Victor MacGill Chaos and Complexity
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When the Dragon Stirs

Healing our Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, Myths and Legends

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Gonna Lay Down my Sword
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A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

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My first book..

When the Dragon Stirs

Healing our Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, myths and Legends

When the Dragon Stirs Book Cover

The Dragon

Line

My next book...
Gonna Lay Down my Sword
and Shield

A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

Mandelbrot Set

Articles by Victor

Mandelbrot Set   Fairy Stories
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Mandelbrot Set  Complexity
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Mandelbrot Set  Spirituality
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of all talks

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The Evolve Holistic Development Trust

Articles by Victor

Mandelbrot Set   Fairy Stories
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Human Nature


What is it that makes us what we are? Is it all in our genes or is it all in our upbringing and environment, People have been debating this question for a long time. It is also called the nature vs nurture debate? One theory to answer this puzzle that has been very influential for many centuries is called the “blank slate”. The underlying ideas of this talk come from a book called “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker.

The blank slate is an idea that says that our environment is responsible for what we are. It says that when we are born, our mind is like a blank slate with nothing written on it. We then have experiences, which get written onto the “slate” of our mind and make us who we are. The “blank slate” therefore proposes that we become the person that our experiences make us because we have no inborn nature to start with. It therefore also says that if we provide a person with right positive experiences and living environment, they must turn out well. If, on the other hand we deprive people of love and caring, abuse or denigrate them, fail to teach them good life skills, then they will turn out badly and behave anti-socially. This is certainly true, but is it the whole story?

The blank slate is an appealing idea to many groups of people because it means we can change people to avoid all the negative influences in our society if only we know about how to provide the right experiences. If there are still negative influences, then we must be doing something wrong. The blank slate proposes that If we fix the environment, we will fix all our problems.

This idea also found favour as it seems to back up a literal reading of the Bible, where the creation of human being is seen as a totally separate event from the creation of the other creatures and that makes us apart from, and above, the rest of nature. The blank slate denies our links with the animal kingdom.

It is also appealing to many followers of new age beliefs because it says we can become whatever we want, all we need to do is be positive enough and we will achieve all our goals.

The women’s movement has often used the idea of the blank slate. Some feminists have told us there is basically no difference between men and women and all inequality is caused by male patriarchal social structure. They say that if we get rid of the male patriarchy we will be left with a perfect society.

Left wing politicians, and communists on a similar tack will say, all we have to do is set up our society fairly, so everyone gets an equal share of the resources, then all our problems will be solved. We all know what happened to communism.

But right wing politicians also use the idea of the blank slate. They say that if everyone is born with an equally blank slate, then if anyone is not successful in life, it must be their own fault; they just didn’t try hard enough.

The blank slate is a concept that has been around for so long and is used so often, we can just tend to take it for granted that it is true.

Particularly with more advanced knowledge of science, the idea of the blank slate is increasingly being challenged. It certainly is true that that our environment and upbringing are crucial to our development as human beings and we can change our lives by changing our environment, but there is more to it than that.

Some things are totally, or significantly, controlled by our genes. Our sex, physical shape, physical strength, chances of getting a particular disease, musical ability and sense of rhythm, colour blindess, and our basic intelligence are examples of what is controlled by our genes. They are already written on the slate when we are born. Many genetic traits can be developed and improved by such things as weight training and careful diet will improve our physical shape, reading books will improve our intelligence, and singing lessons will improve our musical abilities, but we do not start life on an “even playing field”. We all have certain advantages and disadvantages we are born with. As much as we might want to be equal, we are all unique. We cannot deny that that there are fundamental differences, for example between men and women that will never be fixed by changing social structures or people’s attitudes.

Rather than being separate from the natural world, we have evolved from it and are fully a part of it. We will never gain mastery over ourselves until we accept the genetic inheritance we are born with.

An interesting thing about how we have evolved is that the earlier forms we have evolved from are not taken away but rather they remain and newer and more complex levels are built on the top of those old forms. It is like someone who builds a small house, who finds it isn’t big enough for their needs. Rather than pull the house down, they build on a new room. When that isn’t enough for their needs they add another room, or perhaps a new floor on the top. As the building continues all the lower levels remain intact as newer and higher levels keep getting added.

We see this when we look at the evolution of human beings. We started evolving from small bacteria that eventually developed to become creatures like worms, which are little more than a tube with a mouth and a digestive tract. Snakes and lizards then evolved with small brains capable of only basic functions like breathing, eating and survival instincts. More complex creatures later developed like the early mammals with emotions such as anger, fear and joy that helped them to avoid dangerous situations and seek out positive environments. From there came the development of intelligent creatures like chimpanzees and apes and right through to we human beings with thinking, language, culture, technology and spirituality. The point is that we retain all of these earlier levels within ourselves. This is reflected in the fact that the middle part of our brain is a basic survival brain which has an emotional brain layered over the top of it, and a thinking brain layered over the top of the emotional brain. We keep and use all the earlier forms we have evolved from.

That means that all of the behaviours we see in the animals around us are reflected in human behaviour. We have all the same drives and urges that are of the creatures found in the animal kingdom burned deep into our slate when we are born and they have an enormous effect on our behaviour. We guard our territory, have pecking orders, are naturally attracted to sexual partners and seek social prestige. We are competitive, we take risks and display altruism. We protect our families and can be extremely violent, especially if threatened. We have all the emotions like love, anger, sadness, joy disgust, etc. While we can have a level of control over our emotions by using our thinking brain, we can not turn our emotions off; we can only learn to control them better.

