an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

on luck, and improving environments

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Trump wasn’t born here, and neither was I

I’m in the process of reading Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology and biology at Stanford University, who has tried in his book to summarise, via the research literature, the seconds, then minutes, then hours, then days, then lifetimes and more, that precede any particular piece of behaviour. It’s a dense but fascinating book, which aligns with, and provides mountains of evidence for, my view that we’re far less in control of ourselves than we think.

It seems we think this because of what might be called conscious awareness of our behaviours and our decisions. This consciousness is something we sometimes mistake for control. It’s interesting that we consider it obvious that we have no control over the size of our nose or the colour of our eyes, but we have more or less complete control of our temper, appetites, desires and ambitions. 

 Humanistically speaking, this understanding about very limited control needs to have massive implications for our understanding of others. We don’t get to choose our parents, our native country or the immediate environment that most profoundly affects our early life and much of our subsequent behaviour. The flow of hormones and neurotransmitters and their regulation via genetic and epigenetic factors proceed daily, hourly, moment by moment, and all we’re aware of, essentially, is outcomes. 

A lot of people, I note, are very uncomfortable about this kind of talk. For example, many of us want to treat each other as ‘equal before the law’. But is one person ever ‘equal’ with another? We know – it’s obvious – that we’re all different. That’s how we distinguish people, by their smiles, their voices, their fingerprints, their DNA. So how can we be different and equal at the same time? Or, to turn things around, how can a legal system operate if everyone is treated as different, unique, a special case?

Well, in a sense, we already do this, with respect to the law. No two bank robberies, or rapes, or murders are the same, and the judiciary must be highly attuned to the differences when applying punishments. Nowadays, and increasingly, the mental state of the offender – particularly at the time of the offence, if that can be ascertained – is considered when sentencing.  And this is surely a good thing. 

The question here is, considering the exponential growth of our neurophysiological knowledge in the 21st century, and its bearing on our understanding of every kind of negative or positive behaviour we engage in, how can we harness that knowledge to improve outcomes and move from a punitive approach to bad behaviours to something more constructive?

Of course, it’s one thing to identify the release or suppression of glucocorticoids, for example, and its effect on person x’s cognitive faculties, it’s entirely another thing to effect a remedy. And to what effect? To make everyone docile, ‘happy’ and law-abiding? To have another go at eugenics, this time involving far more than just genes? 

One of the points constantly hammered home in Sapolsky’s book is the effect of environment on everything that goes on inside us, so that, for example, genes aren’t quite as determinative as we once thought. Here are some key points from his chapter on genes (with apologies about unexplained terms such as epigenetic, transcription and transposons):

a. Genes are not autonomous agents commanding biological events.

b. Instead genes are regulated by the environment, with environment consisting of everything from events inside the cell to the universe.

c. Much of your DNA turns environmental influences into gene transcription, rather than coding for genes themselves; moreover, evolution is heavily about changing regulation of gene transcription, rather than genes themselves.

d. Epigenetics can allow environmental effects to be lifelong, or even multigenerational.

e. And thanks to transposons, neurons contain a mosaic of different genomes. 

And genes are only one component of the array of forces that influence or control our behaviour. We know, or course, about how Phineas Gage-type accidents and brain tumours can alter behaviour, but many other effects on the brain can alter our behaviour without us and others knowing too much about it. These include stress, malnutrition, and long-term cultural and religious influences which permanently affect our attitudes to, for example, women, other species and the food we eat. Domestic violence, drug use, political affiliations, educational outcomes and sexual affinities are all more inter-generational than we’re generally prepared to admit. 

The first thing we need to do is be aware of all this in our judgment of others, and even of ourselves. There’s just so much luck involved in being who we are. We could’ve been more or less ‘good-looking’ than we are -according to the standards of the culture around us – and this would’ve affected the way we’ve been treated throughout our whole lives. We could’ve been born richer or poorer, with more or less dysfunctional parents, taller or shorter, more or less mentally agile, more or less immune to the pathogens that surround us. On and on and on we could go, even to an extreme degree. We could’ve been born in Algeria, Argentina or Azerbaijan. We could’ve been born in 1912, 1412 or 512, or 150,000 years ago. We could’ve been born a mongoose, a mouse or a mosquito. It’s all luck, whether good or bad is up to us to decide, but probably not worth speculating about as we have no choice but to make the best of what we are.

What we do have is consciousness or awareness of what we are. And with that consciousness we can speculate, as we as a species always have, on how to make the best of ourselves, given that we’re the most socially constructed mammalian species on the planet, and for that reason the most successful, measured by population, spread across the globe, and what we’ve done for ourselves in terms of social evolution – our science, our technology, our laws and our politics.  

That’s where humanism comes in, for me. Since we know that ‘there but for the randomness of luck go I’, it surely follows that we should sympathise with those whose luck hasn’t been as lucky as our own, and strive to improve the lot of those less fortunate. Safe havens, educational opportunities, decent wages, human rights, clean environments, social networks – we know what’s required for people to thrive. Yet we focus, I think, too much on punishment. We punish people for trying to improve their family’s situation – or to avoid obliteration – by seeking refuge in safer, richer, healthier places. We punish them for seeking solace in drugs because their circumstances are too overwhelming to deal with. We punish them for momentary and one-off lapses of concentration that have had dire consequences. Of course it has always been thus, and I think we’re improving, though very unevenly across the globe. And the best way to improve is by more knowing. And more understanding of the consequences of that knowledge. 

Currently, it seems to me, we’re punishing people too much for doing what impoverished, damaged, desperate people do to survive. It’s understandable, perhaps, in our increasingly individualist world. How dare someone bother me for handouts. It’s not my fault that x has fucked up his life. Bring back capital punishment for paedophiles. People smugglers are the lowest form of human life. Etc etc – mostly from people who don’t have a clue what it’s like to be those people. Because their life is so different, through no fault, or cause, of their own. 

So to me the message is clear. Out lives would be better if others’ lives were better – if we could give others the opportunities, the health, the security and the smarts that we have, and if we could have all of those advantages that they have. I suppose that’s kind of impossible, but it’s better than blaming and punishing, and feeling superior. We’re not, we’re just lucky. Ot not. 

  

Written by stewart henderson

December 4, 2018 at 2:22 pm

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