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Survival: Lifesense and Learning

Our instinct for survival is an underlying ground for learning. It shapes how we think and what we do. Survival tunes our thoughts, emotions, and motivations. Our ancient ancestors experienced survival as hunting for food and protecting themselves from the elements. Today ideas about survival thrive in a new environment strongly influenced by modern technologies. The character and personality of survival is different to that of our ancient ancestors, but our primal instinct remains a strong driving force in our lives today. Exploring how our instinct for survival shapes and influences our lives is an important way to explore learning...

Learning Instincts

An instinct is considered to be an inherent pattern of behaviour made in response to a particular set of circumstances. An instinctual reaction to a situation means that we react to a situation immediately and without contemplation of our actions. In this sense, an instinct leads us to consider the idea that we are all pre-programmed in certain ways. An instinctual reaction happens before thought has a chance to occur. With respect to learning, understanding and perhaps changing our instincts becomes an important consideration. The definition of "instinct" in Wikipedia notes that:

Instincts generally provoke an organism to action, unless overridden by intelligence, which is creative and hence far more versatile then instincts, which take generations to adapt; an intermediate position is served by memory, which provides individually stored successful reactions from experience. The particular actions performed may be influenced by learning, environment and natural principles.

This is an interesting idea, that is, the notion that our intelligence and memory can be used in a manner that overrides and alters our instincts. More simply, we can learn to change our instincts - our pre-programmed reactions to particular situations - from one state to another and perhaps improved state. The first requirement, it seems to me, is to try to reveal the nature of our instincts. This can be difficult since they operate in hidden ways. Once revealed, the second requirement would be to find ways of moving them toward a more desirable state.

Our instinct for survival is fertile ground to explore this idea. The idea of survival provokes our primal selves. Surrounded by the conveniences of modern technology our instinctual reactions are, for the most part, no longer driven by the ancient quest for food, water, and shelter. In Western culture, these have become an assumption in our lifestyle, although many people in the midst of our modern world still suffer from a lack of basic needs.

John Downer presents the idea of "lifesense" to us. It invites us to ask the question, "What is our sense of life?" At the heart of this question lie some important probes into the nature of survival.

Lifesense: The World Through Animal Eyes

In Lifesense: Our Lives Through Animal Eyes John Downer provides a compelling exploration of the similarities between human and animal behaviour. His main premise is that:

Because of a belief in our superior intellect, we arrogantly assume that we must have deliberately set out abandoning our original hunter-gatherer way of life. But this was far from the case.
- Downer, John. Lifesense: Our Lives Through Animal Eyes. London: BBC Books, 1991.

Humankind, with all its modern technology, remains closely tied to our ancient instincts for survival. While it may not be the character of survival in the ancient hunter-gatherer sense, it is survival in the modern psychological, social and economic sense. We are the hunter-gatherers of an illusive and mercurial notion we call "progress." And this notion is tainted with the arrogance of superiority as we constantly damage our natural environment in the competitive pursuit of progress. This pursuit not only damages the natural diversity of the earth, it also damages our spirits. David Suzuki's The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place In Nature is in many ways an appeal for an new sense of life - a new lifesense (refer Brain: Narratives, Neural Pathways & Experience).

Learning to Survive

What is the modern context for survival in our society today? In an important way many of our underlying social and economic directives bring the idea of survival into a different context:

  • Physical Survival: When our modern technologies are removed, we are faced with the ancient quest for basic needs. Food, water, shelter and clothing (as protection from the elements) are essential to survival at the physical level. Progress, in this context, is quite literally aimed at the survival of the body. Today we are capable of producing more food, water, shelter and clothing for every human being on the planet, yet millions of people live in intense suffering and want of these basic necessities. This is a reflection of Downer's comment about human arrogance. If our collective intelligence was superior in any meaningful way, the idea of charity as it exists today would be completely irrelevant. Further a great deal of the food we produce has adverse consequences on the human body. Quite literally, we produce food that is bad for the human body. We also struggle with eating not only the right food, but the right amount of food as made obvious by the plethora of diet and healthy eating programs on the market today.

