The Human Paradox

How does philosophy and marine biology relate? This question was answered, to my surprise, by John Steinbeck in The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck is my favorite author and my college roommate, Chris O’Brien, recommended that I read this quite eclectic memoir. The memoir is a true account of Steinbeck, his marine-biologist friend, and a boat crew who took a 6-week journey around the Baja California Peninsula to collect marine animals from tidal zones. I was not expecting this type of book from Steinbeck and I had no idea he had interests in tiny invertebrates with obscure Latin names. Steinbeck is first and foremost a philosopher and he uses storytelling to translate his worldviews-obviously seen in his most famous works. What I loved most about The Log from the Sea of Cortez, was that Steinbeck took a quite banal subject of collecting samples of invertebrates and related it to philosophical thoughts on human behavior.

There is a strange duality in the human which makes for an ethical paradox. We have definitions of good qualities and of bad; not changing things, but generally considered good and bad throughout the ages and throughout the species. Of the good, we think always of wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity, humility; and the qualities of cruelty, greed, self-interest, graspingness, and rapacity are universally considered undesirable. And yet in our structure of society, the so-called and considered good qualities are invariable concomitants of failure, while the bad ones are the cornerstones of success. A man—a viewing-point man—while he will love the abstract good qualities and detest the abstract bad, will nevertheless envy and admire the person who through possessing the bad qualities has succeeded economically and socially, and hold in contempt that person whose good qualities have caused failure. When such a viewing-point man thinks of Jesus or St. Augustine or Socrates he regards them with love because they are the symbols of the good he admires, and he hates the symbols of the bad. But actually he would rather be successful than good. In an animal other than man we would replace the term ‘good’ with ‘weak survival quotient’ and the term ‘bad’ with ‘strong survival quotient.’ Thus, man in his thinking or reverie status admires the progression toward extinction, but in the unthinking stimulus which really activates him he tends toward survival. Perhaps no other animal is so torn between alternatives. Man might be described fairly adequately, if simply, as a two-legged paradox. He has never become accustomed to the tragic miracle of consciousness. Perhaps, as has been suggested, his species is not set, has not jelled, but is still in a state of becoming, bound by his physical memories to a past of struggle and survival, limited in his futures by the uneasiness of thought and consciousness. (pg 80 para 2).

We are in constant battle within ourselves when it comes to survival and morals. Sadly, our society uplifts the pursuit of money, status, and selfishness while the pursuit of consciousness is only given credence when it benefits the latter pursuits. Which child would parents brag about most? One who grows up to have a high-paying career but luke-warm ethics or a child who grows up to have a low-paying career but strong ethics. Humans, in a sense, were taken out of the primordial oven before all of our consciousness was congealed. We have sentience but at the same time we have the survival instincts of a sea cucumber. The sins of survival are all around us; in the sense of personal survival there is the relentless pursuit of money and status; in the sense of generational survival their is the obsession with sex. The key to completing the “baking” process is being conscious of our limited consciousness. How can we gain consciousness? I believe it is best done by acquiring knowledge, learning from the mistakes of our ancestors, and looking at the world with an open perspective. Realize what you really need to survive—food, water, shelter, access to modern medicine, security—and once you have obtained those things focus your efforts on—”wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity, and humility.” We will never reach perfection but at least we can point our feet in the right direction.

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