Steven Perston
Human/Nature Freshman Inquiry at Portland State University

The Diversity of Human Experience

University Goal on Diversity of Human Experience: Students will enhance their appreciation for and understanding of the rich complexity of the human experience through the study of differences in ethnic and cultural perspectives, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability.

Korean, black, Eskimo, Latino, male, female, gay, bisexual... whatever the "category(ies)" one might fall under, they still share and live in the same world and universe as you or me.  But the very many types of lifestyles to choose from and one's different opinions and ideas along with his or her experiences and encounters are what make a culturally diverse and insightful human experience.  To understand diversity is understanding the very many different ways of viewing each aspect of the human experience and can lead to a fulfilling and harmonious life.   

Fall Term Group Project

For the fall term group project, my group and I decided to record different people's opinions on various subjects involved in the nature of humans.  The reason I choose this assignment as an adequate source for diversifying one's human experience is because of the amount of different viewpoints I found in the public on the subjects of evolutionary biology, primatology, and language and culture.  Though "we are all in this together," as one might say, each person's ideas and opinions and views of the world are all shaped by his or her own perception of the world and perception of his or herself.  To see so many different viewpoints from so many different people, one's own perception may change, thus changing one's own human experience.      

To view a copy of the assignment, please click here.

This project asked for each group to present a display of their views of human nature specifically through the subjects of evolutionary biology, primatology, language, and culture.  For my group, consisting of Aaron Smith, dealing with primatology; Megan Willeford, culture; Josh Hilliard, evolutionary biology; and 
myself, dealing with language; we decided to make a brief informal documentary that explains how the public views the stated topics.  In order to do so, we came up with questions to ask the public which reflected various aspects of each subject. 

The questions are:
  •  What does natural selection mean to you?
  •  Do you believe in evolution?
  •  Is the human language more complex than that of other species?
  •  How is language formed?
  •  Do you consider humans to be naturally violent?
  •  How does the study of primates help us to understand human nature?
  •  Do you cultural views affect how you interpret the world around you?
  •  How is culture related to human nature?

The following is the resultant video my colleagues and I presented to the class:

In addition to the video, we also answered the very questions we came up with in our own words:

What does natural selection mean to you?
Natural selection means species that are best adapted to their environments will survive, not survival of the fittest.  It's like the peppered moth; if one of the moths was faster or stronger than the rest of it's kin, but still lighter in color, then it could not be as well be hidden as the darker moths which may not even be as physically fit.  Also, there appears to be a general misunderstanding amongst the public about natural selection (referring to the video). 

Do you believe in evolution?
Yes, and this puts us in the minority; a recent Gallup poll revealed that only 40% of Americans believe in evolution.  This is the second lowest in the developed or semi-developed world.  We are only ahead of Turkey!  The poll also revealed that 36% of the population was unsure or had no opinion on the situation.  

Is the human language more complex than that of other species?
Our language, which started out as grunts and utterances, has become a well constructed arrangement used in art, philosophy, science, etc.  The reason the human brain is able to produce something so complex, as Jean Aitchison puts it, is "qualitative, not quantitative." What Aitchison means by this is that the human brain has evolved to form in such a way that it performs most efficiently and processes faster than the brains of other species.  And just as that capacity increases, languages becomes more complex as well. 

How is a language formed?
While hominid species evolved over millions of years, their thought processes may have expanded; their intellect grew by applying meaning to gestures, symbols, sounds, and objects.  Carl Zimmer explains in his book Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins, the relation between language and intelligence: "The human brain contains networks of neurons that specialize in language."  Zimmer is telling us that as language grew, our brains grew to process that growth.  Beyond neuronal development, our organs involved in speech have evolved to function with greater fluidity in relation to the type of language we produce as a species. 

