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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