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Are people prisoners of their history?

Published on 27 March 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

viewer6When violence occurs in a region, we seek a narrative to explain the conflict between groups – a favorite trope is that of “ancient hatreds”. In this worldview people are portrayed as prisoners of their genes (“men are territorial apes”) or their history – the past resonating into the future. Such stories sound plausible, and we retell them with glee, thankful for the instant illumination they appear to provide. We love to fabulate “from availableevidence”. Freudian theories of the unconscious comfort the idea than humans are but “the (personal) past waiting to happen” (Freud was an unhappy Lamarkian). Western religions chime in with the theory of “original sin” – only faith can save us from our inborn wickedness. Alternatively we are God’s law waiting to happen. It does not help that alternative Western ideologies of “will to power” and of the superiority of conscious and rational thinking have let humanity down the path of ideologically motivated horrors. But are these stories true? I’ve spent much of my adult life questioning biological or cultural determinism. I’m always looking for “degrees of freedom” where others see “inevitabilities”. To me, no dogma is impregnable, though the siege may be long. My mindset has pragmatic reasons: if we are indeed pre-determined, then clashes – be personal or civilizational or ethnic – are pre-ordained and inevitable. As technology advances we’ll have better means to execute their concealed mandate and sooner than later wars and civil strife will do us in. I’ve found it most difficult to engage people on this fundamental issue – the basic premise on which e.g. international cooperation is based. Soon the “self-evident truth” of our determinism is trotted out unblinkingly. I’m reminded of John Maynard KEYNES: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” – or philosopher, or biologist. I’ve just come across an amusing anecdote in an article on police dogs[1]. Says the trainer: “When the recruits are paired with their canine partner (then about one year old) we want the dog to make up for where the handler is weak and vice versa. But I’ll tell you, after a while the person’s personality becomes similar to the dog’s.” That is fascinating. On one level, the handler is clearly “top dog” whom the canine follows most loyally. On the other the handler seems to subordinate himself to the dog’s personality. Is it a contradiction, or does it? The contradiction is resolved when we think that humans are adaptive – thanks to our defining binomial: genes + culture. Within 50’000 years the human species settled in just about every possible ecological niche: we learned to live in cold, heat, desert conditions, and even on the high sea. Other species may be better at it in a specific niche – none can span them all as we do. ADAPTATION is the key. Now back to our police dog. At one year of age the dog has fixed traits. It won’t change. If the relationship is to improve the handler has to adapt to these fixed traits – “make the best of it”, as we say. Conscious and unconscious as well as emotional behaviour is involved, a process the handler can’t wholly understand, but leads to a remarkable success. The process includes significant “emergent” properties; this creative aspect may facilitate bonding between handler and animal. Vast plains of adaptation stretch between the ravine of determinism and the Fata Morgana of free will. We move about these infinite expanses of culturally driven contingence by trial and error. We are guided by a simple local criterion: like all animals we can distinguish between “more” and “less” and instinctively chose the former. Some philosophers call it “consequentialism”.

[1] Burkhard BILGER (2012): Beware of the dogs. Can New York’s canine units keep the city safe from terrorism? The New Yorker, February 27.

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