Religious Reasons Why Humans Are Not Apes – OpEd


Jose Yong, points out in The Conversation 4/4/23 that humans are an interesting mixture of altruism and competition. We work together sometimes and fight to get our own way sometimes. Among the great apes, chimpanzees and bonobos share about 98.7% of our DNA. Bonobos are our closest cousins but chimpanzees dominated research after Jane Goodall discovered in the 1960s that chimpanzees make and use tools. 

This paved the way for research on chimpanzees as a way to understand which human behaviours are biologically rather than socially conditioned. An array of human characteristics, including empathy, playfulness and respect for elders have since been attributed to our shared ancestry with chimpanzees.

However, one disturbing characteristic of chimpanzees is that they are very territorial and attack each other in coordinated assaults and they make allies in order to violently overthrow the alpha male. So some scientists have said these warlike tendencies are hardwired in us the same way they are hardwired in chimpanzees, which challenges the view that wars are solely a man-made activity.

Once overlooked, researchers are now recognizing bonobos as more similar than chimpanzees to humans. Unlike the male-dominated groups of chimpanzees, bonobos live in peaceful groups  where the chief is female. For instance, the prospect of food can stir chimpanzees into a hostile frenzy, but bonobos take a more harmonious approach.

Bonobos also seem eager to share. Experiments at Lola ya Bonobo, a bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2010 show that when bonobos are put in adjacent rooms and one is given food, that bonobo would rather share the food than eat alone. They have also been observed sharing food with those outside of their group, perhaps to make new friends. 

And they demonstrate a willingness to help others obtain food even if they won’t get to share it. Bonobos also have brain circuits that seem more predisposed to sharing, tolerance, negotiation and cooperation than chimpanzees.
Humans seem to have incorporated some of the traits of both species, resulting in an ongoing  tension between our aggressive and harmonious proclivities. From a Jewish and Muslim point of view every human is not a victim of original sin. 

From a Jewish point of view every human being has both competitive and cooperative impulses.

The Torah tells us that God has given us free will and life and death are important in making the right choices. “I HAVE PUT BEFORE YOU LIFE AND DEATH, BLESSING AND CURSE: SO CHOOSE LIFE!” (Deuteronomy 30:19) and Genesis tells us how to make the right choice. “IF YOU DO RIGHT YOU WILL BE UPLIFTED, IF YOU DO NOT DO RIGHT, SIN CROUCHES AT THE OPENING, ITS PASSION IS FOR YOU BUT YOU CAN CONTROL IT’ (Genesis 4:7) 

UPLIFTED: Originally there was no Torah promise of reward in the afterlife. Uplifted means you feel an intrinsic inner pride and self-worth for doing good. The reward of doing a Mitsvah is the opportunity to do more Mitsvot. (Avot 4:2)  

CROUCHES: All humans are animals. We inherit genetic inclinations/impulses that can influence us to do evil. They must be tamed, controlled, disciplined and directed by our morally educated will to do good. Whenever we do wrong, an opportunity/opening is created that tempts us to do more wrong. Evil is also a learned behavior. (Avot 4:2) 

PASSION: Evil is attractive. In the short run it is rewarding and addictive. We become accustomed to doing evil and think it is natural and normal. Greed, selfishness, jealousy, stubbornness, deceit, bigotry, hatred and violence are rationalized and even commended. 

CONTROL: The Rabbis called the untamed animal impulses that lead us to do wrong: the Yetzer. The Yetzer isn’t intrinsically evil, but if it is not controlled by a conscious ethical will it easily leads us to do evil. Ambition, competitiveness, display, greed and status seeking can lead to hard work, success and social/economic accomplishment. It can also lead to exploitation, manipulation and oppression. Sexual desire can lead to loving relationships, tenderness and children. It can also lead to adultery, rape and incest. 

As Rabbi Samuel bar Nakhman said, “The words ‘behold it was good’ refer to the good Yetzer and the words ‘it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31) refer to the bad Yetzer. But how can the bad Yetzer be called ‘very good ‘? Because scripture teaches that were it not for the bad Yetzer a man would not build a big house, take a wife, beget children, or engage in business.” The bad Yetzer is only bad when it is uncontrolled, untamed and wild.

IT: Most people are driven by competitiveness and rivalry to prove themselves and seek success. As Rabbi Judah said, “The world is driven by three things: rivalry, lust, and compassion.” Rabbi Judah acknowledges that our animal heritage also provides us with impulses for empathy, compassion, co-operation, love and loyalty. 

However, our Sages believed that without conscious moral training these impulses could not control the powerful impulses that derive from rivalry and lust. Thus Torah and Mitsvot are needed to tame/train a human personality to become a Mentch. Even then it is always a struggle. 

The great sage Abbaye, seeing others resist a temptation he couldn’t, was told “The greater the man, the greater the Yetzer.” Females do not need as many Mitsvot as males because a large part of their good Yetzer derives from generations of mothering. This is why the Talmud says woman have more intuitive insight than men. Niddah 45

Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish taught that ‘challenge’ was the fundamental force in life. The challenge of temptation-Satan; the challenge of selfish or aggressive impulses—Yetzer; and the challenge of death-despair are all variations of God’s ‘challenge’ to humanity stated concisely in our verse and in the Mitsvah “Choose life!”

The post-Biblical Rabbis expanded and deepened the Torah’s two types of impulsive human behaviors, which I will describe in my next article.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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