Saturday, 24 October 2009

Notions of Nature, Culture, and the Sources of Indoctrinability

From Indoctrinability, Ideology, and Warfare

Notions of Nature, Culture, and the Sources of Indoctrinability
by Lionel Tiger

A long-standing heuristic in the social and psychological sciences, as well as in theology and common sense, is that there is a conflict between the inner, turbulent, instinctive life of human beings and the socialized arrangements that discipline and restrict the forces of raw nature. Conventional distinctions such as between nature and culture, or the painfully simple Freudian map of id, ego, and superego, or the endlessly reiterated contest between genetics and environment -- all reveal one of the profound judgments human beings have made about themselves. This is that in some real sense we all suffer -- either actually or potentially -- from some behavioral original sin. And of course when judgments about good and evil must be made about particular behaviors or people engaged in them, it is largely thought that malign behavior or people represent the heart of darkness that is nature. At the instinctive human core is the turbulent reservoir of potential mayhem.

This is not an altogether pure conception. At least two caveats must be entered immediately. One is that when nature refers to other animals or to natural settings, it is often regarded as noble and desirable, a pastoral purity not to be violated by the actions of people. Here nature is the value, and human behavior is its defiler. (It is also interesting that often the same people committed to the protection of animal rights and the natural environment most


ardently oppose assertions such as the biosocial about the impact of human evolution on contemporary behavior.) The second caveat is that there is often supposed to be great artistic and psychological value in expressing one’s deep inner nature, for example in the sexual or sensual sense developed by D. H. Lawrence, Freud himself, and the actor and teacher Stanislavsky. These and other protagonists championed liberating colorful inner appetites from the restrictions of lackluster conventional society. In boisterous expressiveness lay true aesthetic honesty. Here is the common somewhat operatic theme, at least in Euro-American society, of the contest between the sharp, ardent artist and the muffled containment of bourgeois society.

Nature Is Grubby, Culture Prestigious

Nevertheless, the effective impact of the broad weight of opinion, both social-scientific and lay, is that ‘culture’ bears the prestige and function of circumscribing ‘nature.’ In one sense this is no more than to acknowledge that children must be socialized by communities. Apart from the feral children of legend and rare fact, there is no alternative model than that the potentially intractable child by inducement and well-meaning force majeure is rendered fit for capable conduct of the life cycle.


How Many Exceptions Prove the Rule?

I want to make a contrary assertion about the relationship between culture and independence, within a broad biological context. This begins by adapting to social science the zoological law known as Romer’s rule. Romer was one of E. O. Wilson’s predecessors at the Harvard Zoological Museum, and his rule in effect claimed that the prevailing adaptive strategy of animals in response to changing conditions was to make small changes in order to avoid making large ones. So if the climate changed and a green habitat became brown, a bird could make the relatively minor adjustment of the coloration of its plumage rather than the far more demanding one of becoming terrestrial and perhaps a burrowing creature to avoid attracting the attention of predators. Similarly, humans may have adjusted with shifts in skin color that affected heat transfer at the external level rather than adjusting to climatic variations with alterations in basal body temperature, metabolic rates, and the like, which obviously involves very substantial and costly changes.

Can we not adapt Romer to social behavior? Is cultural variation the societal equivalent of the feather or skin-color response? Human groups adapt to changing conditions, either environmental or social, by altering the way they behave. The immense number of different cultural groups in the human species may reflect more the skill of the species in conforming to Romer’s rule than that there are behaviorally effective genetic differences between these different groups. Given the array of habitats, climates, densities, ambient fauna, and other societies in which people are immersed, it is hardly surprising that human beings found ways to confront such diverse challenges with a variety of strategies -- a variety that can be called cultural variation.

So as a first result of this story we can dispense with the most extreme environmentalist notion, which in various forms and intensities continues to characterize much thinking concerning the link between behavior and the human genotype. This is that cultural variation illustrates that the human genotype cannot and does not have effect at the level of social behavior. What my colleague Robin Fox has called ‘ethnographic dazzle’ has frequently induced social scientists to conclude that there cannot possibly be any major genotypically linked consistency in the social behavior of our species. Surely, it is argued, ‘culture’ is an autonomous realm, uncontaminated by primordial restrictions. Alexander


Argyros of the University of Texas has described such a view of culture as a creationist position, but one without God. Derek Freeman has described amusingly, if despairingly, his experience with American anthropologists who bitterly resented his challenge to the assertions of the paradigmatic figure Margaret Mead about the autonomy of human culture. These were in part based on her Samoan ethnography, which Freeman saw fit to revisit and fundamentally query. Carl Degler has provided a sober account of the intellectual history at the root of this surprisingly fervent dialogue that Roger Masters has positioned specifically in political science and the variegated description of which is a discrete academic industry all on its own.

Destructive Deconstruction

The ‘culturalist’ point of view, though seemingly extreme to anyone even minimally aware of the complex lessons of modern biology, has now surprisingly found a generous homestead in American social and cultural science. There, the deconstructionist perception continues to claim primacy, or at least confident respectability. It boasts the conclusion that both reality and the perception of it by those who call themselves scientists are highly conditional because science is itself a fatally flawed cultural form. At base, it is just one of the ongoing intellectual fashions. Thus self-critical linear science is a baroque folkway largely of mainly white males who sustain self-reinforcing and mutually rewarding norms of conduct, to say nothing of often guaranteed salaries. Partial explanation and even partisanship is inevitable, goes the invulnerable claim, because all persons reflect only their own biographical particularities -- national, class, sexual, political, disciplinary, etc. Even the lens of the microscope shows different things to different people. Individuality is a perceptual and conceptual prison. The envelope of the self is also a fortress of inevitable prejudice in which each person’s cognitive apparatus is as distinctive as his or her fingerprints -- an intellectual version of fundamental Protestant individuality and responsibility. A genuine community of openly self-critical perception on which science claims it must depend is remarkably unlikely in this account. In effect, this means that even the unusually rigorous socialization (or indoctrination) of the scientist cannot overcome


the radical impact of individual differences. And, perhaps most peculiarly, even the enormous power of the skills in communication of Homo sapiens is insufficient to overcome this central perceptual loneliness.

As if that were not defeatist enough, reality is also clouded, the earnest claim continues, by the inevitable impact of the observer on the situation observed. This is a corruption of the Heisenberg principle from which it appears to derive its intellectual ancestry. Heisenbergian effects are important to the behavior of subatomic particles, but they do not influence the behavior of larger entities, such as organisms. Apples continued to fall down while Newton was watching, but his watching did not precipitate their fall.

Such are some elements of the frail intellectual foundation of the common notion that cultural variation illustrates the absence of genotypical regulation of human behavior. Now let's turn this around in the service of our overall intellectual project. The very ubiquity of the pattern surely compels this proposition: there is something naturally human in the ability to generate variable cultural patterns. A quarter of a century ago, following Chomsky’s proposal of an inherent cortical capacity to acquire human language, the universal grammar, Robin Fox and I proposed there was a ‘culture acquisition device’ that was the basis for the readiness with which people acquired and sought to maintain the special character of their particular group. If there could be a genotypically available mechanism for learning language -- a relatively recent phylogenetic capacity -- surely it was parsimonious to predicate the possibility of a similar kind of readiness for learning the more ancient forms of social interaction such as mate choice, political order, cooperative food-gathering, and socialization of the young.

Natural Culture

But why would we need such a device? The next step of my claim, which bears on indoctrinability, is that it is precisely this great intrinsic biological variability among people that necessitates some unifying capacity in order to coordinate socioeconomic, political, and military behavior. There has to be some way to link the different bits of the normal curve of variation.
In essence, a central function of cultural patterning is to reduce the inherent biological diversity among people.


For example, in appearance, choice of clothing, size, body movement, and the like, even members of very coherent cultures vary considerably. The intrinsic function of culture as a phenomenon is to limit the range of operation of a set of individuals who have inherited an extremely broad range of aptitudes, enthusiasms, and resistances. Without some restriction of these variations, coordinated social activity could become relatively problematical. For example, in what is perhaps the most sharply sculpted of cultures -- military groups -- a stringent dominance hierarchy, constant repetitive drill, and a set of narrowly defined procedures are necessary to ensure some coordinated and circumscribed behavior among individuals who may be otherwise able and adventurous in their privately chosen behavior. The historian William O’Neill has even argued that the capacity for marching and rhythmic dancing has been central to the evolution of human organizational competence. What is military training if not the reduction of phenotypical variety in the demanding name of cultural focus? Also, there is another form of behavior - religion - in which otherwise precarious survival is regarded as an outcome of successful coordinated action. Incoming practitioners may be subjected to a mandatory regimen involving emotional and cognitive control comparable to the physical emphasis of military training. Perhaps because of the ubiquity and political influence of claims about the sacred, there has in fact been something of a resurgence of interest in the biological elements of religious observance […].

But military and religious organizations are only extreme forms of more general patterns of social coherence that emerge in human groups.

My simple point is that the culture acquisition device has evolved as a mechanism for relatively quick and reliable inculcation of social values. […]


And here we are at the core of our issue: while political and other leaders may find it attractive to indoctrinate their subordinates to accept convenient pictures of the world, these subordinates are also available for the process.

