an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Posts Tagged ‘child psychology

20: bonobo and human families, early childhood and free will

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ye olde nuclear family, and its enclosures

The bonobo reproduction rate is low, as is ours these days, though for different reasons. Bonobos don’t tend to go all the way, while humans have contraception even for naughty catholics. Muslim scholars seem a little confused about the issue, but are generally more accepting than their catholic counterparts. As to children, humans are rather more possessive about them than bonobos. Bonobo females are largely in charges of the kids, collectively, and paternity is unknown and undisputed. Think about how that would play out in human society, which for millennia has been largely patriarchal, patrilineal and even primogenitive. 

This doesn’t mean male bonobos are hostile to kids, as it’s generally a caring and sharing society, and besides, humouring the kids is a good way of winning favours from their mothers and others. Think of how that would be as a kid – you wouldn’t just be able to run to dad when mum’s mad at you, you’d have any number of adults to run to. You’d also have a range of adults to learn from, to identify with, to consider as role models, as well as to play off against each other. 

Modern, supposedly advanced human society is very different. We live in separate, securitised houses, in nuclear families – ideally mum, dad and 2⅓ kids – with a garden surrounded by a high fence, if we’re ‘lucky’. The grandparents live across town, or in another country, or a nursing home. Visitors are vetted by smartphone. Of course often it’s a single-parent situation, usually mum, and the odd long- or short-lived boyfriend. She works, so the kids spend a lot of time in day-care, meeting other kids and sharing with them one or two adults, who don’t get too close, wary of being accused of funny business. Rarely are these adults male. Still it’s pretty good, lots of toys and games and things to make and do, all in primary colours, but it’s not every day because it’s too expensive, you (the kid) sometimes get shipped around to aunties or friends or assorted baby-sitters, or you get switched to a new centre, with a whole bunch of strangers, or a kid you really like just disappears. But mostly you’re at home with your stupid brother, until school days arrive and you have to wear a uniform, and mum fusses over you and makes you feel nervous and watchful about whether you look different from the other kids, in a good or bad way. And you learn stuff and you like or hate the teacher and you start competing with the other kids and start thinking about how smart or dumb you are. 

Modern human life is pretty regimented. At a certain tender age you go to school where you learn first of all the basics of numeracy and literacy as the first steps toward being civilised. You also learn about rules and regulations, time management and the difference between work and play. Thrown into the school pool of humanity, you’re driven to contemplate and come to terms with variety: fat and skinny, pretty and ugly, noisy and quiet, smart and dumb, friend and enemy and all in between. You learn to make judgments, who to trust, who to avoid, and what to pay attention to. The prefrontal cortex, that amazing human asset, is continuing on its great connective journey, as you negotiate yourself between the formal and the free, between regimentation and independence. 

Yet all the research tells us that most of those judgments you make at school, and which you vaguely remember having made, are actually the product of that growth period before the laying down of memories, distorted or otherwise. And that includes your ability to make effective judgments. 

In the first few years of life, we form more than a million new neural connections every second. In fact, so many that after this surge of connections comes a period of pruning for order and efficiency. But this early period of development requires stimulation, which comes in infinite varieties of ways, including, of course, the bonobo way (and I don’t mean tree-climbing and chomping on insects), the chimp way (watching adult males battling it out), the Tiwi Islander way or the Netherlands royal family way or whatever. And much of this guided stimulation forms our behaviour for the rest of our lives. And the lack of it can reduce our capacities for a lifetime, in spite of subsequent kindness and care, as the notorious case of the Romanian orphans kept in horrendous states of neglect under the Ceauşescu regime has shown, though interestingly, some 20% of those adopted orphans have grown up showing little or no damage. Stimulation can come from within as well as without, and neglect has many variables. 

It stands to reason that we as individuals have little or no control over our development in this crucial period. Which brings me to the issue of free will. Philosophers have traditionally argued for free will on the ‘could have done otherwise’ basis. I could have drunk tea rather than coffee with brekky this morning (though I invariably drink coffee). I could’ve chosen x from the restaurant menu instead of y. So often these trivial examples are given, when it’s screamingly obvious that you don’t get to choose your parents, your genetic inheritance, your early childhood environment, the country or period you were born into, or even the species you were born as (I could’ve snuffed out your brief candle by treading on you in this morning’s walk). Given these restraints on your freedom, restaurant choices surely pale into insignificance. 

But let’s stick with humanity. I won’t go into the neurological underpinnings of the argument against free will (as if I could), but if we treat no free will as a given, then the consequences for humanity, vis-à-vis our handling of crime and punishment, are stark, as  the neurologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky points out in the penultimate chapter of his book Behave, entitled ‘Biology, the criminal justice system, and (oh, why not?) free will’. This is a vital issue for me, in terms of a more caring and sharing bonoboesque society, so I’ll reserve it for another essay, or two, or more.  

