science raises for traditional religion in general and Judaism in particular. Some of them are very serious. But if you were do to a survey and ask people what first comes to mind as the primary challenge, I bet most would say evolution. And yet, of all the challenges that science poses to Judaism, not only is evolution the easiest to resolve - it's perfectly consistent with traditional Jewish ideas about the nature of man.

I explain this at length in my controversially controversial book The Challenge Of Creation (best purchased from the Biblical Museum of Natural History website rather than from Amazon). While classical Judaism never came up with the idea that man directly evolved from animals, it always maintained that man has a fundamentally animalistic nature, with his spiritual identity being something that exists in addition to that. The Midrash states that the account of God's creation of animal life includes the creation of man, who originally had a tail. Ramban says that man was first created without any spiritual component, at which stage he was qualitatively no different from an animal, and only later did he receive a soul which enabled him to become a different type of being. Abarbanel points out that there was no special day designated for the creation of man; instead, he was created on the same day as animals, because man fundamentally is an animal, with merely the potential to become something different by overcoming his animalistic nature. (See too Rav Soloveitchik's The Emergence of Ethical Man, which is about how man emerged/evolved from a fundamentally animal nature.)

It's a pity that so many people are hostile to acknowledging this. Among other benefits, recognizing our animal side can be greatly beneficial in psychology. Recently I have been reading books by Loretta Graziano Breuning, founder of the "Inner Mammal Institute." She demonstrates how many psychological processes in people are functions of chemical processes in the brain that are manifest in basic animal behaviors. Here's one example:
Happy chemicals did not evolve to surge all the time. Their job is to get your attention when something promotes your survival. They turn off soon after they turn on so they’re ready to get your attention to the next good thing.

A recent monkey study makes the ups and downs of dopamine amazingly clear.  Researchers trained a group of monkeys to do a small task in exchange for a spinach leaf. Then the experimenters rewarded the monkeys with squirts of juice instead of spinach. Juice is a lot more rewarding than spinach because it has much higher energy value. The animals’ dopamine soared. Dopamine is the brain’s way of saying, “this reeeeally meets your survival needs.”

Then something curious happened. The monkeys’ dopamine fell over time. They continued getting the juice reward for the task each day, but their brains stop reacting to it. This shows that dopamine is the brain’s reaction to new information about new rewards. Once the juice was part of the routine, no effort was needed to get it and no dopamine was needed to record the survival lesson.

...This is the survival mechanism we’ve inherited. Old rewards don’t make us happy because the brain soon habituates to them. It takes what you have for granted and focuses its attention on new rewards. If you could get bigger and better rewards in every moment, you would never have to experience the core unhappiness of being a mortal human being. But that desperate seeking causes unhappiness of its own.

This unhappiness is usually blamed on “our society” because people don’t understand how they are creating it in their own brain. You are free to step off the “hedonic treadmill” whenever you choose. You can do it in one instant, just by accepting your unhappy chemicals instead of rushing to mask them with happy chemicals. You will find that your unhappy chemicals are not nearly as terrible as the habit of running from them.

When I read this, it reminded me of something written by Nosson Slifkin in an old (and sometimes odd) book called Second Focus. When Yaakov meets Eisav and offers him gifts, Eisav at first politely refuses and says “I have lots.” Yaakov presses him, responding that “I have everything” — whereupon Eisav accepts the presents, after all. Eisav, a wealthy man, considers himself to have lots and lots — but not everything. Yaakov, on the other hand, considers himself to lack nothing. This isn’t because he presently happened to possess a considerable degree of wealth. It reflected his outlook on life which was consistent regardless of his personal situation.

Eisav is demonstrating the natural, animalistic behavior of human beings. Physical pleasures and material wealth do not provide permanent happiness - instead, one always needs more of them, to provide more dopamine. But Yaakov has been able to rise above his animal nature.

We can make a conscious effort to modify our animalistic thought-patterns, in this case meaning to intellectually realize the good in our situation and learn to be satisfied with it. As Chazal say, "Who is wealthy? He that is satisfied with his lot." If this came naturally, it wouldn't be something to strive towards. The natural behavior is our inner animal; our spiritual task is to overcome that. But it's the awareness of our inner animal which enables us to become something more than just an animal.

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  1. Very good post. I agree with the metaphor, that humans have an animal instinct and that humans must progress (evolutionary). Aristotle felt that humans become distinct from animals when they evolve (develop their intellect).

    However, I would add that Adam was the first Homo sapiens because he was the first person to possess a soul, the neshama. See Genesis 1:27. In his Guide (part 1 chapter 7), Maimonides describes who was similar to Adam in intelligence and looks. But they were animals who co-existed with Adam.[1] But lacking the neshama, these pre-Adam hominids were not considered human. This accounts for Genesis 1:26, when G-d says “Let us make Adam.” When the Mishna mentions the “masters of the field” it is denoting to the pre-Adams animals (who had the intelligence to perform the skills of farming 2000 before Adam). The error in the word "men" when we say, cavemen. But they were not men. As Kabbalist. Rabbi Michael Laitman said, "Adam had a father and a mother like you and me."

    Adam was the first man. Nahmanides (kabalistic commentator) explains that G-d gave Adam a soul and infused this in the first man and Adam became “another kind of man.” This is for when G-d makes Adam.[1]

    The meaning of Genesis 2:7

    Verses 1:26 states, “Let us make man in our demut. Verse 1:27 relates that “G-d made man in His tzelem, in the tzelem of G-d, He made him.”The word demut means “likeness.” G-d created man in His “likeness.” But G-d does not has body, so man cannot have G-d’s “likeness.” The meaning of tzelem is “shape” or “form.” A divine “shape?” 12th-century sage, Moses Maimonides felt that the two denotes the essence of two things. What is the essence of man? His intelligence.

