Means to Survive

Each living thing has within it the means for survival. Some can fly, others can swim, some are very fleet, others are very big. Some have very tough skins, others can blend in with their surroundings. Human beings have none of these features...and yet they can adopt them all.

They can use their complex speech to cooperate with each other, their dexterous hands to fashion tools, their expanded minds to imagine possibilities. Together, these things make humans unique among animals.

But, like all other living things, humans rely first on their senses to survive.

      The tree senses changing sunlight patterns to know when to grow or when to shed its leaves. The bee uses its sense of sight to know if a particular flower is a source of nectar. A dog uses its sense of smell to know if an area is another dog's territory.

The information a human being (or any living thing) needs to survive is provided by the senses. They see or hear or feel or taste or smell something and the information is sent immediately to their brain so that it can determine what it means to them at that moment.

      Does the tree mean a potential canoe, lumber for a house, fruit to eat, an escape route, shade, a hiding place, bark for medicine, sap for syrup, leaves for weaving, wood to burn to keep warm, or just a wondrous sight to behold?

And this information is added to their store of knowledge so they can best determine the means to keep themselves alive. (Besides information gathered through observation, knowledge can be learned from other humans, be they family members or other members of a group...or even their enemies.)

Because the main goal for each human is survival, the most important use of the senses is to determine whether something is dangerous. So, the information gathered through the senses is first filtered for anything that might be threatening.

Humans are constantly on the alert for such threats, even if their conscious minds aren't aware of it. It is an automatic response.

      You see the charging bull. You feel the heat of the flame. You smell the spoiled fish. You hear the footsteps approaching behind you. You speak the words, "I'm over here!" You depend upon your senses. This is how an individual survives. It is how you survive.

The world thus starts from behind their own eyes and ears. They must view the world from within themselves because it is the beginning of the world for them. It is their own senses that they must rely upon. They may understand that other humans get hungry or sleepy or tired -- like they themselves do -- but it can only be their own sensations that they really know. And they know them because they must deal with them; they have no choice.

      The world is oriented around me. Then it revolves around us. Then it includes them. It is not something we choose to do; it is something we must do. We must interact with the world this way to survive.

They are continually distinguishing between danger and safety, need and fulfillment.

      The bite of that spider can make me sick. The oil from this leaf can make me well. I am very tired; I should rest. That person has a short temper and is angry with me. This person is smart and can help me solve this problem. I am very hungry...where can I find something to eat?

Hunger, for example, is an alarm set off by the body because without sustenance the body will die. Eating food turns the alarm off. This is a pure reaction. Individuals have no control over the alarm; only over the response do they have any influence. Every living thing has this alarm built in, just as they have alarms for thirst, sex, fleeing danger, and so forth.

      You may choose to eat or not to eat, but you cannot choose not to be hungry.

And they know they will get hungry, so they store food. The mind can not only store knowledge, it can also anticipate needs.

As fewer alarms are sounded -- or when fewer alarms are anticipated -- humans not only feel more secure about their own future, they also are more secure about creating and rearing children. And since reproduction is a main law of species survival, this is extremely powerful. Thus, humans seek a comfort level, a level at which there are fewer threats or fewer unmet basic needs. Stability and security, then, are much sought after.

The senses aren't the only part of the body a human uses by reflex. They walk and talk and run and reach and hold and sit...without having to think about it. They don't have to tell their bodies what movements need to be made to walk up to the apple tree, reach up, take hold of the apple, and pull it off the stem. These movements are inherent in all humans.

Along with the ability to do something comes the ingrained attitude needed to use that ability. An attitude is a way of thinking when one is doing something.

The body uses different muscles and senses to do different things, and the brain changes its priorities as well. To do a particular task, certain parts of the brain dominate so that muscles, hormones, senses, etc., can function better to carry out that task.

The brain focuses on the task at hand: the eyes filter out information that isn't necessary; the reflexes shift to prepare the body to act in a certain way; adrenaline increases or decreases, depending on how much energy the body will need to perform the task; the mind pushes unneeded sensory input aside so the person can concentrate on the task.

So, to carry out an action, the body's muscles are used in a particular way, the senses focus differently, and the mind focuses on the matter at hand.

      Standing, walking, running, swimming. In each case, the mind shifts its focus to increase attention in those areas needed to do that activity. Someone standing still can use all their senses and change their attention to any general direction quickly and easily. Those running, however, must focus more on the direction in which they're running. They must look more carefully for obstacles and be able to react to them quickly.

      Each of these actions carries with it a different attitude. The runner thinks differently than the walker. The runner thinks like a runner. The sensory information needed for the runner to run shunts aside any unneeded information. The mind focuses on running above other things.

The human brain not only stores the instructions on how to do these things, it also stores the knowledge that a human can do it. Individuals may not consciously tell their hands to grasp the apple...but their brains do. This information is stored in their brains and is ready to be called up whenever it is needed.

      The need to survive is not taught around the campfire or in living rooms or down at city hall or in a classroom. You might be taught how best to survive, but not that you need to survive. You might be taught how best to cooperate, make tools, or imagine, but you do not have to be taught that you can do these things.

All humans may have the same basic instructions; to allow them to run, for example. But some humans are better at carrying out particular instructions: some can run faster or more efficiently than others. All humans can coordinate their eyes and hands and arms to shave a sliver from a block of wood with a sharp instrument, but some have the ability to shape and fashion the wood into useful and beautiful things. Others, however, have absolutely no talent for this at all.

And although anyone can improve their skills through practice, some start out at a higher level. Their bodies and minds seemed to be tuned to that kind of activity. All humans have some skill, even a small one; and some have more than one special skill.

      With any skill or talent or devotion to a skill comes a way of looking at the world. The skilled wood carver looks at a piece of oak far differently than does someone with no ability to carve.

The diversity of talents that can be found within different humans adds to the odds of survival for the species. One may run faster; another may be a better leader; one may do craft work better, another may have a special sense for preparing something good to eat; one may be good at healing others, another may be stronger mentally or physically.

Diversity is an integral part of the survival plan for humans.

  • A variety of individuals producing young adds much to the gene pool. Inbreeding does nothing to help the species thrive.

  • Diversity increases the possibility that some member of the group can succeed at a task that the group needs doing.

  • Diversity helps humans adapt to changes in their environment because the attitudes that come with different skills allow individuals to view situations in different ways. And the more possible solutions to a problem, the more likely it will be that the best solution will be found.

  • Diversity in humans increases resistance to disease.

  • Diversity is a very important reason why humans seek out each other and live together in groups.

    Though they must take care of themselves first -- it is the first law of survival -- they must also work with and take care of others. In fact, they depend on others for their individual survival, for survival of the group, and thus for survival of the species. Taking care of themselves also means taking care of others.

        One individual can find food, build a shelter, build a fire and cook, devise means for protection against predators, and live on. But two can do it better, faster, easier. And living alone doesn't increase the chances of the species surviving. We need each other. And born within each individual is the knowledge that this is the way it should be.

    Humans help each other survive and prosper. Their complicated communication system allows them to go beyond simple cooperation. Like other species, humans can cry out at approaching danger to warn others, but they can also name a river and explain in detail to another human that it will bend to the left, then to the right...without having to go to the river to show those turnings. They can tell their young about what has passed and what may come, what may harm them and what can help them survive.

    Some things need to be taught to a young human.

        That dog might bite you, this one probably won't.

    Some things are learned firsthand.

        I got bitten and I don't like it at all!

    And some teachings are the passing on of explanations of natural things.

        Dogs bite to protect their territory.

    The young see for themselves that they are like other humans, but they also see that in certain ways they are different, that they are individuals. They learn that they can do some things better than others, and some things not as well. They also observe how members of their group act...and also how they react when someone does something the group feels should or shouldn't have been done.

    Much of how they behave is based on their experiences, what they see their group doing, what they themselves try to do. And much of what they are taught by others is based on lessons those individuals have gleaned from their own experience. They also pass on their experiences to their young.

    The young learn that ...

    some traits are shared by all humans,

        Everybody gets hungry.

    some are shared by a large group,

        In this place, we all talk the same way.

    some that are shared only by their immediate group,

        My family lives in this house.

    and some traits that are their own

        Only my face looks exactly like this.

    Humans differ from other species, too, in that they are aware that they are learning.

    Because humans are capable of thinking about things they cannot touch or see or know about through their own experience, they also come to realize that they can die. This is one of a human being's most distinguishable characteristics. Death, which is common to all living things, is open to contemplation in human beings.

    In most other species, natural actions and reactions help an individual survive, which in turn helps the species survive. This is simple reflex, unconsidered because the individuals are incapable of giving it thought.

    Humans -- because they can think about themselves, about their own dying, about how they feel -- try to find meaning in all these things and try to explain and interpret all that they think and do. And because humans are diverse in everything from their body shapes to their skills and talents to their individual experiences, these explanations and interpretations can be as different as they are.

        Human beings seem to be an experiment of nature.

        Instead of fur, claws, sharp teeth, a thick hide

        Instead of size, speed, wings, underwater lungs

        Instead of strength of eyesight or hearing or sense of smell

        Instead of having a natural disguise,

        We were given:

        Thumbs that would give us a better grip,


        Tongues that would better allow us to talk to one another,

        and, most important,

        The wits to think of what to do to survive and flourish.

        We still have the same basic urges as all other animals: sleep, eat, escape danger, have sex. And while our major concerns are as fundamental as satisfying our basic urges (like all other animals), our wits also give us the ability to wonder about the urge itself. We ended up with the two-edged sword of being alive and being aware that we are alive.

        It is a mighty tool, but it often grows hot in our hands.

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