Do you consider humans to be naturally violent? 
Watching the news for about five minutes, you could be assured in the fact that humans are more than capable of extreme, obscene, and even unadulterated acts of violence.  Still, it's hard to say outright that humans are violent by nature.  I prefer to say that humans are predisposed to violent behavior due to historical precedent, environmental factors, and situations which put them in physical danger.  A good indicator of learned violence is the adage "monkey see - monkey do."  For example, children raised in a home with violence are more apt to exhibit violent characteristics than children raised in a non-violent environment.  

How does the study of primates help us understand human nature?
The observation of non-human primates, man's closest evolutionary relative, is a key element in discerning where the roots of our collective behaviors may stem from.  Since behavior doesn't leave anything behind for us to study, such as fossils or artifacts, we must rely on the current behavior of species close to our own in the scheme of evolution.  The search for our nature through primate research allows us to note our similarities and differences as a species.  A clear difference between man and non-human primates is self-awareness.  Man, through greater cognitive ability due to accelerated cortical development, has become aware of himself.  Self-awareness combined with language abilities unlike any other animal pave the way of the rise of culture.  Culture turns the cogs of society, which shapes our views.  Primatology allows for us to uncover the roots of language, culture, and ultimately, our own species.  

Do cultural views affect the way you view the world around you?
Our culture and the environment that we grow up in very much affect our view of the world around us.  Culture in and of itself is a reflection of the "system" in which one is raised.  A culture makes a person different from others and defines a person in the lens of that culture.  Common sense is one culturally constructed idea; one's own common sense is closely related to their view of the world and can be seen as a kind of aftermath for the effects of culturing.  One example from Geertz describes a boy from the Zande culture who stubs his toe on a tree stump.  While he may cry witchcraft, someone from another culture may simply suggest he should watch where he was going.  This is a great example of how culturing affects common sense and, in turn, affects the way each of us interpret the world and the happenings within it.  

How is culture related to human nature?
Culture as posed in this question plays a vital role in our understandings of human nature.  Children make a great example; children raised in an environment. 

Group Project Reflection

Within this group project weren’t too many obstacles for us to get around as far as working as a group.  We all understood that there should be a shared leadership and we understood we needed to start working as soon as possible.  So every Wednesday we would meet after mentor session for about an hour and discuss our ideas and goals for the project and how to get these ideas and goals accomplished.  

Each one of us had a strength that we could use for this project.  Since Josh is a wiz on the computer, we decided we could put a movie together and have Josh do the editing once we get all the footage.  Aaron, who demonstrated great leadership skills throughout the entire project, helped us make sure to really carry on with the whole project and was very gung ho to work as much as possible and complete this project with ease.  Megan made sure to complete all the work asked of her and did so with excellent quality and on an efficient timely manner. 

Our goal for this project was to create something and perfect it.  We knew making a movie would be tough, but we figured the challenge is worth the risk.  In order to make a good movie we needed as much footage as possible, so we set out for Saturday market, Safeway, and Pioneer Place and got what seemed to be hours upon hours of footage.  We also made sure to be courteous and upfront to the people we asked to be in our film, and use our best communication skills while doing so.

Our only conflict during the making of this project was finding an adequate part of the day to get together, but unfortunately all of our schedules did not exactly line up.  This forced us to work separately on our own and then put all of our work together once we did have time to meet up.  I believe this conflict was dealt with productively because though we couldn’t always meet up when we’d like to, we were still able to work individually and accomplish the work needed to be done.  

A part of the project that we definitely could have done better on is the time length of our video.  The video combined with our presentation introduction and the speaking done throughout various parts of the presentation added up to a total of twenty minutes which is twice the amount of time given to present.  Another flaw detected in our video is a man answering the question, “Is human language more complex than that of other species?”  The man seems to know what he is talking about and gives an excellent brief answer but unfortunately the only part of his seen is his mouth and moustache.  Coincidentally, the moustache in combination with his unintentional humorous voice attracted the audience away from the message of the video.   Though I was satisfied with the grade I received, we as a group could have done better on the length and overall quality of the video.    

