(An Explanation of Everything?)
John Courtneidge, 13 North Road, Hertford, Herts.

I am going to describe a very simple idea, which, I believe, can explain all aspects of human behaviour. I appreciate that you might find that notion impossible, but, please have the courage to think over what I’m saying and then try to use this idea to analyse any aspect of "the human condition" (history, family matters, child-raising, education, etc) that interests you.

I am going to start with just one belief and one alone: that, of all the tasks that face us, the only one that, as a species, we cannot escape is the job of producing the next generation. To do that, we have to survive from day to day and, therefore we have four basic needs (that’s why I call this my "Four-Component Needs Theory"). They are:

o Food, air and water,
o Warm clothing and shelter,
o Human contact (companionship, conversation, intimacy) and,
o An activity (paid work, education, child raising, home making, etc)

The first two arise because we are warm-blooded animals and so we need energy to survive long enough to find a mate. The second two arise because we are social, thinking animals. Because we have these four basic needs, we have the four associated fears that our needs will not be met: the fears of hunger and thirst; of homelessness and cold; of loneliness and isolation, and, finally, of unemployment and boredom.

When people are frightened, they try to reduce their fear. They do this in two ways: finding a solution on their own, or "using" someone else to find the solution for them. At the most basic level, "using" other people involves exploiting them: exercising power over them to achieve your own ends. At a simple level, for example, you could remove your fear of hunger by stealing someone else’s food, or, in the extreme, you could even eat them to satisfy your hunger! Take as an alternative example, our reaction to people who don’t behave as we wish.

A persistently naughty child, for instance, might be threatened with being kept in (no companions to play with) or with being sent to bed without any dinner (no companions, and the fear of hunger) and so on. At one level, we use the manipulation of these fears as a way of socialising our children: by forcing them to be social creatures. Thus, in the way that we all believe that stealing and cannibalism is wrong, our children have to be taught that theft (and eating people) is wrong. These things aren’t born in us.

Our most basic instinct, like all animals, is for self-survival: we have to continually learn, learn and, then, re-learn again the benefits of co-operation. Again, when we are frightened, we either run away or, if that’s not possible, we fight: it takes a lot of courage to say to someone who is just as hungry as you might be "OK, let’s share what I have and then let’s try together to find our next meal."

However, if we don’t do that we run the risk of losing the lot if the hungrier person attacks us, or worse still, being killed by them as we eat. This fear of hunger is the most basic fear that we have, and its’ manipulation is the most potent weapon that anyone who wishes to exert power over us can use. Stroppy prisoners can be locked up with nothing to do: kept alone in solitary, kept cold or ill-dressed, but nowadays, we draw the line at starving them into submission (although they can turn the tables by forcing us to heed their wishes by going on a hunger strike!).

This fear of hunger is most acute when we look forward to the future. We most fear hunger in old-age and at times of illness (times of greatest vulnerability) and, accordingly, we continually (consciously and unconsciously) spend big chunks of our time trying to work out strategies for avoiding hunger in these times of adversity. The whole of human history can be analysed in this light: ever since it became possible to store food and the equivalent of food, land and money, people have struggled and fought to capture more and more provisions againstan uncertain future.

In the past, this struggle would have involved tactics like plundering the store houses of neighbouring communities, stealing their cattle, putting their people into slavery and even taking over their lands. Today, we still do much the same: although in more subtle ways. At base, however, none of us can insure ourselves against all unforeseen circumstances. However much we collect food, money, land and so on, however high we build the barricades around our homes, however many other people we "trap" into defending our interests, none of us can guarantee against all unforeseen circumstances.

Thus, our future is best served by joining together and sharing all the world’s resources: to provide for our four daily needs and to minimise our anxieties: a problem shared is a problem, at the very least, halved! Indeed, for survival, our interests are best served not by competing against one another, but against our innumerable other competitors: viruses, bacteria and the like. It is our success in fighting these competitors through public health measures that is one reason for our continued survival, and is, I think, is one of the most powerful arguments in favour of continually remembering the success of human co-operation. Collective efforts have always served us well in the past. After all, what other species has had our global and, even, extraterrestrial success?

Thus, if we persist in being prey to our primitive fears, we will certainly fail to provide for our own needs. By sticking together we’ll certainly have happier lives: without doubt, if we don’t have the courage to join together, loneliness, hunger, cold and boredom will certainly be our fate.

John Courtneidge October 1995.


Postscript, February 1999
In brief: our actions are determined by the struggle between our selfish need-sets and our social need-sets. When we focus on our self-survival needs, we automatically lose out on fulfilling our social needs and thus create all the ills of dysfunctional people, families, societies and world.