References

InBrief: The Science of Early Childhood Development

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanian_orphans

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst. 2017

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 6, 2021 at 12:43 pm

Who will ultimately take responsibility for the boy-king?

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I’ve not read the book The dangerous case of Donald Trump, which seeks to highlight the POTUS’ mental health issues, because like many an ignoramus, I consider myself already an expert on these matters. The term ‘boy-king’, used by Sam Harris among others, sums up this individual quite nicely. ‘Spoilt brat’ is another term that comes to mind. It’s a term that would repay some simple analysis. Food, or a holiday, or a romantic evening, that is spoilt usually can’t be unspoiled. It’s gone, it’s done, you need to start again with another meal, another evening, another holiday. A spoilt child, unfortunately, is the same. He’s spoilt forever – that’s why early childhood is so important. I’m sure the psychologists analysing Trump have focused particularly on his childhood, as it is always key to understanding the adult, as the famous Dunedin longitudinal study and countless other studies have shown. Think also of a spectacular and tragic example – the Romanian orphans discovered after the fall of Ceausescu, not spoilt brats of course but permanently damaged by extreme neglect. And another – Masha Gessen’s  biography of Vladimir Putin provides insight into his horrifically malign personality through glimpses of a bizarre childhood in the devastated post-war city of St Petersburg.

I don’t know much about Trump’s childhood, but I imagine it to be very much like that of the proud patrician Coriolanus in one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Coriolanus is both spoilt and il-treated by his mother, so that he struts about from the get-go with an air of privilege and power, a sense of self-importance which is completely unearned. Trump is much the same – too smart to actually learn anything, too important to need anyone’s advice. Of course, Coriolanus is a brave warrior, while Trump is a coward. And yet, in the field of business he’s also a scrapper, relishing the language of macho thuggery.

But enough of the literary guff, Trump’s less than adequate upbringing is plain to see in his solipsistic, tantrumming output. Amongst many screamingly serious red flags was his question to a military authority, ‘If we have all these nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them?’ Apparently he asked this question repeatedly. It’s a question an adolescent, or rather a pre-adolescent, might ask (most adolescents are pretty sophisticated these days). It can be interpreted two ways – he wasn’t being serious, he was just attention-seeking, or he was being serious and he genuinely couldn’t grasp the enormity of what he was saying. Both interpretations, and they could in some sense both be true, are indicative of a pre-adolescent mind-set. And by the way, so is his constant repeating of the same phrases, which reveal the lack of language skills of the pre-adolescent. And there are many other examples – the nasty name-calling, the transparency and ineptitude of his lies and attempted cover-ups, the neediness, the impulsiveness, the attention deficit, everything he says and does just about.

But here’s the problem I keep coming back to. Trump’s pre-adolescent behaviours have been on display since his pre-adolescent days, much more publicly than with your common or garden spoilt brat. So why was he ever allowed to make a tilt at what Americans would undoubtedly describe, with much reason, as the most responsible position on the face of this earth? THIS is the greatest conundrum of the Trump presidency. Americans like to argue that anybody can become President, as if that’s one of the things that makes America great. It’s a very very very very bad argument.

Another screamingly obvious point: this spoilt brat should be removed from office because, as a perpetual pre-adolescent, someone who will never become an adult, he’s totally incompetent for this position. Yes he has probably committed crimes, but that’s not why he should be removed. It’s because he’s actually just a little boy. He’s not responsible for his actions. It’s not his fault that can’t think clearly, that he’s impulsive and tunnel-visioned and profoundly insecure and pathologically self-absorbed. In fact, if he’s ever indicted, he should probably be tried as a minor, because that’s what he is. But that he is President, that will forever be America’s shame.

The famous fable of the Emperor’s new clothes comes to mind. In this variant, everybody tries to pretend they can’t see that their President is a little boy. Some of his long-time associates or playmates quite genuinely support him, are possibly quite genuinely oblivious of his profound stuntedness, perhaps because like is attracted to like. Others have found him a ‘useful idiot’ to be cynically manipulated for their own ends. Most of those opposed to him prefer to pretend he’s fully adult so that they can punish him and all his cronies to the full extent of the law. But another over-riding reason for all the pretence is that nobody around the President, or indeed in the whole country, wants to take responsibility for allowing a little boy to become their POTUS. A little boy who’d been quite clearly a little boy since he was a little boy, some sixty years ago. And it didn’t take anything like a degree in psychology to see it.

A spoilt, brattish, hurt little boy with the power of the POTUS in his hands is a very frightening thing. Bringing all this to an end isn’t going to be easy, but doing so as quickly and painlessly as possible has to be the highest priority.

And what about Pence? If Americans come to their senses and realize that all of a little boy’s political decisions, whether in office or before, should be invalidated because he’s a minor, then they’ll avoid the post-Trump disaster of President Pence. Will they do that? Very very unlikely. That would be a very adult undertaking indeed.

Written by stewart henderson

August 30, 2018 at 2:28 pm