Blog 3) ‘The biological Self’


‘The biological Self’

In traditional society (before the advent of the theory of evolution) the self (or ‘soul’) was predominantly seen as a divine gift from God, or in non-monotheistic religions as a spirit, reincarnated, or otherwise implanted into the physical body. Even after the acceptance of Darwin’s theory, biological evolution has often been seen (especially in the social sciences) as merely ‘ballistic’, meaning that natural selection has simply propelled us to the edge of the human world: what enabled us to truly enter into it were purely social processes, mainly; language, culture and social construction. In other words, mind, consciousness and the self did not emerge from evolutionary processes, but are rather the products of social construction. This established view has recently been directly challenged by the emergence of evolutionary psychology.

This controversy between social versus biological origins of the self is not an irrelevant, esoteric philosophical debate: it matters crucially to the question; ‘what is the optimal way to raise children?’ If the human self is entirely a social construction, then cultures and parents are free to write whatever they want on the ‘blank sheet’ of their child’s mind. If, on the other hand, the self, mind and consciousness have deep biological roots, then these have to be respected. Ignoring them during the child-rearing process will result in psychic damage, generating the mass neuroses and the unbalanced, distorted personalities with which we are so familiar from the history of human civilisations (and everyday life). As if this historical evidence were insufficient, the evidence from modern laboratory research on our mammalian cousins (to whom we are much more affectively related than we previously believed ourselves to be) is decisive: we share a common evolutionary history. Consequently, our emotional systems function in a very similar way to those of other mammals. These in-built, human emotional systems can no more be ignored, or abused, with impunity than can our digestive or immunological systems.

In terms of denying any ‘inner’, biological basis for the self, the philosophical and scientific ideology of behaviourism took one of the most extreme positions: behaviourists assumed that children love their parents solely and exclusively via learned associations with conventional rewards: they claimed that the affective bond that children feel for their parents develops simply because parents provide life-sustaining necessities. Should caretakers fail to deliver, then children would not have a reason to bond with them. The behaviourists had no conception of the idea that children or young animals have inherent needs for social attachments above and beyond the satisfaction of physical needs.

A grotesque example of the appalling consequences of applying the behaviourist ideology to child-rearing is provided by John Watson, widely regarded as the father of behaviourism. In 1928 he published a manual on behaviouristic child-rearing entitled, ‘Psychological Care of Infant and Child’, which sold over a hundred thousand copies within months of publication. Here’s a sample of his advice on raising children; “never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary good job of a difficult task.” Watson apparently inflicted this unnatural approach on his own unfortunate children, avoiding the manifestation of any form of affection towards them. Predictably, all his of children developed severe emotional problems, because of this parental aloofness: one of his daughters attempted suicide many times and a son succeeded in taking his own life.

This ‘respectable’ behaviourist view gradually lost ground when a number of classic studies revealed that human babies failed to develop normally when reared in orphanages that provided good physical care but little affection. An example was a study, conducted by Rene Spitz, of children in German orphanages just after the Second World War. They established that, without caring human contact, many of these babies died prematurely, while others exhibited severe emotional abnormalities as they grew up. In recent times we have seen this once again in orphanages such as those that existed in Romania before the dictator Ceausescu was deposed. Just as Spitz had discovered in Germany 40 years earlier, such infants languish and fail to thrive without the balm of sustained human love. In order to flourish, babies clearly need emotional sustenance in addition to the physical necessities.