Nature and Culture

By H. Boone Porter

We learn by comparing one thing with another, by looking at this and looking at that, and noting the differences and similarities. So it is from the dawn of human consciousness, men and women and children have learned about themselves by looking at animals. As it turned out for Adam (Gen. 2:19-20), they are well worth naming, though none is a suitable mate for a human. This process of comparing and learning has never ceased — certainly it is not ceasing in this column. 

Animal life is biological life. That is to say, what animals do can be explained almost entirely (if not quite entirely) in biological terms. The biological needs for good and drink, for reproducing the species, for defense from enemies, from cold and from excessive sun, and so forth, account for what animals do during waking hours.

Humans of course have the same biological requirements. Because our stomachs cannot digest much raw food, because our children require years (rather than a few months) to grow up, and because we are naked, it is in a sense harder for people to attain these biological objectives. Hence we are forced to use rational intelligence, and the cooperation of groups of people working together, to accomplish what neither our instincts nor our muscles could accomplish alone  — for example the transporting and storing of substantial amounts of food, or the building of houses. Even with brains and teamwork, most people during most of human history have been kept very busy, simply obtaining food and drink, rearing their children, and warding off one another or other enemies.

Yet for humans, this is never enough. We cannot live by bread alone. Humans have to find some further meaning, value, or purpose, over and above the mere maintenance of our biological existence. For some (and for all of us at certain times) the biological needs are met as quickly and as economically as possible, so as to get on with more characteristically human enterprises of war and peace, friendships and rivalries, the acquisition of money and the seeking of leisure, or the diverse branches of arts and sciences. Music is a conspicuous example of a complex and demanding human activity which is in no sense biologically necessary. Man is, and is not, a biological beast. Therein is our similarity to , and our difference from, our numerous furry cousins. 

Most of us, most of the time, choose to be participants in one or another cultural enterprise which humanize our biological urges. In most of the kindreds, races, and tribes on this earth, food and drink are carefully prepared and served, and eaten in accordance with prescribed customs and manners. And there are great meals, on special occasions, which have a meaning and symbolism imposed on the food and drink and on the accompanying human fellowship and sociability. Sex and reproduction are humanized in romance, marriage, and family. Shelter is humanized in tents, or hogans, or houses, or apartments, or houseboats, or trailers, according to the culture, background, or personality of the inhabitants. As for clothing — who can describe its various forms, colors, textures, or craftsmanship? In all of these areas, humans fulfill biological requirements, but in a vast variety of unpredictable, undetermined, purely human ways. 

At the same time, the children of Adam and Eve also try to go beyond biology by sheer quantity. The consumption of food, drink, and sex is frequently excessive not infrequently it is perverse. The wealthy, the great, and the powerful often express their status by a superfluity of food and drink. Many spouses, many houses, and lavish clothes are again characteristic emblems for worldly power. This excess, this superfluity, is one way to try to overcome or outdo the necessities of nature. At the same time, paradoxically, it is always a confession of subordination to biology.

The rarer and less frequent human response is the very opposite: the disregard of physical comfort and convenience, subsistence on the most meager diet, shelter “in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb. 11:38), the most minimal and least fashionable clothing, and the foregoing of sexual relationships. This is the heroic lifestyle of the prophet, the visionary, the saint. This is the way of life of those who use their physical frames for what they are worth but nothing more than that. Such men and women transcend the human slavery to biological requirements in a way that the rich and the noble of this world do not. Such a one, said Jesus (Matt. 11:2-11), was John the Baptist whom the church honors in Advent. You and I can not only honor and admire him but also, in some measure, be lifted by him above our preoccupation with physical satisfactions so that we can direct our attention to more ultimate goals. These are more precious (and surely more truly royal) than the gold and jewels of kings and queens. 

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977-1990. This article was published in our December 11, 1977 issue.

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