On the Great Divide and Where It Is: the argument from baby monkeys.

So this is an important part now.

I am a scientist: you are a philosopher, or perhaps a sociologist. Who has the right to decide how to describe human beings and how they really are - me, or you?

Here is an example to make what I mean a bit clearer. John Bowlby, the famous psychoanalyst and investigator of child behaviour, wrote a set of works on how children interact with (especially) their mothers; their attachment to them, and their behaviour when separated from them. He drew much of the animal behavioural analogies from the work of Robert Hinde. It is apparently just about acceptable to do rather sad experiments on baby Rhesus monkeys that most of us would hesitate to carry out on humans.

What Hinde showed was that baby monkeys, from an early age, are intensely attached to their parents; to a degree that it is physically and certainly emotionally difficult to separate them. Bowlby argues - correctly, I think - that this attachment behaviour evolved as an anti-predation response (baby monkeys on their own make tasty snacklets for hungry leopards). Baby monkeys are apparently much more comforted by some fuzzy shape they can cuddle than a feeding tube, suggesting that their attachment is not just all cupboard-love. This intense attachment is manifest in the behaviour of both mother and baby. When baby monkeys are forcibly deprived of their mother, their pathetic cries are enough not just to drive their mother mad with anxiety, but are also plaintive enough to reach across the species barrier and affect us too.

Cute, and not just to their mothers

There are some differences between attachment behaviour in humans and monkeys (notably in the time of its onset), but in all generalities it seems remarkably similar, including the very strong subsequent effect that even short periods of separation from their mothers has on children.

I want to focus, not on the behaviour of the child here, but on how the mother responds to it. For human mothers, too, just like their children, behave in closely comparable ways to their monkey counterparts; they are anxious when separated from their children, they feel the urge to pick their children up when they cry in a certain way, and so on. As an aside, anyone who finds young children intensely annoying should read Bowlby; who locates their behaviour not in the sphere of being deliberately pesky but firmly in the category of survival.

Now, there is of course a very very important difference between monkeys and humans, which is that, whereas monkeys simply do their thing, humans can both justify it and indeed resist it. A Rhesus mother would never not run to her abandoned baby unless she was engaged in some other overwhelming activity- say, being attacked by a leopard. And humans, too, can be distracted from maternal care too -say, by a telephone call, needing to work on a thesis, and so on. Indeed, they have to be, because Bowlby implies that the attachment behaviour of humans would mean that children would naturally spend the first few years of life in absolute intimate and constant contact with their mothers. But this is not the real point. Human mothers can also give reasons, in a way monkeys cannot; I went to my baby in order to comfort him, to see if she was hungry, and so on. And just because we can reason, we can also resist: I decided that, although she was crying, not to go to her just now. This is not a distraction, but a decision.

So we come to an absolutely critical juncture in the whole human phenomenon: a juncture that will colour all subsequent entries in this blog too. Extreme sociobiologists (if they exist) would make the claim that human behaviour is nothing but animal behaviour; and our attempts to justify it, to add rational thought to the reasons why we behave as we do, are just an empty add-on. In other words, if science can exactly describe human behaviour in terms of animal models that everyone agrees do not include rationality, then why include rationality when describing humans? On the other hand extreme sociologists would exclude all biological input into their description of human behaviour, and instead rely on theories such as those based on the exercise of power, etc: human behaviour is a social construct, not an inherited pattern of survival.

There is little doubt in my mind that vast swathes of human behaviour, from wars to maternal care to degrees of infidelity in relationships, can be accounted for by sociobiological models. We are after all evolved organic beings that are set in a particular biological matrix (e.g. we are primates, not whales). I have in fact grown more sympathetic to this viewpoint over the years. But the simple case of the resisting mother above implies that humans, "when we put our mind to it", do not simply behave in this kind of instinctive way. Think, after all, about what an average day is like: a great deal of it is simply run on auto-pilot. We do things the whole time without thinking about them, but rather, they simply knit together seamlessly to make the fabric of our lives. It is just as well, as life would otherwise be highly exhausting.

But not all things run like this; and at any point we can, if we so wish, rationally intervene to do something else. I normally have an egg for breakfast, and I usually do not agonise or even think about it at all. But sometimes I want something else, or the eggs are finished; and then as a rational being I intervene in my own behaviour to do something else. Of course, our ability to be rational colours all of our experience, so it sometimes seems to us that everything we do is thought out: but Bowlby (e.g.) shows us that this is not really the case.

Searle's Background and Heidegger's Coping seem to me to be attempts to articulate this sort of thing. And perhaps also Aquinas' "wise man ruling the stars". And the important point is that rationality cannot be reduced to molecules, even if brain processes can be. A rational argument or judgment must be assessed on its own merits, and a syllogism has no sociobiology.

I do not wish, incidentally, to give the impression that human behaviour is so compartmentalized: this is instinct, this is emotion, this is reason. Rather, they all are united in one organism. But insofar as we allow any place for reason in our lives, we are radically resisting a complete reduction of humans to molecular behaviour.

The superspecialists are divided on this topic, as well they might be. Some wish to abolish the role of the rational consciousness in human behaviour, as part of an ambitious but I think doomed project of radical reduction. Others are more ambivalent, allowing its role in some but not other aspects of human behaviour. But anyone who writes a book or a blog, anyone who seeks to persuade, implicitly endorses a social view of humans and denies the total reduction, which is why attempts such as those of Dennett to dissolve human consciousness (without which there is no rationality) strike me as being simply bizarre. More commonly, such as with Dawkins, the attempt is to rubbish some, but not others, of our rational endeavours. E.g.: religious thought and activity is seen as the outcome of some sort of strange compulsion, whereas scientific activity is the outcome of a rational search for truth. This is special pleading, and until some even slightly interesting justification is produced for it, I shall ignore it.

One thing I have not mentioned so far, although now begin to touch on it is this: where do our aesthetic sensibilities fit into all this? Are animals aesthetic beings? What is the relationship between rationality and aesthetics? And how does religion in fact relate to all these? We must dig further to find our thread.


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