  • Emotional Survival: The quest to live a happy and vibrant life is in constant conflict with increasing levels of depression and misery in our world. While we produce more and more material things, there also seems to be an increase in our unhappiness. Our emotional well-being is weighed down in material pursuits and our feelings are too often driven by material progress. Of course it is obvious to say that material things driven by an obsessive-compulsive work ethic do not lead to happiness. In spite of our ability to articulate that fact, our actions reveal something quite different. Humankind is often at odds with itself revealing an immature collective intellect, not a superior one. We are capable of manipulating people's emotions in order to manufacture victims. Emotions are not commodities, yet we struggle to rescue ourselves from the commercialization of human feelings.

  • Social/Cultural Survival: The quest for acceptance in the face of rejection in our communities and societies is a driving and competitive feature in our lifestyles. We have created "classes" for ourselves, as well as trite ideas such as human capital. These classes are a form of confinement and lay to waste our speeches and ideologies surrounding equal rights and opportunity for all. In the most extreme circumstances we are capable of denigrating cultures other than our own. Social systems and cultures can offer opportunities for freedom, but they can also serve as intellectual and emotional prisons. It is on this level that our competitive drive causes some of our most dramatic mistakes. Our social and cultural ideologies set the stage for survival as the quest for identity.

  • Economic Survival: Economics is simply kind of sporting event in which humankind seeks to "win" material wealth. It is a notion that is antithetical to the animal world. A great deal of what we do in our world is miserably centered the pursuit of money and the frail sense of power and security that comes from that. There is no real wealth or power in purely economic terms, yet in order to survive we are forced into playing this game otherwise the basic necessities of life may not be provided. The idea of work has become isolated from passion and therefore meaning. Work and career have become divorced from vocation. In other words, there is a tendency to view the work we do as mostly as a means for economic survival, instead of a deep connection to our soul (refer: David Whyte: Crossing the Unknown Sea - Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity).

  • Artistic Survival: By artistic survival I mean the basic human need for creative self-expression. Art is really not about the production of objects, it is about the quest for deeper meaning and expression of life. It links our soul and spirit to living. An artist is an individual that treats his or her life as a work of art in constant motion. Art is a means to connect to our Muse, our spirit and our soul. It may be that true artistic expression is an endangered species. A lot of creative expression today is really something far less than artistic expression. It is mere facade, glamour and narcissism. We live in a time when Art has been outcast from society. This is perhaps one of the most damaging features of progress since it is the artist that invites us to consider new perceptions and perspectives on living. Indeed, it seems that we no longer assume that there is an artist lying deep within each of us. An artist is a wanderer, explorer and discoverer of perceptions about the human condition and the natural world. Their personal journeys echo the primal screams survival itself.

Our Sense of Life

What is our sense of life? If we were to make a comparison between a human lifesense and an animal lifesense we may perhaps find that in some ways the animal lifesense reveals a superior intellect. For example, their relationship with the earth is one of mutual support and respect, not thoughtless destruction.

In Becoming Human, Jean Vanier proposed four essential qualities necessary to build meaningful and durable communities (refer: Jean Vanier: Community Belonging):

  • an openness to the weak and needy in our own groups;
  • groups that empower others to make their own decisions;
  • remaining focused on what unites us rather than what separates us; and
  • the community’s ability to recognize its own errors and flaws and to seek help from outside the group.

This to me embraces community as lifesense, or a deep and meaningful sensibility toward life. It also points out that a community is not always a place where people find it easy to survive in. Perhaps this leads us back to Fowler's notion of our own arrogance. If our intellect is so superior, should humankind still be having basic issues such as the ones aptly described by Vanier? Why is humankind still trying to learn how to belong?

The survival instinct is of course unavoidably selfish. But, as Vanier suggests, that selfishness can be used to help build other people up, not tear them down. Stephen Biko speaks to this same point. We often speak of online communities, social networks, and the like, yet these environments are relatively insignificant compared to the kind of community that Vanier speaks of.

Our lifesense has an intimate and unavoidable connection to our primordial instincts for survival. Understanding them and making efforts to change them into something more humane is a fundamental direction for humankind. The assumption here is that our intellect and memory can in fact be used in ways that alter our instincts, that we are not held captive to pre-programmed reactions and behaviours. If this is a possibility, then ideas about learning must acknowledge the central role that instincts play in our lives.


  • John Downer: Books
  • John Downer Productions
  • John Downer: BBC Motion Gallery
  • TV Nature: Life With The Lions - John Downer

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