Art Museum Project

In the midst of winter term was a project that required students to seek four works of art in the Portland Art Museum and write about them and the artist's view of nature.  Two of which must be written using Feldman's guide of "Looking Analytically," and the other two must contain contrasting views of nature.  This assignment is a superb source for finding the diversity of the human experience because from ancient cave art to the most modern form of photography, it is a marvelous technique for viewing culture and one's own identity.  Art can be seen in almost everything we do, it is what helps make each person unique and different from each other.  

To see the Art Museum Project assignment, click here

Below is my explanations for each of the four paintings I chose

First Feldman Guide - Mercury and Argus, Bonaventura Peeters I, 1644

In the painting Mercury and Argus, done by Bonaventura Peeters I (1614-1652) in 1644, are two men slightly older than middle-aged both sitting by a tree in an open woodsy area on a sunny yet slightly cloudy day.  Surrounding the men are not only trees, but also multiple goats roaming nearby and a few cows lazily hanging about.  The two sheperds seem to be resting and enjoying their time in the woods, one man is even playing a flute while the other eagerly listens.  The trees are mostly dark colors and take up most of the area of the painting while the brightness comes from the sky and clouds and can also be seen where a trail might exist leading behind the tree.

 In Greek mythology, Mercury is a Roman god often associated with Hermes, the son of Zeus, both of whom have many of the same characteristics, including playing the flute.  The reason Mercury is playing the flute is to bring Argus to sleep, who has been put on duty by Hera, the wife of Zeus, to watch over the cow that had previously been a very beautiful and seductive girl named Io before Hera turned her into a cow for having an affair with Zeus.  Behind the tree that Mercury and Argus sit by is another goat, rather lurking suspiciously and seemingly involved in the swindling of Argus, and is likely to be Hermes’ son, Pan, who has been described as having goat-like features and represents the Greek god of nature. 

Greek mythology is a vast collection of myths and legends explaining the nature of the world and universe.  Using the roles of Mercury and Argus, Peeters has illustrated a delightful and inviting piece of art through the use of allegorical representation.  

Second Feldman Guide - Still Life of Flowers and Fruit, Severin Roesen, 1872

An American artist by the name of Severin Roesen (1815-1872) painted an oil on canvas still life on flowers and fruit, finished in 1872.  In this painting is a medium sized bowl containing a very large amount of different kinds of flowers that grow in all sorts of directions greatly exceeding the typical height of a bouquet.  Surrounding the bowl are various fruits including a tipped over bowl of cherries, green and purple grapes, a bowl of strawberries, and a peach.  This painting has very many colors and an overall bright tone with each flower just as distinguished as the next.  The style of the arrangement of the flowers look as if they were placed in the bowl very clumsily or carelessly yet they remain upright and facing the viewer. 

To identify nature so tastefully and inventively shows how human civilization uses nature not only for our necessities, but also aesthetically as well.  For someone to actually go through the work of gathering such an array of flowers and placing them in a bowl simply for our eyes to gaze at exemplifies the longing humans have for art and beauty.  But what is it that separates wild nature from man made nature?  Obviously the term “man made” does, but the fact that wild nature isn’t good enough and this artificial nature is what is preferred is what creates the line separating the two. 

We admire and in some cases even worship displays of nature like Roesen’s still life, analyzing and scrutinizing for meanings deep within the works of the artist.  As time goes by and cultures evolve, new meanings can be depicted with each new generation.  Unfortunately our relationship with nature is increasingly becoming more and more distant.  But with the help of art, future generations can learn where true nature derives from. 

