It’s a problem when nouns are provided as explanations, generally, or at least it’s a problem for me.
When we search for an answer, it’s a cause for something that we seek – and we might think a ‘cause’ would be something that happens, not so much something that simply exists – but often what is given is only a complex sounding thing. If it fails to illuminate, sometimes it can mean that we don’t yet understand the noun, even to the point that we don’t understand that it is one, that the answer we are offered is not a verb, not an action, a motion, or a process at all. Of course, processes have names and can be referenced as nouns, but therein lies plenty of opportunity for obfuscation, and a certain percentage of listeners will never stop someone to ask them what the word means. History has a list of such answers, notorious to the modern atheist, scientific mind, and they include royalty, divinity, infallibility, destiny, fate . . . religious sort of “things” like that. Closer to today, one might list soul, self, mind, morality . . . today I’d like to start with ‘consciousness,’ although it’s not really the topic, because it goes to our natures, because, ‘consciousness’ of what, exactly?
I’ll be honest. This isn’t my first time through this document, and in the end I’m not debunking consciousness or our natures: My real target noun is ‘aggression.’ I wanted to say that once, but let’s leave it in the background. By the end of this, all will become clear.
Humans have consciousness; this is a fairly recent fallback position for the common sentiment that was once perhaps that humans have souls, or divinity, along with the idea that we alone of animals have it. The idea has failed, fallen to human testing of apes, dolphins, crows and maybe more animals, tests that show these creatures pass tests that human babies don’t or something. But I don’t disagree generally; we have an outsized share of it, probably in all of its aspects. If consciousness means awareness of self, then I imagine that the less lofty sounding aspects of it might be attention paid to self or self-involvement. Half of what we do is navel gazing – well, half of what some of us do is. Of course, when we’re looking back through history, anything there is to read came from the sort of introspective person that does. Half of the history of human thought consists of navel gazing, of people wondering just what it is that people are and just what it is we should be doing.
It’s a question that there is no getting around.
If you’re ever wondering what to do with yourself, or are given any sort of choice, then it helps that you know what you are – clearly, that is the function of ‘consciousness.’ Having no concept of one’s self could get us into all sorts of trouble, even fights we don’t win. So consciousness is certainly a human trait, but not solely or absolutely, and neither is consciousness absolute when we see it, either: we may have consciousness, but we do not have full self-knowledge, meaning we know enough about ourselves not to wrestle grizzly bears, but not so much that we know what to do with ourselves in our spare time. I think we all agree, determining what human nature is and the search for self- knowledge and consciousness are one and the same. We’re a social animal, we have a lot of policy sort of decisions to make for one another, and so it matters what human nature is, it matters just what it is that we are. Wait for it, though . . .
. . . failing that, it matters just what it is that we think we are.
And it has failed so far, so what we think we are is going to be the best we have to work with. Consensus regarding what we are has failed at least, so this is the state of things. To the degree that we behave consciously and rationally at least, we behave predicated on what it is we think we are. We behave largely biologically and tribally, and unconsciously to be sure, but to the extent that we plan our behaviour, to the creation and evolution of public policy, laws and institutions – and to the creation of parenting books – in that much, we base our choices on what we think we are, on what we perceive to be human nature.
No surprises there, right?
Some think we are as God made us, some as evolution has sculpted us, some think we are born loving and good, some that we are naturally selfish and aggressive, some that we are unformed until the world forms us.
If I’ve forgotten anyone, I’m sorry.
My experience living and reading in the largely Christian West combined with my interest in punishment-free childrearing led me to think the general consensus in those regards was this: we think some dilute version of Christian original sin, or that evolution means children are untamed, and so we spend a great deal of energy controlling, deterring and punishing children in our efforts to “civilize” them. It was cultural, I thought; most folks have never heard of Augustine or original sin, but it was difficult for me to understand the control and punishment of human children without postulating some negative default condition that the adults were combatting, without thinking that the parents seemed to be postulating one. That idea satisfied me for a time; it was true enough, close enough for television, or rather, psychology.
It wasn’t close enough for science though.
