There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
What makes us wicked? Apparently, according to Robert M Sapolsky from his book “Behave” the little girl with a girl is just like the rest of us. ” Sapolsky has been reflecting on the origins of human behavior, starting deep in the brain moments before we act and working his way millions of years back to the evolutionary pressures on our prehistoric ancestors’ decisions, with stops along the way to consider how hormones, brain development and social structures shape our behavior. He also has been thinking about free will and comes to the conclusion, based on the biological and psychological evidence, that we do not have it.”~ Stanford News, Nathan Collins.
We have limited control over how the regions of our brain become habituated. Evolutionary changes fixed certain paths millennia ago and hormonal response to pleasurable and painful stimuli point and prod us to act in certain ways depending on context,
He relates a story about a young man entering a room through a closed door and is surprised to discover his grandmother sitting on a chair. He crosses the floor to her and gives her a long warm hug. In a second version a young man entering a room through a closed door and is surprised to discover an alien with slime and sharp teeth. As the creature moves toward him, he picks up a weapon and kills it. In both stories, the young man’s brain receives the same dopamine hit because in both cases the action is what was right to do.
What is right to do and the motivation to do it is the meta narrative that covers all the chapters in Sapolsky’s easy to read and sometimes funny. Richard Wrangham from the New York Times describes “Behave” ; “We begin in the first second before a behavior is produced, our guide taking us confidently into the amygdala, the dopaminergic system and the frontal cortex. We continue the tour with events that occur minutes, hours, days, months and years ago, finally stretching back thousands of generations to the level where Darwinian processes explain why the systems that produce behavior evolved in their particular, haphazard way. By the time the book returns from these expanding horizons it has given readers the opportunity to feel astonishingly comfortable with a rich slew of fascinating neurobiology basics.”
So if Sapolsky has an inkling of ‘truth’ in his thesis, am I not responsible for my actions ‘cold hearted kindness’, ‘warm blooded rage’ or any other combination? Like one of the writer’s in Christian scripture says when asked “Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not!” Of course not. We must be held to account for our actions regardless of the supposed causes of the actions. He asserts that even when there has been a brain injury that impairs some function, we can’t accept or condone behaviour that violates our current norms.
“To illustrate, he cited the case of a Catholic nun who ministers to prisoners on death row in Louisiana. These men, he said, are “some of the most frightening, nightmarish humans who have ever walked this Earth.”
When asked how she can spend her time with such men, Sapolsky said the nun answers, “The less forgivable the act, the more it must be forgiven. The less lovable the person is, the more you must find the means to love them.”
“As a strident atheist,” he said, “this strikes me as the most irrational, magnificent thing we are capable of as a species. We are not just a ‘unique-ier’ species, we are the ‘unique-ier-est,’ simply because of this. …
“And this one does not come easily … this contradiction, to take the impossibility of something to be the very proof that it must be possible and must become a moral imperative. The harder it is to do that, the more important it is.””
As I journey from a recovering post modern fundamentalist to a burgeoning social humanist, I have needed to re evaluate where my morality resides and where it came from. At one time I believed that it was endowed by a Creator who dictated both the rules and the sanctions for violation. I now think that my morality is far more dynamic and contextual. What I hold to be good, fair and just is more a function of how the regions of my brain react to the circumstances. Similarly, my neuron activity that arises in moments of fear, disgust, or distrust are triggers for action that would be indefensible under different conclusions.
My life is a draft and as I work through it, by writing about it and living it there are edits and amendments that are required. I appreciated that you are following along.
Make Today Remarkable, whatever that means for you today,