Saturday, August 22, 2009
When I was a young man back in the seventies there was a consensus among the chattering classes that human behaviour was almost solely a product of 'society'. I recall wondering what society was a product of even as a callow schoolboy.
This was a comforting social paradigm because it meant that all problems could be solved simply by changing human behaviour, which was assumed to be as plastic as a lump of modelling clay. For example, if a sub-group of the human species is known by a name that has derogatory connotations then changing their name to something without such connotations would automatically improve their status. For example, blind people became visually challenged and the disabled became differently abled. Changing the label is easy but it does not remove the prejudice. That goal is far more difficult to achieve.
This is a form of sympathetic magic. It is based on the same principles as the voodoo doll. The idea is that you make a model of someone that is in a sense truly them so if you can cause them pain by damaging the model. All the evidence from tracking the terms used for the mentally sub-normal (sorry, I meant differently normal) in British English suggest that the reverse is true. Any term applied to a sub-group suffering prejudice may start as innocuous but it soon ends up used as a general term of abuse. When the office junior jams the photocopier he is now likely to be accused of being differently abled.
Perhaps the worst example of this type of thinking was the case of David Reimer. In 1966, his penis was burned off by surgeons who botched a circumcision. A highly fashionable psychologist called John Money was believed to be an expert in what was called ‘gender studies’. He persuaded Reimer’s parents that ‘gender’ was simply a matter of social conditioning so David was reconstructed as female. Money reported this case as a great success but it was actually an utter failure. When Reimer was 14 and old enough to control his own destiny he reverted to male. He later had male reconstructive surgery and married. Reimer had a ‘Y’ chromosome and that was that. All the bullshit in the world could not alter that.
The fallacy of gender choice is still with us today in different forms. Currently, religious fanatics are working on ‘curing’ homosexuality. The best of British luck chaps. I can’t imagine how one would go about curing me of heterosexuality but it would take a hell of a lot more than a bit of bible-bashing.
Complex organisms are a product of the interaction of their genetics with the exact environmental history that the individual organism has experienced. Generally speaking, behaviour that is exhibited across all human societies is likely to be tightly genetically pre-programmed. The converse is also likely to be true. Behaviour that is highly variable from society to society is likely to be learned. For example, all human beings use speech that obeys certain grammatical rules. However, the language used is entirely learned.
Behaviour that is deeply fundamental to the survival and reproduction of a species is likely to be highly rigid and genetically controlled. Writers should consider this blend between programmed and learned behaviour when inventing societies. People can have some pretty strange customs but some things are possible in a society and some are not. For example, the human norm is the male-female partnership but it is quite possible to have a stable society that has more women than men. This has happened naturally in past societies because of the higher survival rate of girls than boys. You get societies with multiple-wife marriages of one sort or another.
A society with more men than women, however, is unstable. Such transient societies do come about at frontiers and they do not lead to one woman-many men marriages. The men would kill each other. You get prostitution and much feral bad male behaviour.
A fantasy or SF society must obey the basic genetic rules of human behaviour to be believable or the writer must show what has changed human genetics. Of course, in the latter case your protagonists are not really human.