Saturday, August 22, 2009

Human Nature

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.


Anonymous said...

FWIW I'm all for the gays! How people live their life is their own business, so long as it isn't hurting anybody else. Strongly in favour of the legal recognition of gay civil partnerships, but not so much on gay marriage. But that's just because I don't approve of marriage in general.

I think you argued yourself into a circle up there, and honestly, dabbling in the whole homosexuality issue is a mine-field.

You're saying behaviour is fundamentally pre-programmed by our genetics, affected by our environmental upbringing, and unchangeable once it's established.

How depressing is that?

You may as well argue that there's a God and we're all born with original sin.

I'm not even touching on the questions arising from saying that homosexuality is genetic, and so is our fundamental urge to reproduce. I don't feel the urge to partake in either, TYVM.

"Society" has superseded genetic programming a long time ago. That's why we're unlikely to evolve as a species. "Improvements" get drowned out, diluted, by the mass of extant humanity which doesn't have to compete to survive. See the movie Idiocracy.

Sorry for busting your chops, but it's a subject I find quite fascinating.

John Lambshead said...

It is a misconception that evolution no longer has an impact on our species. We all struggle to survive from one hour to the next. Success is simply about passing on your genes, nothing else.

Everything it genetically preprogrammed as expressed through environmental history. My point was a more subtle one. Some types of human are highly plastic whereas others are more fixed. This should be considered when inventing human societies.


Kate said...

Actually, Anton, I'm inclined to disagree that behavior is as deterministic as you say, or that evolution is going to be 'drowned out'.

On the evolution front, there's already evidence of differing evolutionary paths. The poster child for this is lactose intolerance - the human 'default' appears to be typical of most mammals. Once weaned, milk is no longer a food source. Cultures where domesticated cattle have been around for generations have a much lower rate of lactose intolerance - the 'normal' didn't survive when the most consistent nutrient source was milk.

Other evidence suggests that hyperstimulative environments are generating different evolutionary paths than more normal environments. Plus it's possible to argue that humanity has already split into multiple species - the biologists haven't resolved the question of whether you've got a species divide when two populations don't breed or when they can't breed. I had a fascinating discussion with a biologist and an evolutionary theorist on this topic at the Denver WorldCon and essentially, the jury's out. To take it to it's simplest, no-one's sure if pekes and great danes are different species because while they probably won't breed naturally, a peke can fertilize a great dane, and the pups are going to be pretty damn weird but they'll still be able to have puppies themselves.

On the human front, consider the likelihood of a typical Westerner marrying someone from any of the isolated African tribes, and the potential issues that could arise from that (IIRC - Dave can correct me if I go wrong - there are a whole lot more different blood types in the African tribes, and some of them are incompatible with some of the normal-to-us A/B/AB/O +/- settings)

Culture... from what I've seen it's only determinative if you stay in the same culture and refuse to consider other choices. Yes, changing the way you think is bloody difficult. It's also very much possible, and for those of us afflicted with certain neurological issues, essential.

For example, I do not think, feel or react the same way I did when I arrived in the US not quite 7 years ago. I look at what I was then and what I am now, and apart from the poundage that seems to want to love me and stay with me foreveraneveramen, I see a lot of improvement (in the sense that I can deal with the usual crap that life throws at me)

I'd argue that the urge to reproduce is genetic, but like most genetic behavioral cues, can be overridden. Another personal example: I have enough genetic bombs in my family line that it would be a very bad idea for me to have kids. I don't want kids and I'm pretty sure I'd be a dreadful parent. That doesn't stop me getting the instinctive "want baby" whenever I see one or hear one crying.

All of which, of course, goes towards making a potential other society much more interesting.

And - on the question of how human is human - would a neanderthal cloned from a frozen one and raised by sapiens parents in a sapiens culture - any culture - be human? My answer is 'yes'. Wouldn't that be a fun book?

Anonymous said...

Of course, that gets us into the territory of trying to define what a species is, again.

In Homo Sapiens Nova, this is almost a matter of prejudice until enough changes have accumulated for infertility between groups.

In SF we used to have spontaneous mutations. Now we get genetic engineering.

Fantasy runs several ways. Magic Humans vs Mundanes. Elves, Dwarfs and Orcs (who frequently can interbreed with humans.) And the Werewolf and Vampire sorts, elevated to their new status one by one, rather than evolving, depending on which mythos one follows.

