Apr 232008

Uniquely for humans, it is ‘nurture’ not so much as ‘nature’, which is our defining characteristic, and is, simultaneously, both the bane and glory of our existence

I enjoy reading Feisal Naqvi. He usually has something worthwhile to say; he argues well and is always interesting. Above all, he writes lucid, impeccable English.

But in his column of April 14, “Monkey see, monkey no like”, he made a claim I consider contentious, if not false. And the prospect of working up my objections into a column has proved too tempting to resist.

This is what Feisal said: Fairness, it seems is hard-wired into our brains, so much so that even monkeys (and little children) have an instinctive regard for ‘equity’ and, more importantly, an instinctive angry response when they do not see justice being done.

Is that really the case? Is that assumption justified, either on an a priori theoretical basis, or on the basis of powerful factual evidence? Does the conclusion Feisal drew from the examples he quoted preclude many other, logically equally possible (but different) deductions, other than the specific one he made?

Neuroscience is still very much in its infancy; and where knowledge is not clear-cut, resort to analogy (in the present case, with the workings of a computer) has often proved very useful in advancing comprehension. And yet, we must — as always with analogies — be careful not to get carried away.

Similarly, Sociobiology — the attempt to explain some social behavioural traits in Darwinian terms of adaptive-ness and evolutionary advantage — remains a highly controversial subject. Finally, there is that distinction biologists make between the genotype, and its alleged phenotype expression. This also needs to be carefully considered in this context: what legitimate conclusions about the former can be drawn from the latter is always a ticklish proposition.

With those cautionary notes in place, I say the concept of ‘Fairness’ is pure software — and uniquely human cultural software at that — not Biological hardware. And the argument from the Sociobiology perspective is strained at best, and easily refuted. Nor would it be correct to think of the concept of ‘Fairness’ as a sort of ‘system software’ (‘instinct’) that is ‘fused’ — hardwired — into the architecture of the brain. We need to think of it quite differently from, for example, the instinctive killing by young male lions, when taking over a pride of lionesses, of all existing cubs in the pride.

For, architecture — and the associated hardwiring — is a function of design, and is thus, a priori, a given. In biological terms, it is encoded in the genotype, susceptible to Darwinian selection through differential reproduction. We must distinguish between the design itself, and the possibilities (many undreamt of, others unrealised) thrown up by that particular design, the phenotype evolution of certain appropriate software, being only one such possibility.

If that argument is too abstruse for your taste, here is an example that may clarify matters.

The brain has evolved, under survival pressure (always assuming you accept the Darwinian explanation!), to be adept at pattern recognition; and sense — and react appropriately to — change. It is this design feature (the capacity to differentiate ‘few’ from ‘more’; ‘yes’ from ‘no’; and ‘big’ from ‘small’, to take a few examples), and not the application of Newton’s mathematical laws of motion, that helps an organism catch prey and avoid danger. That the capacity of the design to make such distinctions can, in retrospect, be seen to have also had a latent potential for constructing the imposing edifice of mathematics, is entirely a serendipitous matter. It would be an error to assume we are hardwired for mathematics.

It is true that certain human traits can well be considered to be hardwired, as, for example, linguistic ability. And recent research suggests that certain emotions too — for example, love, anger, disgust, shame — have a definite biological basis. Be that as it may, the great good fortune of our species can be traced back to the biological phenomena known as ‘neoteny’: a process of arrested physiological development that serves to cut some links between the organism and those environmental triggers normally responsible for the organism’s growth.

Thus, for example, a chimpanzee’s brain is fully grown after a year. Our brain, at birth, is only one-third of its final size, and it will continue its growth for some twenty plus years. Our young are pretty helpless, and for a longer time, as compared to most other species. But this need for longer parental care confers huge dividends. One result is an astonishing degree of plasticity of the neural networks of the brain in these formative years, permitting the software of ‘cultural imprinting’ to powerfully influence the strength of certain interconnections at the expense of other links.

Uniquely for humans, it is ‘nurture’ not so much as ‘nature’, which is our defining characteristic, and is, simultaneously, both the bane and glory of our existence.

You might think I have unnecessarily laboured over what is a fairly simple point: that even though we can conceive of the jungle as having some ‘laws of behaviour’ — one of them being that vividly expressed bit about ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’ — ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’ do not figure among them. I have laboured because, though the point may be simple, it is a vitally important one. For, to recognise the supreme importance of ‘cultural imprinting’ is to take responsibility for it and its consequences.

It exasperates me to think of how often we smilingly excuse our frequent and irrational flare-ups with that specious cop-out that ‘we are an emotional people’. The fact is, every human being is an emotional person; only, some have been brought up to value restraint, while that conditioning forms no part — as it consciously should — of our early cultural imprinting. Think of how easy it is to ‘brainwash’ (in various ways) even many of our so-called educated lot, let alone the illiterate masses.

Is that not the consequence of a social and educational environment rooted in an absolutist belief system that leads to stunting the development of the faculty for critical independent appraisal?

No, Feisal. The concept of ‘Fairness’ is — along with the broader notions of ‘justice’, ‘the rule of law’, and the ‘dictates of civilized behaviour’ — a uniquely human construct. Let us not belittle such hard won victories, through much painful trial and error, over our ‘nature’, by assuming it to be an inherited biological legacy.

That is the path of complacency.

The writer is a businessman

Source: Daily times, 23/4/2008

 Posted by at 9:39 am

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