    Genesis 2:7 reads: “The L-rd G-d formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a nefesh chayah.” Onkelos does not render this simply as “a living being,” but characterizes this as man's ruach m’mal’la, “one with the power of speech,” a phrase denoting a certain level of intelligence. The targumic interpretation and Egyptian Jewish philosopher Philo understood this intellect to be “the breath of life” in his Specialibus Legibus 4:123.

    The British Museum of Natural History in London denotes a whole section to early humans. It states that at first, they were only small villages, no cites. But around the time of the Bible, or about 5,000 years ago, man began to develop cities and a society was formed with agricultural farming, and most of all, civilization, and that this occurred around this time, the creation of Adam. Summary

    The phrase tzelem Elohim, “the image of G-d,” Elohim means “awesome.” G-d created people with the awesome power of intelligence. Thus, G-d states in Genesis 1:26: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. Maimonides felt that this denotes intelligence. That a person should develop his or her ability to think because that is like G-d. This occurred about 5,000 years ago when Adam was born with a large amount of intelligence.

    Indeed, Rabbi Kook was correct when he said:

    "The theory of evolution (hitpattehut) is increasingly conquering the world at this time, and, more so than all other philosophical theories, conforms to the kabbalistic secrets of the world. Evolution, which proceeds on a path of ascendancy, provides an optimistic foundation for the world. How is it possible to despair at a time when we see that everything evolves and ascends? When we penetrate the inner meaning of ascending evolution, we find in it the divine element shining with absolute brilliance. It is precisely the Ein Sof in actu which manages to bring to realization that which is Ein Sof in potentia." (Kook, Orot Hakodesh II:537).

    [1] Adam in Hebrew means man

    [2] This idea is attributed to Gerald Schroeder in his book The Science of God

    1. Schroeder's book The Science of God seems to misrepresent Torah, Ramban, Ramban, Gemorah etc: see the ACJA links.

    2. Alter, I like Schroeder and I used to chat with him, but generally, I follow the rational teachings of Rabbi Israel Drazin and Maimonides. These rational concepts may be alien to you because most people do not know that rational Judaism exist. If you wish to correspond further, you can send a contact like in your cite (I wasn't able to find or nor leave comments) and we can chat via email. For starters, I accept the fact that the Talmud has many wrong science that was not well developed in its day. This may come as a shock for most people, but it does not dilute religion. I am an Orthodox Jew. I am not an atheist. Nevertheless, atheism can purify much in religion. Rabbi Kook wrote that “atheism cleanses the dross of ‘petty religion,’ the narrowness and provincialism of established religion that frequently becomes arrogant, rigid and judgmental. We need these people, these atheists, who seek to befriend us.” Thus, atheism is a GOOD path to rational religion (though not the only one).

    3. Also, I agree that Kuzari did not prove Torah or G-d.

    4. @Turk Hill - I hope Rav Slifkin would not mind if you (and others) provided me with opinions here regarding my post that argues Rambam did not intend Cro Magon etc: in the way Schroeder interprets Rambam. see

    5. @Turk Hill - Master of the Fields - difficult to know what they represent - see

    6. @Altwe Croker - I agree that it did not say anything about pre-Adam people. I was describing Schroeder's view.

      Actually, I think that there is lots of truth in the theories of evolution. I believe that people have evolved. I do not think that this detracts from the idea that God created or formed the world and the laws of nature. We are not the same as people hundreds of thousands of years ago. There are various theories about evolution that differ in detail, but this does not destroy the basic idea.

      As far as I know, Maimonides never addressed the theory of evolution. I think he would have accepted it. He accepted the investigative scientific methodology of Aristotle. He rejected the somewhat mystical notions of Plato. So he relied on science. In fact, in one of his medical books he wrote we should not rely on tradition, even the traditional ideas of the great physicians of the past, because our knowledge increases. He did not accept the notion of the decline of generations, but felt that people improve over generations.

    7. @Turk Hill - So you and I seem to agree that Schroeder is shoe horning Cro Magnon, Neanderthals into Rambam. I appreciate your comments. FYI - I have checked every Jewish source Schroeder used in his book and in almost every instance he was making gross speculations and twisting his sources. I have documented in my blog posts.

    8. @Alter Crocker - I agree that Schroeder has a different interpretation of Rambam, but I don't subscribe to the view that he twisted the sources. It is possible that Schroeder reads pre-Adam hominids into Rambam because he felt that this was Rambam's intent. In any event, Rambam felt that prophecy and revelation was a natural event. It follows that Rambam did not say anything about pre-Adam people, although he would have accepted evolution. 

  2. "Happy chemicals did not evolve to surge all the time. Their job is to get your attention when something promotes your survival."
    - Like skydiving?

    "Juice is a lot more rewarding than spinach because it has much higher energy value."
    - Not because it tastes better?

    1. Rambam does not seem to be describing pre-Udum hominids. see

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Nice to see when Nosson agrees with Natan ;)

  4. “Controversially controversial book.” brilliant!

    Regarding Yaakov and Eisav: my mom repeatedly told me that if someone gives me a gift, I should respectfully say thank you and graciously accept it, even if it’s not what I would have ideally wanted. I think Eisav may have been doing that after he refused initially. He saw that Yaakov wanted to give a gift and was gracious in accepting. Further, as a lawyer, I will point out the importance of consideration in any binding contract, such as a peace treaty. The giving of the gifts may have been necessary to seal the deal.

  5. Your title reminds me of Prof. Neil Shubin's book, Your Inner Fish, in which he takes us on a journey though the multi-billion history of the evolution of the human body. Fascinating, and it explains a lot about our frequent aches and pains.


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