Again, most Western folks don’t know or care for Augustine or Paul (neither do I, don’t get me wrong), and at any rate we were all sinners in the Old Testament as well, right from the start: God created the heavens, and saw that it was good, the earth, and saw that it was good, the beasts, birds and fishes and saw that they were good. Then God created man, woman and knowledge, and saw that it was not so good, for the rest of the book! My apologies if that is not funny . . . it only means that at least the Jews and the Muslims will have some version of ‘all humans are sinners’ in their lives too, not just the Christians.
Notwithstanding, parents don’t speak in the same terms as we navel gazers do. When I can say ‘we beat our children because we think if we don’t they will naturally turn out wild or evil’ in the context of parenting, I can get away with it, but of course, chaos theory rules all and the real truth is very different. I was wrong. It’s nothing like original sin, not even close. That’s what we think we think, but we really don’t. So let’s back that up. So if we did think that, if we did think that we assume our children to be biased towards wildness or evil, and so we try to discourage that with deterrents and punishments, then there may be more to discover regarding that narrative.
First, when did we start to think it, and why?
Leaving aside the religious believers for whom there is no evolutionary past but only a moment of creation for the moment, it would seem to be a story that requires the trappings of civilization like possessions or human hazards like fires and weapons, reasons why the children cannot be wild and uncontrolled. However, like many guesses about the past, it’s bound to be a chicken and egg kind of a thing: does this story have us as a self-hating ape that beats its children because it thinks they’re evil, evolving with time and becoming human? Or do we postulate a sort of reverse evolution, where we found ourselves evolved, super-complex human adults whose babies still appeared to stubbornly arrive as wild little apes and so needed to be civilized individually, by force if necessary?
The first option would seem to have support from Sapolsky and his baboons, but the final many years of his Keekorok troop might seem to prove the idea itself as at least not always true, perhaps lending weight to my idea that we only think some such thing by default. (An accident wiped out the ruling cabal of alpha males and the troop became far more prosocial, even making converts of male baboons that moved in.) There certainly seems to be an entrenched system of abuse that creates and supports baboon social structure and hierarchy usually; clearly primate abuse predates humanity. Most people don’t know much about that, though, so although it may be part of a real scientific explanation, it probably has no bearing on what human parents generally think. I don’t suppose anyone has taken the next step in this train of thought and no-one has perhaps asked that question before: did we evolve from a punishing ape, or did humans invent organized punishment? If no-one has considered the origin of this human behaviour before, perhaps that is a clue that it’s a behaviour we rationalize from our culturally Christian (or culturally Jewish or culturally Muslim) selves, perhaps we are lazily falling into seeing our child-rearing from the religious POV where it didn’t begin, it simply is, as though it always was.
I don’t think anyone takes this model this far, but if pressed, I imagine any advocate for it would think this human practice is a modern one: for the religious, everything is some sort of modern, and for the evolutionist, perhaps they think they are contending with their children’s wild and primal natures, perhaps they assume that we’re born a little too natural. It gets murky fast, when you don’t trust yourself, when you have to guess at your own motivations. Of course, we’ started this discussion saying that our very natures are unknown, so in this conversation we have to admit that our motivations are also mysteries. So as to when did we begin to think it?
I’m afraid it’s stumped me within this paradigm.
For the ‘why’ we must examine the other side of the coin. A discussion of what we think our natures are perhaps requires some look into the other concept, what we think nurture is. Why did we begin to think there was something bad about us by default, and what made us think we could change it?
First of all, it’s a positive sounding word, nurture, but that isn’t the primary meaning. I think nurture is best stated as the software side of our house, that it isn’t concerned with hardware and biology but thought and speech, with what we think and what we do. To what extent our lives and inner lives affect us and our choices: that is the nurture principle, at least the version of nurture that seems to be opposed to any notions of hardwired traits and behaviours in the classic old debate. It’s a little jarring to say and hear, but when we are beating our children, we think we are operating in the nurture sphere, hoping to change minds and therefore behaviour.