Our bodies stopped physically evolving in the Pleistocene age ( the time of the cave dwellers) because we then switched to meeting the new challenges of our environment by evolving socially instead of physically. Our physical bodies are still therefore designed for Pleistocene living. People got plenty of exercise in the normal course of the day back then. We are not as active today. That is why we have to go to the gym each morning often to stay fit. It is not only our physical bodies that became set at that time. Our physical brain stopped growing too and hard-wired many of the needs, desires, drives, instincts that were evident in those days. Our physical brain is basically just the same. All our modern day intellectual abilities must be carried out with a Pleistocene brain.

When you are walking down the road and pass by a stranger, are in a lift, or if we have to pick up our bag off the floor next to a stranger, we give them a quick smile without even thinking about it. Do we just do it to be friendly or is there more to it? If a stranger was close to us in the Pleistocene Age, it was a threatening situation that could very easily turn violent.

Chimpanzees, and probably our cave dwelling ancestors, could not speak. They use gestures. Studies with chimpanzees has shown that our smile is a gesture that began as a sign of submission. It was a message saying, “I am not a threat to you”. So when we find ourselves needing to be too close to a stranger we actually smile in the hope that the other person will decide we are not dangerous and leave us alone.

Being aggressive was a very necessary ability for our ancestors, and just as our little “I am not a threat” smile is deeply embedded into our behaviour, we retain an inbuilt ability to be aggressive. We can’t just turn off our violence because we don’t like it. We can add a layer of more complex behaviour to learn to not express our aggression violently, but we cannot turn off our inborn aggression.

Our ancestors lived in natural settings. We still feel more at home by a lake or under mountains, in the forest or whatever, even though we may have spent all our lives in cities. That is because that ancient imprint in our brain from the Pleistocene Age is just as active now as it was then.

Our ancestors had to live in nuclear or extended family groups to survive, because they all supported each other. We are still very much attached to our family groups when other social structures might be logically more efficient. When the Israelis formed Kibbutzes they tried to take all the children away and bring them up together away from the parents. It seemed more efficient because the children would be cared for by trained care givers freeing the parents to be more productive. Unfortunately, people just could not handle not being in families and they had to give up the idea. Living in family or extended family sized groups is written onto our slate.

So, we naturally stay in family groups and are protective of our own homes. Groups will naturally select a leader and there will naturally be conflict over who gets to be the leader and what rewards they get for taking on the role. There will be pecking orders, even if they are never talked about. There will be sexual jealousies and the temptation to sneak off and have an affair. Some people will choose to rob, steal and cheat. We see it all in the animal kingdom, and we see it in ourselves.

So, we clearly are a mix of genetic influences and environmental influences and the way those influences work is very complex. So, to just ask whether are we what we are because of our genes or because of the environment is to miss the point. It is not one or the other, it is a mix Our genes affect our environment and our environment, over time through evolution, will affect our genes. An example of the complexity is a person has genes that predispose them to be violent. They will tend to seek out other people who are similarly disposed towards violence and create an environment for themselves that makes violence more likely to occur. It creates a cycle of violence escalating from what is on the slate.

We must therefore recognise that we have little or no control over some parts of our lives because of our genes. Some effects of our environment, because of their link to our genes are also so deeply imbedded in us that they are extremely difficult to change. There are some things we cannot overcome just by thinking positively.

So, while it is good to be positive, as strange as it sounds, there are dangers to being positive. If we are unrealistically positive, and interestingly, scientific research show we usually are unrealistically optimistic about our situation, we deny the real limits on our life. We distort our picture of the world because we can’t bear to see it as it is. Rather than accept our limits, we will blame other people when things go wrong, deny the harm we cause for other people and make light of our mistakes. We try to force the world to be the way we would want it, rather than accept it as it is. In this way our positivity can be very harmful.

One of my favourite films is “As good as it gets”. Jack Nicholson plays a man suffering from OCD, whose life seems like just one big struggle. He only finds himself when he recognizes and learns to live within the limits his life places on him and be who he is rather than trying to change life to be what he would have wanted it to be.

That doesn’t mean we should just give up and accept everything without trying to do anything about our lives. Let’s have another look at our initial question. Are we what we are because of our genes or because of our environment? There is another factor that hasn’t been recognised in this debate and that is that to a large extent, we are also what we are because of our choices.

I have a small sailing boat in the boat shed at Broad Bay. When I am out on the water I can’t control the weather, I can’t control the tides, I can’t control where the rock or sandbanks are. All I can control is the tiller by moving it a bit either side, I can change the sail by pulling on a rope and I can move my weight around in the boat. That isn’t much compared to the power of the wind and wave and yet I can still get where I want to go.

The point is that we do not have to be in control of everything in our lives to get where we want. We can accept what we do not control because we can control what matters and that is our ability to make choices, because that changes the direction of our lives. Courageously making good decisions is the magic tool we have to undo so many of the burdens that weigh us down and allow us to reach our goals in life.

So, in summary, we need to see the world realistically, acknowledging that there are limits to what we can achieve, but also knowing that if we correctly use our ability to make decisions, we can make the most of our lives and reach our full spiritual potential.
 
I can do no better than end my talk with the serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
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