Nature vs. nurture – digression
I have a vision — in 20-30 years from now, education in particular, but also almost all other areas of human life will be profoundly different from what we’re used to now. And I’m not talking about technologies like the Internet, cellphones and similar that have shaped the world so far.
They surely will continue to impact everything around us, but I believe something more profound will happen — something that has a potential to truly define the Anthropocene as an epoch in which us humans have truly raised over nature.
In the late 18th century, by many regarded as the starting point for the Anthropocene, we’ve got industry. I won’t mention the impact to the societies that this had as we all learned about that in school ;-) but I’ll emphasize that this change have started an accelerated population growth and with it the need to efficiently grab more resources from the planet to sustain it.
Shortly after, during the 19th century many other revolutions followed — such as medicine with the discovery of vaccine, and technology with the introduction of electricity in the homes in the 19th century, to mention few. Needless to say, the 20th century have seen the most rapid advances in many areas, not to mention the advent of computer, global communication and Internet technologies.
All these advances have managed to almost completely remove all evolutionary selection pressures from humanity, letting us rise over nature and take out future in our hands. But did we? Are we truly free of the grips of the evolution that have shaped the life on Earth for almost 4 billion years and the Homo genus in particular for over 2 million years?
My answer is a resounding NO — and not only because of the obvious problem of overusing Earth’s resources caused by our expansion and use of technology, which looms over us as a dangerous threat that can extinct the human population!
I believe another equally, if not even more, important problem is our understanding of ourselves — why we are different from all the other animals around us, how is our behavior shaped by the nature and behavior of our shared ancestry with them and how does that legacy impact our behavior in the modern environment in which we live today?
Researchers have been showing for long time now that our brain is imperfect and some of our experiences are illusionary products of it not being able to decode the input coming from its sensors like the eyes. They’ve also shown that the feeling we’re in control when making decisions is illusionary too, that our memory is selective and affected by the emotions, even that our perception of happiness and happy experiences is flawed.
If we take in account all our flaws, I am willing to bet no money on us making the right collective decisions that will secure a reasonable future for our children or them dealing with our mistakes by making even harder decisions to ensure the survival of their own children!
If we’re truly to advance our species and rise above nature and the challenges we face right now in the form of global warming, population growth and resource overuse, loss of biodiversity, risk of viruses going pandemic, nuclear annihilation, etc. we need to be sure we’re making the right decisions to thwart these threats. That is impossible if we’re not the rational beings imagined by the 18th century Enlightenment, and instead behave often like irrational agents with great influence, if not even control from the unconscious parts of our mind.
We need to remember that we’re shaped by the blind process of evolution, which not only incrementally improved on the existing hardware that worked well for millions of years for our ancestors, thus preserving many ancestral behaviors, but also which last significant adjustment to our biology probably happened over tens of thousands of years ago (possible when Homo sapiens pushed out Homo neanderthalensis) and surely didn’t optimize us to deal with the modern environment starting with the advent of agriculture and less than 1 million people 10,000 years ago to a world of technology and nearly 7 billion people today.
I truly believe that we need to better understand ourselves if we’re to secure the survival of our species. Our body and our mind served well the hunter-gatherer societies prior to the advent of agriculture. However, evolution didn’t put any effort to make sure we can deal with the challenges of our modern society. For example, most hunter-gatherers didn’t live past 40, so there was no possibility for evolution to improve the genetic code to deal with the challenges of older age, which is one of the main reason for various illnesses we see today in older people.
Similarly, the life in tribe didn’t include daily social interaction with members of other tribes and even when it did, it usually lead to bloodshed instead of cooperation, while today we regularly deal with people halfway across the globe and we are expected to come up with various joint decisions with profound impact on our future.
Though one of the biggest advantage of humans is our ability to adjust to a wide range of conditions — which enabled us to conquer the entire planet, a feat no other animal species have achieved so far — we all know there’s a limit to how much further we can go and that limit is approaching at lightning speed! To avoid meeting an abyss and truly address the challenges threatening our survival as a species, we need to find a way to work around our flaws and prevent any irrational thinking to impact our decisions.
To do that, we have two options: reshape the way everyone on the planet thinks and behaves, or improve our understanding of the human mind and educate our kids in how the mind works and what profound effect its misgivings can have on their behavior and decisions, so they stand a chance to fix our mistakes and truly unite together the world over in a mission to save the humanity for the generations after them.
Unfortunately, the first option have been tried many times with various failed experiments including the communism/socialism movement following Karl Marx‘s ideas in an attempt to “socially engineer” people to fit a desired behavior, the radical behaviorism group started by B.F. Skinner with their experimental behavioral analysis, even modern-day parental advisers who tirelessly publish books, run TV shows and use other means to tell today’s parents how (not) to raise their children so they will turn into educated respectable members of the society — try searching “how to be a good parent?” on Google to see yourself! ;-)
If you’ve read my nature vs. nurture articles so far, you know that our behavior as adults is shaped in part by our genes and in part by our experiences as we grow up — the accepted behavior by the groups we identify with or belong to, the unique experiences we have, the knowledge we acquire at home, school, etc. You also know that I’m advocating a model of at least three brain organs that are responsible for dealing with the environment and are impacting our personality and how we turn up as adults eventually.
My goal is to get as many people as possible to recognize the problem of lack of understanding the human behavior and the way the brain (as evolved in the few millions of years since our species split off the chimps) and the environment (in today’s modern world) shape together our personality as an important problem we need to address alongside other important problems like reverting global warming. On top of that, I would be happy to see testable theories sprung up proposing models that can be used to better understand how the forces of the environment are translated into a particular behavior or personality trait.
As I started this article, my vision is that in 20-30 years many areas of human endeavor – education in particular! — would have already embraced the newly found understanding of the human brain and the theories for the shaping of the human behavior and will use that knowledge to increase the chances for our species survival, by making conscious, rational decisions not colored by emotions or state of mind impacted by politics, ones blindness beyond their personal interests, or ones shortsightedness preventing them to give up some comfort now for a future benefit!
I hope my blog will be a little contribution in achieving that dream! ;-)