But you are correct, in the need to have believable societies. The alteration of the male-female basic breeding and family unit norm requires explanation.

The "males have more power/superior social status/control than females" is another norm that is often violated in both SF and fantasy. In SF, it is believable as an extrapolation of western culture and technological warfare. In fantasy it is occasionally shown as the result of magic; Humans evolving with less of a power bias due to women also being able to use magic. Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series did a good job of this.

I have a great deal of trouble with stories that seem to think that only a lack of training keeps women from being men's equals in sword fighting. But human sexual dimorphism is real. A woman at the far end of the size scale, with good training can probably hold her own against some underfed, untrained peasants with clubs. The noble next door will kick her ass. I can almost manage enough suspension of belief to accept a small percentage of women being able to hold their own.

But a society the developed as a Homo Sapiens Equalus evolved would be profoundly different than ours.

Once one posits a major difference, a species split in Homo Sap, one is nearly required to make social changes as well. Can we use animal models to try and make believable societies? The long dependency of the human offspring is going to make that tough.

How about when the magic, or the increase in womens size, strength and speed, is a recent development? How would a medieval society change as this happened? A modern society? Most likely by using fashion to keep women unable to be physically dominant, IMO.

What would the results be, of a profound change with not enough time to evolve a fix? What problems would we see, and how would society change to control the problems?


John Lambshead said...

The human genotype is a bit of a mess. It shows evidence of severe bottlenecking with all modern humans descended from a few thousand African individuals. The Toba super-volcano is the prime candidate.

This has all sorts of consequences: (i) We are riddled with nasty recessives so inbreeding is quickly dangerous, (ii) we have little genetic variation compared to similar species, and (iii) most human genetic variability is found in Africa.

Two Kenyan from the same village will probably have a higher genetic variability between themn than a Scot and a Japanese.

Our basic behaviour patterns were formed when we moved out of forests onto the grasslands about 5m yrs bp. Our social interaction behaviour is primarily from the last 250,000 years, at least 200,000 of which was spent on the grasslands of Africa.

In the last 10,000 yrs, living in dense societies has put us under enormous evolutionary pressure through poor food and disease. We are all the survivors of the plagues. We still can't cure virus or prion based disease and our antibiotics and anti-parasite drugs are losing their potency. The next food limitation period in human society is likely to see some devastating plagues - and so it goes.

Mr Darwin ain't finished with us yet!

John Lambshead said...

Dear Kate

Neanderthals and humans diverged around 370 th yrs bp, ie, before humans became us. They were the European hominid and we were African. Molecular evidence currently suggest little or no interbreeding occured after this date.

There appears to be one important significant difference between Neanderthals and people. Neanderthal technology did not progress all that much and they do not seem to have embraced fashion. Their arts are individual one off unlike the sweeps of artistic development you find with people.

They may not have been as creative as us.

Anonymous said...

I think the first anatomically modern humans are about 120K years ago. But behaviorally, taking widespread art and frequent tech innovation, we're only about 35,000 years old.

During that period we've evolved from Hunter-Gatherers to farmers to city dwellers. Our skeletons may not have changed much, but I suspect our genetic makeup has shifted drastically. Different diet (not wholly adapted to yet)and germ loads unheard of in isolated societies of a few dozen people are changing us.

We're very much a work in progress. Some times, like right now, I wonder if we aren't heading in the wrong direction, but things change. Right now, most of the Western Civs are undergoing population contraction, with immigration from other cultures so high the original culture could be lost, with the gene mixture common to Europe following.

Anton, I find the studies of identical twins raised apart fascinating. Being hardwired for a large range of things influences an amazing number of preferences, but it doesn't control us, nor dictate our actions or futures.

It does put us in a box that is hard to escape. But we escape regularly. Taking male-female bonding, for instance. It's a hardwired preference, yet the divorce rate is sky high, ditto second third and fourth marriages. Our society is starting to look like serial polygamy, rather than the monogamous ideal of former generations. We are programmed to like kids. But as a society we satisfy this craving with one or two children, possibly step children, adopted or foster kids. Or cats and dogs.

This is a profound escape from the boxes of both genes and society.

But think about this as an evolutionary force. Whatever component of "wants children" is genetic is increasing in percentage as the sub-population as a whole looses numbers. People with weak "wants children" genes are removing themselves from the gene pool.