Friday, May 28, 2010

It's in your genes - maybe!

Public Broadcasting is doing a series of programs on the human brain. I lucked into an episode where a panel of experts were discussing the emotions and physical reactions we call “fear.” Most interesting was the agreement among them that physical response to danger precedes cognition, i.e. the physiological response to a fear-inducing incident (such as raised hackles, sweating, increased heart rate, etc.) occurs before we are even able to recognize the danger and react to it on the thought level.

Why is this important? For one, it links us more closely genetically to the rest of the animal world; research in the area of fear when done on animals shows a remarkable similarity to research done on humans. Secondly, it means that whatever impulses lead to violence and aggression, they are built into the biological genome structures.

I grew up being told that we are “born in sin” and that we need to be washed clean of our condition in order to be redeemed, an idea I’ve often questioned. In a sense, though, the research on fear and aggression suggests that we are genetically programmed to respond with “fight or flight,” and that it is not so much about a learning of aggressive responses as it is about the curbing (or not curbing) of aggressive behaviour. In other words, fear and aggression are natural states for every creature from the fruit fly to humans. Civilization is only made possible, however by the stifling of natural impulses in the interest of community. A similar stifling among the creatures of the wild kingdoms would be disastrous.

It’s an interesting area of research. Obviously, biological impulses in general can be shown to serve survival needs. Sexual lust, for instance, is necessary to facilitate procreation and the preservation of the species. Where appropriate controls on this other “emotion” are not learned, though, it threatens the kind of cooperation that is required for a safe and functioning civilization.

Old Testament law—and New Testament reconciliation—can be described as humanity’s struggle to come to grips with the great irony presented by the emergence of human consciousness, namely that the genetic endowments with which we are born because we are biological animals must be suppressed for species-survival’s sake. An evolutionist would probably say that our misfortune is that the evolution of civilization and human invention has occurred in thousands of years while the genetic evolution required to keep pace with it requires millions of years. Civilization has rushed way ahead of biology, in other words.

Have a nice day. Curb your instincts. What a prospect!

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