In the march of scientific progress, nurture is taking a beating these days. Nature in the form of biology is showing all manner of visible proofs, while nurture cannot seem to show any. Nurture is safe, of course; it can’t be destroyed, because we are all aware of some time in our lives (perhaps daily) where we learned something and therefore changed our behaviour. We know it’s a force within our own selves and our lives, so we can’t very well imagine that teaching our children has no effect; it’s another article and another subject, but those who suggest any version of ‘nurture is not real,’ such as ‘parenting doesn’t matter’ are just plain wrong, as Steven Pinker said too. It’s not a bluff. I have the arguments ready, but I’m trying to stick to talking about what we think, and what we think we think, not about scientific truths at this juncture. We may get there, but let’s not hold our breaths.
(Now that I’m learning a little biology, now that ghost in the machine ideas are working their way out of my thoughts, of course there really is no division to be made between our hardware platforms and our software, turns out, thought, speech, emotions – these are all physical phenomena, neurochemistry. That slides the entire nurture world back under the nature umbrella in reality. Nurture is really maybe just post-birth nature, meaning the environment or just simply the world, but it’s still a useful distinction in one way: at least we’re highlighting the difference between the things we do and the things we’re actually trying to do. We can still talk about it. Words are tools to hold things, not the things themselves.)
The nurturing idea, as it applies to childrearing is deeply set. I find myself casting about for a better, more manipulative way to say this, so I’d better go the other direction and de-fang it instead: I have the sense that we must have felt like we proved it to ourselves at some point, and we seem, as Judith Rich Harris said, unable to seriously question it.
OK now. Here’s where I hope I stop parroting other folks.
If the nurture assumption is hard to shake, if it seems self-evident or we have the sense I suggest, that it’s been proved already, then the narrative, our story should account for it. How do we imagine we proved it?
I mean, nurture generally, not a question. I think we’ve all told our kids not to leap into traffic and most of them didn’t, so it’s case closed, great job. I’m looking for something more specific, though, something that would cause this division in our minds, some experience of ours that places nurture somehow in opposition to our natures, or nature generally, perhaps – at least something to justify this endless, insoluble argument. Plus, of course, I’m talking about childrearing, our guesses about our own natures and how those impact our childrearing. That particular aspect of nurture, literal nurturing, childrearing, complete with deterrents and punishments seems to be something we don’t ponder, something we consider time-honoured and proven, so again: proven how?
Well, to back up again just a little, what have we proven today regarding parenting? Amazing to me that any answer this short could be true: nothing good, literally.
Of course, that needs a little explaining.
As so lengthily and painfully pointed out by Rich Harris and others, parental influence is impossible to detect in people’s adult personalities. We think that half of the variability of our traits is genetic and about half cultural or environmental, but that almost none of the environmental side is attributable to parents or parental efforts. I have questions, like is it personality parents affect or something else, but for now, I’ll go with it: ongoing and historical efforts to demonstrate parents’ influence have turned up squat. We keep trying, because as I pointed out before the nurture principle can’t be non-existent, but so far it hasn’t worked out, there is zero scientific evidence for parental influence.
One assumes that parental efforts are for positive things, though, so perhaps it’s fair to say that positive parental influence hasn’t shown up in the lab. Negative influences from parents, however, the effects of abuse or neglect, that is another matter, there are mountains of evidence for that. So not only do we have no evidence for anything good our parents do for us, but a world of proof for the bad. The evidences for negative outcomes correlated with physical punishment and abuse are myriad and robust – and it’s mostly family stuff, so we even have decades of genetic data, it’s not going to be useless for the lack of that either. So: zero proof of positive influence from anything parents do, deterrents, punishments and abuse included, as contrasted with all of the evidence pointing to the negative environmental power of some of those same things. There are a lot of very nice parents out there – and no evidence of their good influence, only of the damages incurred by the less nice parts of the children’s lives. So perhaps we ask ourselves this regarding the plot we are pitching ourselves.
If we’re telling ourselves that we believe that without our nurturing, our children will be bad or wild, then how do we explain to ourselves that we can continue to believe it when we see that the science says all we can do is mess them up? It seems pretty counter-intuitive; I mean, what kind of idiots do we take ourselves for? How do we explain it to ourselves except by using the obvious strategy of simple cognitive dissonance, I mean, of course? I realize, what else can we do with that information but ignore it, live with the conflict pending further discovery?
