Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Of men and brains and rats

Observers of the affairs of man in an age of mass destruction weaponry have long worried about the future of the human race. Why do men so often make erroneous decisions and act in ways detrimental to their interests and even to their survival? Is not Homo sapiens the epitome of millions of years of evolution, “a noble animal, splendid in ashes, pompous in the grave?”1

To seek answers, we may well go to those who have studied this noble animal and also others not so noble. Several decades ago, anthropologist Robert Ardrey (1908–1980) warned that we deny at our peril the process by which human behavior evolved over millions of years.2 Arthur Koestler (1905–1983) struck an even gloomier note by suggesting there must be something wrong with the human brain.3 Could it be that Homo sapiens received his brain too fast? As evolution proceeded by trial and error, could some construction fault in the circuitry of the brain explain the unholy mess man made of his history?2,3

Evolution began with an ancient, primitive reptilian brain, a persisting central structure that still plays a primary role in establishing territory, finding shelter, hunting, mating, breeding, forming social hierarchies, and selecting leaders. It is concerned with establishing ceremonial rituals, legal actions, political persuasions, and religious convictions. It is not rational. And it remains a storeroom of old memories, ready at a moment’s notice to enforce or disrupt human behavior.2

Surrounding this primitive system, humans developed a new structure, the neocortex. This allows for foresight and memory, symbolic language, conceptual thought, and self-awareness. It is more advanced and sophisticated than the old reptilian brain, but it speaks in a language the old brain does not understand. Only through moods and emotions can the old brain communicate with the new, and only with great difficulty can the new brain talk back, for “it is precisely the equivalent of talking to animals.”2 And whenever our primitive reptilian brain gains the upper hand, we act against our better judgment, follow our worst impulses, and cannot control ourselves.2

Konrad Lorenz has suggested that a Martian observing the dreadful conflicts and wars on earth would never conclude that human behavior is dictated by intelligence or morality.3 He would find unreasoning and unreasonable nations compete when there is no economic necessity, political parties or religions with amazingly similar programs fight each other bitterly, and “great men” such as Alexander or Napoleon sacrifice millions of lives in an attempt to unite the world under their scepter. Man indeed is a jeopardized creature, ponders Lorenz mournfully, a creature often operating on instinctive traits such as amassing of property, aggression, and self-assertion, but insufficiently equipped with reliable inhibitions to prevent the self-destruction of the species. He is drawn unavoidably to the conclusion “that man’s social organization is very similar to that of rats, social and peaceful like humans within their clans, but veritable devils towards all fellow members of the species not belonging to their own community.”3 For beneath the civilized veneer of our newly acquired reasoning neocortex rages the wild reptilian brain with which we started off millions of years ago.

Oil painting of four rats standing on hind legs and holding hands in a circle
The Dance of the Rats. Ferdinand van Kessel, c. 1690. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. Public domain.


  1. Sir Thomas Browne. Urne Burial, JM Dent & Sons, Everyman’s Library, London.
  2. Robert Ardrey. The Social Contract, New York Atheneum, 1970.
  3. Konrad Lorenz. On Aggression, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Spring 2019  |  Sections  |  Psychiatry & Psychology

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.