First Contrasting Metaphors - Still Life of Bowl of Fruit, Willem Kalf, 1679  

Within the Hoffman Gallery inside the Portland Art Museum is an exquisite oil on canvas still life finished in 1679 by European artist Willem Kalf (1622-1693).  Much like many of Kalf’s other works, this painting in particular includes a bowl of fruit sitting in a well decorated bowl slightly tilted to the viewer’s left, the bowl sitting on top of a shiny platter and a colored cloth hanging down from the platter.  Behind the bowl sits two very prosperous looking wine glasses: one tall and skinny, the other being much shorter and very round, both containing what I assume to be white wine.  Of the fruit are two peaches, a lemon, and also another fruit that may possibly be an apple or an orange. 

In many cultures fruit is used to represent wealth.  The fruit in this painting combined with the extravagant dishes and cloth give me the impression that nature is wealthy.  Aside from the obvious image of wealth Kalf has demonstrated, I also happened to get a contrasting message that nature is genuine.  The reason I came to this conclusion is because all of the fruit in the painting happen to be rotting.  It definitely was not the first thing I noticed, but it quickly took my attention away from the wealth and caused me to think maybe the rotten fruit are to show that the surrounding wealth is actually fake (figuratively speaking) and though fruit is typically used to represent wealth, it instead rots away and carries on with it’s natural life processes. 

Nature does not become infatuated with fallacies such as wealth, something man has created and since then always longed for.  Wealth is very commonly associated with power and almost go hand-in-hand, and many would agree wealth and power lead to corruption.  The display of the rotten fruit lean toward the idea that nature does not abide to the laws of wealth and corruption, that nature holds many truths we can never find with the use of abuse and excess we‘ve falsely displayed as necessities. 

The part of this painting that causes the most confusion is the lemon peel that spirals off the rotten lemon and out of the bowl onto the platter.  The way we manipulate nature to suit our tastes could possibly be the reason the fruit is rotting to begin with, and the lemon peel which has been cut in such a way dangles onto the platter connecting nature with the surrounding wealth with the aid of a humanly touch.  Willem Kalf not only portrays these metaphors inside this still life, but instills new meanings of nature in the minds of his viewers.   

Second Contrasting Metaphors - Peanuts, De Scott Evans, 1890

Upon my visit to the Portland Art Museum was my stroll through the American Art Gallery where I came across an oil on canvas painting done by De Scott Evans (1847-1898) titled Peanuts, done in 1890.  In this painting is a life-size block of wood in an illusion to look like the painting is an actual block of wood with a cracked and broken piece of glass (assuming it was once intact) nailed to it and peanuts behind the glass with a small note sticking out between the block and glass that reads “Free Sample - Take One”.

This was the very first thing that I noticed, that the painting is an illusion: a frame, with a frame inside, and then a broken glass frame per se, then peanuts.  Almost instantaneously, my focus was drawn to the frame that the painting was in and how it made me really consider what’s real and what’s painted (unfortunately the frame cannot be seen in the image to the right).  Is the frame itself painted onto a canvas? Is this an actual block of wood and not just a painted one? I realized that the painting is a painting, and that the frame was probably selected for this painting to contribute to the wondrous event the artist has created.  The message I get from this painting is that nature is illusory. 

Once past the illusion, one finds the humor that the artist has also displayed.  Choosing peanuts for the “free sample” is something most would say is funnier than choosing berries or a small candy of some sort.  But instead, peanuts are just funny in certain scenarios and had actually made me laugh while interpreting this painting.  The message I’m getting from this is one contrasting to my initial message, that nature is humorous.  However, it is to my belief that nature did not conceive humor or intend for it, but that humor is something life, specifically humans, have created without any effort and is constantly becoming increasingly complex as intelligence and culture also increase.  Without the human ability to perceive nature as anything and apply meaning to it, humor would not exist.

Though other audiences and most definitely De Scott Evans have various views on the messages portrayed in Peanuts, these emerging ideas display new comprehensions I have not yet interpreted, thus forcing me, the viewer, to think back on my views and contemplate the differences.  The more knowledge we gain within the many forms of nature, such as a peanut, the greater our perceptions expand on the overall meaning outlook on life.  

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