Are we there yet? I’ve lost track, what was the question again? Oh yes, why would we think that we think children are default some sort of bad and that we do what we do to make them better?
Whoops, that was close. I almost said it that time. I’ve tried to make the point that this proposition is part and parcel of the self-evident nurture idea, and that the nurture assumption is so strong, that we must think we proved it. I then wondered how so, and stated that we have not, even today proved it in a positive sense, but that we see the proof daily of the negative power of what adults and parents can do. Interestingly, today, this proof of the negative power of parenting is split off, and it’s become a popular meme for the biologists to say that parenting doesn’t matter. Tell that to abuse victims, is my answer. But still, somehow, this proof is not a proof today. “Parenting” is defined as a positive influence – but stubbornly refuses to show up like that in the testing.
Perhaps this very phenomenon, abuse and damage was our proof of the nurture principle in parenting in the beginning though, perhaps there was a time when beating our children was new or rare, and it was these real world effects that proved to us that what we do matters. I have an idea, learned in grade school, that the most beaten of the children are out there beating the crap out of the less beaten ones, and I don’t think that needs a lot of mental lawyering to reconcile with the statistics of abuse. I didn’t see the advantage of it, the tough families in the city where I grew up. Sure, they beat everyone and if one couldn’t then his older brother could, but I figured they’d all wind up in prison, live short, thug lives – maybe in a more primal, aboriginal situation though, you want your family group to be the ones who win the fights around the neighborhood.
If so, if this was perhaps the first thing we ever tried to beat our children into doing – going out and terrorizing the neighbors – that works! The statistics of abuse tell us that that is the one thing that beatings do succeed at teaching, so if that was our maiden voyage into child-sculpting, then the first test worked perfectly . . . perhaps that was our proof. And – fair enough, sort of. That may place the timing of the development of this behaviour before modern times, because we have wiped out at least four other homos in the last fifty thousand years and those are only the ones where we’ve found the bodies.
So, with that perspective, let’s review that sentence, where I almost gave it away:
Why would we think that we think children are default some sort of bad and that we do what we do to make them some sort of better?
Just a few more little tweaks: it turns out that the ‘sort of bad’ that makes sense of it is sociability, that ‘what we do’ is beat them far more regularly than the other animals, and the ‘sort of better’ we’re talking about is meaner, tougher, being the sort that wins fights. So again, one more time:
Why would we think children are nice and sweet (which is a sort of bad in a warring sort of aboriginal environment) and so we beat them (which humans do a lot) to make them tough, mean and nasty (a sort of better in a competitive world of male-bonded primate troops as well as traditional human societies)?
Because that doesn’t clash with everything else we know about violence and abuse today, for starters. Because human (and all mammal) babies are clearly sweet and loving, for good reasons, they’re helpless. Because, isn’t that what your dad told you behind the shed? He was toughening you up, and Dad was a lot closer to the aboriginal, biological truth than the authors of parenting books.
Again, this is a conversation with too many layers: I’m not saying we just aren’t mean enough by default for life on this planet, only that we think so, and so because this is our core belief, we beat our children to make sure they’re as mean and tough as the neighbors, who we assume are beating theirs.
I really am not advocating for a version of human nature, my own version, or some Noble Savage, hippy-dippy version where we would all be sweet as pie and it would be the end of war and strife if we only stopped creating all of our species’ aggression, or any other one. I am advocating for a version of a core belief, advocating for what I think it is we believe or believed about what our nature is. I may be saying that abuse makes us mean (and crazy. Did I say that? Crazy, too), but I haven’t stated what I think our default level of mean, sans abuse, may have been – except that to say, whatever it is, however aggressive an ape we might be if left unabused, that with abuse, we are more so. I am saying that this core belief, that we think we are nicer than we need to be, has exponentially more power than the other story, the idea that we are born overly wild or aggressive, to bring a good deal of our thinking in line with reality, because this story makes sense of our rather unique punishing ways. Not only that, but I’m saying that this story’s genesis chapter seems to provide the proof that the nurture side of the old argument has been lacking in the minds of the biologists, because it is nothing to show that the power of a parent to alter a child is undeniable on the dark side of the parenting coin.