Ease of learning is easily ease of indoctrinability. When the Leader speaks, the ears have it. While indoctrination may be imposed with ruthless cynicism, it is met halfway by human beings prepared by the natural evolution of cultural skill to accept and join the glistening ambient social scheme in which they find themselves. This may after all be the only world they know or can share or envisage. And while indoctrination may deprive a person of an ample portion of human and political rights, membership in a community with beliefs, rights, and obligations may also be a human right to enjoy. Presumably, this is why solitary confinement is usually a punishment, not a reward.

Biological Radicals

I want to turn now to examples of the evasion of the central tendencies of culture, in the form of radicalism, free speech, academic freedom, and the like.

My colleague Irving Louis Horowitz, in an anguished review of the sharp limits on free thought in the world, notes that in no more than twenty communities are there genuine principles of academic freedom which reliably operate to protect individuals who challenge existing notions of reality and human possibility (Horowitz 1995). Perhaps they challenge the comforting certainties of the world as Galileo did; or perhaps they envisage utopian communities that threaten the stability of society, such as the Shakers, or messiah-ridden cults like the one at Waco, Texas, or countless others in recorded knowledge. One of my first senior colleagues, the sociologist Kaspar Naegele of the University of British Columbia, said, ‘The clearing is very small.’ He meant that the room for maneuver of genuinely free thinkers was very restricted. These souls must confront a potent combination of the


culture acquisition device alloyed with the earnest enthusiasm of those in power to use it. And this can and does make working life difficult for those who question the foundations of the community or even specific features of its operation.

This becomes extreme in wartime when those who question the leadership can be viewed as traitors. But it is obvious at other times, too, especially when insecure political or military leaders concoct or exaggerate outside threats the better to restrict opportunities for internal challenge to their world-view and maintenance of power. The flag becomes a blanket on free speech and contemplation. The use of the in-group/out-group distinction to cement internal systems of control is universal and a relatively obvious and reliable mechanism. It is as common as it is because it mobilizes and depends on a biosubstrate that is itself at the heart of the process of social organization and the conduct of politics. Perhaps also pertinent here is Colin Irwin’s observation that it is characteristically difficult for people to learn foreign languages without an accent after puberty -- a biogenic disability that he has suggested is related to the need of persons choosing mates and their kinfolk to be able to identify legitimate members of their community, not interlopers and impostors.

So even at the level of language acquisition, it is possible there are some ongoing controls over the distinction between in-group and out-group. This reflects the power of indoctrination to maintain existing structures and threaten outsiders. It is also useful in parsing the power and nature of indoctrination to consider the links between politics and exogamy; ‘sleeping with the enemy’ is obviously a reproductive version of the political traitor. A striking biomilitary innovation was unveiled in the Balkan struggle of the mid-1990s when captive women were raped and then held prisoner beyond the availability of abortion so that they would be compelled to bear the offspring of enemy males. This graphically parsimonious strategy is presumably cousin to less dramatic techniques of group assertion.

The Effects of Pseudospeciation

It is thirty years now since Erik Erikson reflected on his concept of ‘pseudospeciation’ at that pivotal meeting on ritualization which Julian Huxley organized at the Zoological Society of London in 1965. In effect, Erikson suggested that humans were capable of defining members of hostile or foreign groups as other species.


Hence, they could be subject to predation rather than aggression -- a distinction commonly observed, for example, in the detailed neurophysiological studies of feline behavior. Through symbolic management, people can redirect emotional energies of intrahuman conflict into those available for prey animals. This is important for a hunter-gatherer for whom human enemies are much more easily and efficiently damaged or liquidated if they are defined as impersonal, nonhuman prey. New and improved tutorial methods to accomplish this translation have been recently described by the American army officer David Grossman. An informal study of death cries in wartime children’s comic books that I conducted sometime after the ritualization conference reveals that characteristic death calls and other vocalizations differed between opposing sides, more or less as if they were different species. These mechanisms are, broadly speaking, the work of the higher cortical and symbolic faculties, those most proudly reflected in the diagnostic sapiens humans have applied to themselves. They are not mainly or even partly the result of endocrinological or other similarly primordial secretions, though as Kemper among others has shown, secretions such as testosterone may affect thought and behavior as literally as alcohol or other substances. Rather, the organic system responsible for the sapiens element of our self-description is the enabling facility. It is the capacity for cultural denotation and symbolic sorting of people into groups that underlies hostilities. The contrast between the complexity and subtlety of notions of free speech and academic freedom with the behavior in the Balkans or the sudden murderousness of the Rwandans suggests which behavioral system is the easiest to learn, particularly when social and economic pressures escalate. An Irish ambassador to the UN once too whimsically noted: ‘The most dangerous place in the world is under men’s hats.’ Here is a serious proposal that requires inspection from natural scientists.


No comments: