Against The Grain

What drives human behavior, nature or nurture?: Part 1 of 4

Photo by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird on Unsplash

This story is the convergence of two opposing lines of inquiry. One is introspective, gazing inward into the mind, and the other gazing outward into nature. Both lead to the discovery of a profound truth about animal behavior. I was inspired to write as I listened to this podcast.

  1. Nature’s crafting of animal behavior.
  2. Science catching up with Buddha’s original ideas.
  3. Breaking patterns detrimental to human well-being.

Gautama Buddha went against the grain of evolutionary animal behavior toward enlightenment by incisive introspection. Over two millennia later, Charles Darwin discovered evolution by natural selection and laid the scientific groundwork for animal behavior. Emerging evidence from evolutionary psychology complement both discoveries. What do these discoveries illuminate about the human condition? This article forays into its answers, inspired by research.


Before we dive into the frameworks, let’s set a reasonable expectation to retain our bearings — a rough mental map. As we seek answers, I sincerely hope for the following outcomes:

  1. I clearly communicate the discovery of this truth.
  2. We strive to apprehend the truth by adopting it in our daily lives.

I acknowledge my witting or unwitting judgments and shortcomings. So when I use you or yours, I include myself in that list. Training the mind is easier said than done. But it is a habit that anyone can cultivate, and perfect by practice.

Map: Neuroscience and Psychology converge on Buddhist Philosophy of Impermanence. Image: By Author

The map shown above is a visual guide. I will present a short summary of what’s ahead.

Part One: Neuroscience and Genomics

No evidence exists to show Darwin knew about genes. But he was way ahead of his time, prescient in his observations of natural selection, common ancestry, and survival of fittest. The power of his ideas has revolutionized genomic transcription. It allows us to peek into primordial behavioral instincts, of memory and learning in nervous systems. We will briefly delve into this aspect of natural selection.

Part Two: Philosophy

There is no evidence to show Buddha knew about evolution either. Quite the contrary. His beliefs, whatever one makes of them, were a sign of his time. But he was onto something big as he looked inward. We know that because he said so — he was contemplating this on the night of his enlightenment by way of incisive introspection to gain this insight. The insight is Dependent Origination (Pratītyasamutpāda प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद​​ in Sanskrit), which we will explore in part two.

Part Three: Psychology

You may have noticed trained dogs, in classic Pavlovian response, raising their paw for a treat. Or chimps, anticipating a reward for demonstrating their brilliant memory recall. Or parents employ a time-out strategy to discipline their kids. These examples fall in the domain of behavioral psychology, especially of Operant Conditioning. We will draw parallels with Buddha’s self-discovery.

Part Four: Training The Mind

All three aspects intersect to reveal the profound truth about animal behavior. What underpins these behavioral patterns? Nature and nurture, both. These patterns are ancient as life on earth itself — conserved across 530 million years of evolution from primitive creatures like sea slugs to complex primates like humans. With an introspective tool like meditation, the mind can mind itself, choose rather than identify with these patterns and break the habitual rut. And as a consequence, improve personal well-being.

Behavioral Patterns

What explains compulsive behavior?

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

Have you played the lottery? Most don’t, but for the sake of argument, let’s say you can comprehend the astronomical odds of winning the lottery. That has never stopped you from buying the tickets. Each time you purchase it, you are hopeful, maybe even experience a thrill, a minuscule-chance to hit the jackpot to get off that hamster wheel. It feels great, even if it is just for a fleeting moment. All this to say, buying a lottery ticket or several at a nearby gas station never loses its appeal. Neither does any ritual of superstitiously picking the potential winning combination. If it did, you would have quit buying it long ago.

What drives impulsive behavior?

Photo by Tina Guina on Unsplash

Imagine another not-hard-to-imagine scenario. You frequent a restaurant, a local favorite. They serve a heavenly cheesecake — rich, creamy, smooth, and simply irresistible. If cheesecake is not your thing, substitute steak or whatever else you crave instead. And the relevant superlatives that describe it. Mine is Dosai, and not just any dosai, but one they serve at Vidyarthi Bhavan. You are going about your day, minding your business. Suddenly, a fleeting thought pops into your head, or worse, a TV commercial inflicts an outright assault on your senses, flaunting that cheesecake. Or using the weapons of mass distraction — a social media post, your buddy shares a picture just like the one above!