Our true natures, though?
I think we’ve been looking at it all upside down since perhaps sometime in the middle ages and sideways since there have been some number of comfortable, secure (OK, rich) people, like since ownership and possessions beyond your flint and spear, and so I think we haven’t had much of a chance at this puzzle, in fact, we probably haven’t made a true start yet. With this better first guess, I’m hoping we can make a better start. There is a ton of epigenetic information coming to light, much of it regarding abuse, and I think this better autobiography may help us to give it all another level of meaning.
It doesn’t mean we’re uncovering a core belief of ours that is objectively true, only that this is what we think is true. The difference is our response to the first perceived problem of our default nastiness – the dishing out of punishments to change it, makes no sense, while our response to the second perceived problem, meaning our perceived lack of aggression – the dishing out of punishments and other abuse, makes perfect sense and is corroborated in every way in many other contexts. I don’t hope that everyone will find this as revelatory as I do, but there are a few implications.
The original sin idea is dead wrong, backwards. We don’t actually think we’re inherently bad. In fact, we structure our entire lives around a core belief that we are loving and friendly by default and we spend our lives trying to rectify that perceived situation. Yes, I mean child-rearing and “discipline” today, still doing what it did for our ancestors far better than what we hope it might do for us.
With all this mad, modern culture around us, we may think we have to guess or deduce our natures, or even discover our core beliefs regarding our natures, and this has been the answer we tell one another, or at least this is the answer I was born into, among the great unwashed of poor white North American culture in the latter half of the twentieth century, this opaque, plausibly deniable sort of Christian original sin. It’s going to be more difficult to picture how we could make such an unconscious error in a more primal state, so much closer to or still in the natural state, predators all around . . . if beatings calmed and civilized our children, one would think that would be a deadly mutation in rough, violent nature and would be quickly selected out.
I’m only saying why I can’t imagine our usual narrative playing out at all, so that as far as I can see there just may be no sensible when or why to it.
That answer again, that we figure we’re born uncivilized and they try to beat the culture into us, masks the true one, the deeper and nastier one, that it is the actual effect of our punishments and abuse that we experience, and the actual effects that make it a selected for behaviour. Being the scariest phenotype possible has been known to have its reproductive advantages. We’re like the Alpha Male species in a tournament sort of genus and I don’t think there’s any denying that our genes are out-competing those of the rest of the great apes.
This logic makes this deeper core belief at least sane if not correct, because it describes a true function with expected results. The core belief we thought we had, some form of original sin is not our true belief, and neither is it objectively true, while the core belief exposed here – that we could be meaner – is borne out by all the evidence of abuse’s negative outcomes, ‘meanness’ and violence being the point of half of them.
All of the available evidence points to the truth of that, that we could be meaner, who hasn’t watched people grow up and get meaner as they do? That’s called normal development. In the other sense, however, as in ‘I could lose a few pounds,’ that we should be meaner, perhaps half of us can’t imagine thinking about our babies today in that way, but I don’t think we really could see ourselves the other way either, believing that beige sort of original sin and that violence was the cure for it.
It makes for a bit of irony. If you’ve come this far, you may as well follow me all the way to farce: what we have here, what we are, is an adult that tells himself he thinks his children are born to be bad, so he beats the sweet, helpless little dears until they are violent enough to function as an effective soldier for the troop while telling himself he’s the agent of all that’s good and proper, the defender of civilization and his babies were the bad ones!
It’s pretty much that we’ve just gotten “good” and “bad” all mixed up, all switched around. I hope that this is a step towards an improvement in our self-awareness, that the “good” we create with our discipline is perhaps not the sort of good we’re all looking for anymore. In fact, in many ways, biology (behaviour?) doesn’t care what we think. It’s still working, like it must have since it began: we beat our children, and we win every conflict we enter into, at least some human does, and it doesn’t matter in that function whether we know why we do it or not. All that talk about why we got whooped, that was for the other narrative, the false one. Really it’s to make berserkers of us.
All of the evidence says so.
Jan. 20th., 2017
Here’s the whole series:
and a bonus nipple-twister: