Celebrating Our Commonality

Human beings always have contradictory aspirations: their will to assert their individuality conflicts with their desire to belong. And both tendencies bring inherent problems.

Those who seek to emphasise their individuality and specialness develop conflated egos that hinder their ability to relate to others.

The Vedantic sages understood this human flaw millennia ago. They differentiated between the true Self and the false self. The Self was a manifestation of Atman who the sages understood to be in turn a manifestation in each of us of Brahman. The false self was an artificial creation of the individual who was not aware of his connection to the unity of humankind that was provided through Brahman.

On the other hand because we did not have that understanding of our collective connection to Brahman our desire to belong was circumscribed. We sought the comfort of association with limited collections of our fellows – our family, our tribe, our nation, those of our religious beliefs, those who supported the same football team!

This in turn created the “us versus them” dichotomy. As the historian and author Michael Ignatieff wrote:

The more strongly you feel the bonds of belonging to your own group, the more hostile, the more violent will your feelings be towards outsiders. You can’t have this intensity of belonging without violence because belonging of this intensity moulds the individual conscience. If a nation gives people a reason to sacrifice themselves, it also gives a reason to kill.

In my estimation, a reasonable measure of human maturity is whether an individual is able to reconcile his differences with others. Such a person is able to empathise with others because they are easily able to identify the commonalities of their humanity. Those that are psychologically mature readily see their similarities with other human beings. They are content to be “ordinary” people.

Those who are not look for and exaggerate their differences in order to promote their “specialness”. It is a reflection of their personal immaturity that they must strive to assert that they are “extraordinary” people. As a result they seek to highlight (and often magnify) their differences from others.

It is then, the best of people who can stand aside from the temptations of separateness and see the commonality of all people.

The Rabbinic scholar Jonathan Sacks pointed out:

The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in His. Can we create a paradigm shift through which we come to recognize that we are enlarged, not diminished, by the 6,000 languages that exist today, each with its unique sensibilities, art forms and literary expressions?

The underlying truth here is obvious even if you are not religious.

So do I believe there are no “extraordinary” people? No – of course not. It is hard not to concede that there was something special about Mozart, or Einstein or Ghandi. But the good Dr Phil would counsel me that even the extraordinary qualities of these exemplary people were largely not of their making. They were the fortunate beneficiaries of fate that aligned their genetics and socialisation in wonderfully productive ways.

So we are shaped by Nature (our genetics) and Nurture (our social learning) I will get to genetics in a little while, but let us briefly examine the process of socialisation. In order to understand how socialisation has become such an important function in shaping human behaviour we need to understand a little more about the human brain.

The human brain is neither the largest among animals (those of elephants are four times larger while the sperm whale’s is six times human size), nor is it even the largest in comparison to body size. Many monkeys have brains that are double the size of humans in proportion to their body size. However it is only Humankind that has conjured the technology to venture into outer space, only Humankind that has unravelled the human genome, only Humankind that proposed the Theory of Relativity. The extraordinary capacity of the human mind is therefore not related to the size of the human brain but to its complexity. This phenomenon is aptly demonstrated by observing a foetus. At its earliest stages of development it has a relatively huge head (and brain). That big head wanes proportionately as the child grows older. But on average, as the child grows older, it also grows wiser. Thus it can be demonstrated that relative brain size is no determinant of intelligence and less so of wisdom.

Yet despite this, the increase in brain size in evolutionary recent times is phenomenal. Anthony Smith in The Mind wrote:

The speed of the swelling [of the human brain] was considerable. From about five hundred cubic centimetres – and therefore comparable in size to gorilla brains – it leaped to the human size of fourteen hundred cubic centimetres in about three million years. Assuming the brain cells of earliest man to be as compressed as in a modern brain this means that some nine billion cells were added during those years or approximately one hundred and fifty thousand per generation.

This prodigious increase in the size of the human brain over the last 100,000 years or so left Nature with a design problem. Our distant hominid predecessors were tree dwellers. As they learnt to move out of the trees and onto the plains and walk upright the wide ape-like pelvis of the Australopithecines gave way to smaller, more graceful hips which constricted the size of the birth canal. However, at the same time, brain size was increasing dramatically. This was an obvious dilemma for childbirth, rendering it more hazardous for both mother and child. The solution that evolution provided changed the whole direction of our species. The issue was resolved by allowing considerable brain growth to occur after birth which reduced the size of the baby’s head. But this evolutionary development also facilitated social learning. This physical change in the foetus resulted in a shortening of the gestation period and enabled the birth of a child whose head could be accommodated by the narrower birth canal. On the other hand this development meant that because the child’s brain was comparatively undeveloped at birth the child was more susceptible to social learning.

The flip-side to this of course is the fact that human children are far more vulnerable than those of other species and must be nurtured and protected longer whilst their brain and physical capacities develop. A Wildebeest born on the Serengeti plains must be up and about within hours of birth lest it becomes a lion’s dinner. A human child is relatively helpless for years.

The rate of growth of the brain is kept to a minimum in the last months of pregnancy. After birth, however, it increases three fold in size in the first year. This long period of maturation provides a fertile opportunity for social enculturation. As we will see, this enables the “learnt” behaviour of humans to be a significant part of their psychological makeup. Most of the behaviour of other animals is “hard-wired” from birth.

Young human brains are extremely malleable. Neuroscientists talk about developing brains “pruning” and “tuning”. What they mean by this is that neural circuits that don’t get used tend to whither but those that get frequently used are reinforced and grow. Conversely the brain is more likely to recreate certain neural patterns that include the well-tuned connections. On the other hand less used connections weaken and die off.

Our body parts are mapped onto specific areas of our brains. A concert pianist, for example, will have far more neurons devoted to the hands and fingers than the average person as a result of the constant usage of those body parts. Preferential growth in these brain areas starts very early in a child’s development.

The nurturing and play of our children is essential to proper brain development. Physical, psychological and intellectual growth are enhanced by providing a caring, supportive and stimulating environment for them.

In the 1960’s the communist Romanian government of Nicolai Ceausescu was keen to grow Romania’s population. As a result contraception and abortion were banned. This caused a large surge in the population growth. Many of Romania’s population were very poor which resulted in children being given over to the state to rear in orphanages.

The distinguished neuroscience and psychology researcher, Lisa Feldman Barrett writes:

In some orphanages babies were warehoused in rows of cribs, with little stimulation or social interaction. Nurses or caregivers would come in and feed them, change them, and then put them back in their cribs. That was about it. Nobody cuddled these babies. No one played with them. No one conversed or sang to them, or shared attention. They were ignored.

These neglected children grew up mentally and physically stunted.

The resulting problems they confronted were:

  • Difficulty in learning language
  • Lack of concentrations or ability to resist distractions
  • Lack of self-control

These unfortunate children had been denied the nurture that their little brains required for normal development. Their brains were not only smaller but had never developed essential neural pathways that helped develop “normal” behaviour.

It was found that some of this pathology could be reversed if the child was removed early enough and placed in a proper caring environment. But mostly these children were sentenced to life-long disabilities as a result of the early lack of care.

I relate this only to highlight the importance of early socialisation on human behaviour. I also point out that there are still many children suffering such difficulties (even in Australia) because of early neglect.

But then what about genetics?

There can be no doubt that the forces of evolution have, over the ages, refined human behaviour in such a way that those traits and behaviours that favoured physical survival were reinforced. The evolutionary psychologists make this point convincingly. Such behaviours have been subsumed into our unconsciousness and are largely acted out without conscious awareness in response to appropriate external stimuli. And these are not the simple obvious behaviours associated with sexual reproduction and striving for physical survival, but a whole range of behaviours that have been integrated into the human culture.

As Robert Wright wrote in The Moral Animal:

Today’s Darwinian anthropologists, in scanning the world’s peoples, focus less on surface differences among cultures than on deep unities. Beneath the global crazy quilt of rituals and customs, they see recurring patterns in the structure of family, friendship, politics, courtship, morality. They believe the evolutionary design of human beings explains these patterns: why people in all cultures worry about social status (often more than they realize); why people in all cultures not only gossip, but gossip about the same kind of things; why in all cultures men and women seem different in a few basic ways; why people everywhere feel guilt, and feel it in broadly predictable circumstances; why people everywhere have a deep sense of justice, so that the axioms “One good turn deserves another” and “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” shape human life everywhere on this planet.

So, while genetics might make a difference to your body structure, your skin colour and in minor ways to your day to day behaviour, it has mostly led to a relatively uniform pattern of human behaviour across all races and all cultures.

This was demonstrated by Richard Lewontin, the American evolutionary biologist and geneticist who showed that the genetic differences between individuals in any one race are greater than the average differences between races.

[There are anthropologists – Roger Keesing of ANU among them – who believe that differences between people have been exaggerated by anthropologists, and that anthropologists choose the most exotic possible cultural data as their texts and give them the most exotic possible readings. But most anthropologists believe that the other, wherever he comes from, is basically like you and I in most ways.]

The social environment that we are immersed in and that obviously shapes us is called our culture. The impacts of culture are many and varied.

The accepting into our country of immigrants of other races, cultures and religions has created greater diversity, and in general diversity is beneficial to our society. The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and cosmopolitan is something to welcome and cherish. In this respect we should encourage multiculturalism. But whilst we want to take advantage of diversity, we must beware of locking people in too tightly into their cultural enclaves.

Unfortunately the political processes, instead of allowing us to prosper from the inherent diversity, often institutionalise diversity by putting people, as Kenan Malik, British writer, lecturer and broadcaster,  maintains:

…into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes they have been put into.

As a result the borders, so defined, impede intercultural sharing and perhaps more importantly, assimilation. It would be easy to argue from our history that in Australia this has defined the way we have managed our indigenous population as well.

In previous decades our concern has been to ensure that the minorities represented in our immigrant population were treated equally with the rest of us. We now seem more focussed on their rights to maintain their differences. In the language with which I began this essay, many of the efforts of minorities seem more to promote separateness rather than to seek unification. Racism, for example, which we once defined as the denial of equal rights to particular minorities is now seen as being a denial of their rights to be different.

Now one of the reasons these difficulties arise is, instead of appealing to the individual members of these different sub-groups of society, the state looks to particular organisations and community leaders to bridge the gap on its behalf. This is a process fraught with danger. The nature of the individuals in such sub-groups is almost as diverse as those of the population at large. Consequently many in these communities are effectively disenfranchised. I wonder, for example how the Australian community might react if the government nominated George Pell to speak on behalf of all Christians, or Archie Roach to speak on behalf of all indigenous folk or Bronwyn Bishop to speak on behalf of all women! All these things artificially define the borders we put around these significant segments of the population.

So as always there is a tension between recognising our essential Oneness and promoting the specific separateness of subgroups in our population. Unfortunately the recent rise of identity politics has continued to promote the cause of separateness.

Inevitability this brings us back to the fundamental choice that humans must make. Those that cower behind identity politics in all its forms do so from fear. When we are insecure we rely on such devices to shelter ourselves from the reality of the world. In fact it is an innate feeling of inferiority that provides the incentive for people to latch onto symbolic affirmation of their specialness.

Many years ago while working with the good Dr Phil I ventured to suggest that “Love is the dissolution of separateness”. My experience since then has only reinforced that belief.

When we truly understand the human condition we come to the realisation that we are all as One.

At the very least we should agree with researcher Anthony Dillon, who, when writing on indigenous affairs reminds us that irrespective of who we are we have more in common with each other than we have differences.