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  • Writer's pictureJL Nash

Biology, Behaviour and Betterment

Humans are able to be savages, acting in the most disgusting and violent way. The same humans will generally be able to maintain relationships, and perform acts of kindness.  I’m not talking about narcissists, nor those who demonstrate psychopathologies. I’m talking about regular men, women and children. The internet phenomena of trolling has evidenced the darker side of people who apparently live functional and pleasant lives and can step into a largely anonymous world where they spit out vile insults and even indulge in harassment.  In these times of international conflict, I don’t doubt that soldiers return home as loving members of their families from being either peacekeepers or antagonists.

We could debate this topic, but for me, it’s much more about being fascinated by the multilayered human. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this as an excuse for being a troll — far from it! I check myself daily to make sure my behaviour is polite and kind — but even I get it wrong and slip from time to time, a bite will issue forth from my mouth. While psychology gives us as many theories as experts as to the why of this onion behaviour, I have become, in this age of Trump (USA) and Morrison (AU), in this age of war, interested in the children of our society and how the messages they are possibly receiving are shaping their attitudes.

I’m not writing about offspring who prove the general rule of behaviours. I’m writing as a psychotherapist of 12 years and ex-teacher of 18 years.  I have no children of my own — I am the ultimate observer.

I recently had cause to observe two 12 year girls. They had isolated another girl in their own social group for being different — nothing new there. Bullying those who are ‘different’ has always been part of ‘growing up.’ The noticeable thing is that once, children were admonished for bullying.  It was seen as an extra-ordinary behaviour. Parents and teachers had the responsibility of teaching kindness and a sense of fair play to children. However, no matter how much guidance a parent or teacher gives, we must admit it is society that influences a child dramatically, roughly from the ages of 11 or 12.

Social media is rife with negative attitudes. The news is full of war and segregation and reality television only serves to display the most TV-worthy of interest — usually highly competitive or negative behaviours. These girls were what I commonly refer to as ‘frenemies’ — friends who cut you down and use your presence to inflate their own egos and sense of worth at the expense of yours. Have we always had frenemies? Surely this phenomenon is a byproduct of being influenced by the machinations of our current leaders and the messages society is subconsciously giving.

Scrap that. If I am honest with myself and I take note of psychological and biological studies, I will conclude humans have always been multi-layered and frenemies have always existed. With this knowledge, I need to accept that I, too, have the capacity for cruelty and violence in the same way I have the capacity for compassion and kindness. It is this knowledge that keeps me in check. It is possessing self-awareness, which enables me to distinguish between good and bad behaviour.

How long have humans been like this? I wonder if we have developed a sense of morality over the millennia, in line with the evolution of our body and brain.  Ultimately, what makes us human? The New York Times bestseller “Behave, the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst,” by Robert Sapolsky, attempts to answer these questions. Can you imagine my delight on pouncing upon this book at a literary festival I was attending a couple of years ago? In case you are about to be in possession of this little gem, let me recommend you begin on page 238 — The Evolution of Behaviour — and fill in the gaps thereafter.

I’m not going to rewrite the chapter, although it is very tempting, but suffice it for me to state that a behaviour, when repeated, can turn a genetic marker on or off. It’s all about biology. I.e. it doesn’t take very much to create a variance in our genetic makeup.  A brief answer to my query — what makes us capable of both hideous and exemplary behaviour?  It seems that behaviour has evolved in the same way the brain has evolved and is not just learned through influence. I don’t need to worry about society unduly influencing those young girls. Of course they will take on modelled behaviours and in time, could determine a slightly altered genetic footprint for themselves, but they are born with a map of morality, good and bad social behaviour. They instinctively know abominable from angelic.  The only thing to make a difference is that it’s society which hands them the decision wand.

To what end? What decisions will this upcoming generation make? A generation that cannot bear to be offended. So many seem to be offended at difference today.  The space where we could all have differing opinions and still live together has reduced considerably in the last ten years.  A generation whose sense of entitlement insists that we all conform. Conform to their ideas which are no less ridiculous than those of previous generations.  After all doesn’t each generation think their own ideas and outlook to be the best? How often have we heard.. in my day or when I was younger…  Now it’s, I’ll give respect when I get it or why can’t I earn the same as him? Never taking into account that age and experience should be given its due consideration.

But ultimately in society, does this matter? Homogeneity — from one generation to another —  it matters not, because each generation will naturally expect the next to follow its rules and conventions. Why are the generations so different?  It is due to the biology of behaviour — we carry our programming and with it the capacity to change. And change we do because we cannot prevent our own constant evolution.

Am I worried about the impact of gen Z on my life and future? Not really. Each generation creates a society that suits them. My version of society is already different from when I began. I can choose to keep up with the changes where possible or I can hide and refuse the opportunities which may be on offer.  I personally have only one concern in this discussion of biology and evolution — if evolution is about survival, once we have survived, humans usually look to betterment of a situation. Either personally, locally or globally. Betterment often springboards from survival and can bring about radical change which enhances our species.

Where/who, in gen Z,  is the individual who holds opinion instead of different levels of offence? The individual who can celebrate diversity and yet break the boundaries of common thought? The individual who has an eye on the changes and the values I still believe are useful?  I want to see how that person (and I am hoping they are out there) is the cause to effect change and what change for betterment, beyond survival, this little rebel might bring?

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