You see that cheesecake, and you want it. Thoughts, emotions, and feelings emerge and possess you. Their stranglehold has the power to move you, making you yearn for it and salivate like a Pavlov’s dog. Even summon an appetite you did not know you had, having eaten not long ago. The thought leads to an emotion, which modifies your physiology. You can almost smell it, even taste it. And you are nowhere close to that restaurant or cheesecake yet. Easy there, tiger!

What drives this impulsive behavior?

Darwinian Instincts

To comprehend the truth, we gaze outward, into nature.

To apprehend, we gaze inward, into our mind.


A Darwinian instinct is powerful as it is primordial. A feeble (or valiant) attempt to resist or dismiss, most often than not, is rendered futile. A battle pits you against you (yes, two or even more of you in your head) to overcome. Sometimes you go one way, sometimes the other. Say you are strong-willed and did not succumb to instant gratification this time. The desire that arose does not just automatically disappear — not immediately and never completely. The craving seems to make your suffering more intense. Your Herculean efforts to subdue desire seem to add fuel to an already raging fire, giving it a powerful boost. How is that fair?


You may keep it at bay by talking yourself out of it. Eventually, when the urge comes roaring back, its vice-like grip on you so powerful that it gets you off that couch and spurs you into action. You go for it. Easier the access to cheesecake, the better. Great if it is readily available in the refrigerator or delivered to your doorstep.

Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash


Upon conquest, when that first bite of cheesecake hits your tongue, relief, bliss, satisfaction, and dopamine hits invariably ensue. Another bite helps tamp down the urge to gorge. You become conscious, slow it down, as you peek a glance if someone around noticed the hungry wolf in action. After a few bites, the sensation is so unbearably good on your palate that you feel the urge to rinse it off. You wash it down with a drink. You never planned to part with that last bite, should your spouse desire for it. Nothing can stand between you and that last bite.


In these illustrations, there is hardly any thinking — there is no deliberation or careful thought. You just reflexively do it. When your animal instincts take over, you (may) fail to notice your animal-like behavior on full display. Having devoured it, you may temporarily rest in its wake, satisfied. That itch stays scratched for now. But only just, until it resurfaces. Nobody who likes cheesecake (or steak or whatever) ate just one solitary slice. Ever. It is bound to repeat all over again. We can extend this across the spectrum of human behavior — compulsive, offensive, attractive, delusional, addictive — you get the idea. A benign posture of sitting long enough on a comfy-couch eventually becomes uncomfortable.


As we encounter the next alluring thing, we hop from one craving to the next, carefully avoiding those that we are averse to. We chase after it, instinctively avoid objects that evoke fear or disgust. When we finally possess what we sought, it may make us happy. But happiness is fleeting and non-durable. Which makes for the whole enterprise of living a veritable roller-coaster — fun while it lasts, exhausting, and potentially harmful to the mind and body over the long haul of life.

To better comprehend the truth, we must gaze outward, at Science.

Gazing outward is a perfect segue into exploring the scientific basis for human behavior as revealed in genomics and neuroscience, which will be the next post in this series. I hope you enjoy reading it!


Charles Darwin: Photo by Bruno Martins on Unsplash


The tree of life is diverse and includes sea slugs, marine counterparts to land slugs. Primates (humans) are genetically related to sea slugs! And we owe our existence to a common ancestor, whose humble origin was a perch on this evolutionary tree. If you find this claim outlandish, you are not alone.

Channeling A Skeptic

Wait, but what is a sea slug? Why is it so special? I set out to learn more. Others in the audience who may hold anthropocentric views ranging from mild skepticism to downright disbelief can take their own time to digest, but with an open mind. One can dispense with these notions by learning how much we share in common. And that knowledge illuminates the human condition like an intense spotlight does to a set.

By studying them, we now have a better understanding of a multitude of neurological diseases, the primordial habitual patterns of human behavior driven by shared genes, and even understand the aging process. The next story expands our inner horizon for a greater appreciation of biodiversity and our humble origins.

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