Thursday, May 30, 2013

Hybrid Vigor- Diversity in the Age of the Brain

I heard a radio story recently about the increase in biracial marriage
and found it gave me hope for our evolutionary possibilities as a
species. Biology has recognized for years the value of a more diverse
gene pool. Agriculture made a point of crossing different types to get
the best of each. Breaking down artificial boundaries between people
makes better use of the human genetic heritage without technological
intervention. The latter actually reduces the viability of the species
by selecting genetic traits based on a single group’s values. Just
like a uniform crop can be wiped out by a single disease, homogenizing
any species makes it more vulnerable. Nature moves toward greater
diversification. A broader gene pool offers new potential. In the
realm of ideas, a broader meme pool allows us to think more
comprehensively, avoiding the blocks to wisdom that come from
protecting rigid mindsets. Making multiple perspectives available
better shows the complexities of an issue and is the only way a true
resolution can be seen.

In regard to the tendency to stick to others like ourselves, I often
hear that it is just the way we are. Accepting the instinct is
accepting a boundary. I ‘m reminded of a famous experiment called the
Visual Cliff that demonstrated an inherited response. Originally
created by Eleanor Gibson with her own baby using a checkered
tablecloth over a table hanging to the floor, she then put a piece of
clear firm plastic over the empty space between the baby and herself
and called to him, discovering that he wouldn’t cross. This experiment
was repeated many times with painted checkerboard patterns and babies
of many different species, using food as an enticement. None would
cross the cliff. One of the researchers actually painted a trompe
l’oeil version on the nursery floor when they were expecting. Sure
enough, even though it was just paint and the baby could feel solid
floor the baby would not crawl across what appeared to be a cliff.
Adults walk across without fear, clearly illustrating the power of
learning for transcending instinctive response. It shows us that we
can overcome instinct with knowledge, an idea with far reaching
implications. This is the message of books like The Evolving Self, by
Mihalyi Czsentmihali and Beyond Conflict, by Peter Breggin. We have
certain survival instincts built in that can be transcended. As we
develop awareness in relation to automatic patterns we can change
them, freeing ourselves from unconscious responses, and giving
ourselves more choices in our actions. Freeing ourselves of genetic,
biological and life story conditioning is a task necessary for
anyone’s growth and emotional liberation.
Protective patterns limit the range of experience because they block
us from the new. They begin with instinctive vigilance toward the
unknown that can be recognized and stepped over, thus strengthening
the pre-frontal cortex, which directs conscious attention. Instead of
fortifying low-level brainstem reflex, we can choose to cultivate the
most evolved part of the brain and gain power over conscious
attention. The reward system reinforces pleasure in what’s new because
that’s what learning needs. As Gregory Bateson so succinctly put it,
“Information is the difference the makes a difference.” Only if it
something we don’t expect alters or adds to our understanding does
information count. Cultivating a taste for difference will help us
over superficial boundaries to the universal humanity that could grow
and evolve with the intermingling of ideas and groups that will enrich
the species. The premise that any one particular way of seeing and
being is right for everyone can finally wither and the strengths of
the many can intermingle to the benefit of all.

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