Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Doing What Comes Naturally

I considered adding this to yesterday's post, but decided I might as well start a new one.  Midgley also wrote in Heart and Mind:
Now it is exactly this variety, this obstinate innate uniqueness of each human being, that gives real force to the demands for political freedom.  Mill, in his Essay on Liberty, emphasized it constantly and correctly with organic metaphors.  People, he said, are like trees which should have their full shape and not be pollarded; like human feet, which should have their natural growth and not be bound.  
Like human hair, which should have its natural growth and not be cut or bound or dyed?  Like the human body, which should go naked and not be covered by clothing?  “Nature” in this sense starts to stretch too much, and those organic metaphors bump up against real practice, such as longstanding human manipulation of the breeding and culture of non-human species.  Is it bad to trim a tree, to mow your lawn, to domesticate plants or animals for food and other purposes?  We expect a more hands-off approach to human beings (though some of us fantasize about breeding people as we breed dogs or cattle), but the organic metaphors Midgley approves break down there.

But stick to people: I wonder what that Victorian gentleman John Stuart Mill thought about contraception?  Abortion?  Homosexuality?  Celibacy?  Chastity?  For his time he was a very advanced supporter of women's autonomy, but I haven't yet read The Subjection of Women and don't know the details of his opinions.  Sex-reassignment surgery didn't exist then, and it's interesting to speculate what he would have thought of it.  Transsexuals don't think they are going against their natural growth, of course: they insist that they're expressing it.  And who can say?  But human intervention in nature, our own or other organisms', is too widespread and general to be dismissed as lightly as Mill did according to Midgley.

In the real world, “nature” is limited not by innate gifts but by the environment.  But then, "the environment" is often just another word for "nature": a drought for example, or a plague, or a fire, or an asteroid strike.  Or, as in Mill's case, a driving father who was determined to make him into a genius.  As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, "His childhood was not unhappy, but it was a strain on his constitution and he suffered from the lack of natural, unforced development."  I wondered when I read this passage if Mill didn't have his own experience in mind when he said these things.  But that raises another point about "nature": Mill would not have been the person he became if not for his controlling father, and would not have written what he did in the way he did.  If he'd been born in England with the identical "nature" a thousand years earlier, he'd have turned out very differently.
They shouldn’t have a single stereotype, he insisted – and that is why we need a rich, varied, hospitable, enterprising society.  But if they were not innately unique, if they were naturally indeterminate, there would be no objection to pouring the lot of them into standard moulds.  It is quite time that the radical Left got rid of this confusion, this dead beetle which is poisoning its concept of freedom [42].
I'm not sure I can disentangle Mill from Midgley here, but I think this passage confirms my impression that when she wrote that "each person is different in kind" from birth, that by "human nature" she meant individual human nature.  That's all well and good, but I don't think it's the usual commonsense meaning of the term; people may say "that's his nature" of an individual's quirks, but "human nature" usually refers to the species.

And what if one's nature drives one to do terrible things?  People have often tried to find a way around this problem, by postulating that the terrible things are not the result of nature but of being carefully taught the wrong way to behave.  I don't think so.  Nature isn't as red in tooth and claw as some romantics like to think, but it's not all sunshine, rainbows and lollipops either.  Hyenas are part of nature as surely as butterflies are.  This only means that we needn't be, mustn't be nonjudgmental about nature either.  It may not be pleasant, but some natures must be bound, pollarded, and even extinguished; and we must take responsibility for our judgments and how we act on them.  (I think this was roughly what Sartre had in mind with his denials of human nature and the necessity of choice.  If I'm wrong about that, no matter: it's what I have in mind.)

What made this passage stick with me, though, was Midgley's apparent assumption that "unique" is the opposite of "indeterminate", and that those unique individual natures are somehow fixed from birth.  That may very well be so, but it needs to be argued, not asserted.  It seems to me that human nature, both at the species and the individual level is indeterminate.  That's not to say it's unbounded, or infinitely malleable, but everything we know about the interaction of genetic endowment and experience / environment, to say nothing of human beings' capacity for learning, tells us that organisms are both unique and indeterminate.

As an example of the uniqueness and determinacy she has in mind, Midgley declares:
The fascinating thing here is not just the capacity, but the interest which goes with it.  Our faculties demand use; we need to do what we are fitted for.  That delightful wood-engraver, Thomas Bewick [1753-1828] was the son of a small farmer in a lonely part of Northumberland.  He tells in his Memoir how from his earliest years he used to draw pictures, with anything he could get and on any surface he could find, although nobody suggested this to him and on the whole people discouraged him.  ‘At that time’, he goes on, ‘I had never heard of the word “drawing”, nor did I know of any other paintings besides the king’s arms in the church, and the signs in Ovingham of the Black Bull and other inns.’

Bewick, in fact, was a born draughtsman ...  Such people exist.  Therefore, there has to be something wrong with a concept of freedom which can’t accommodate them.  Certainly, they show that freedom has its limits.  Nobody is free to have somebody else’s gifts as well as his own, or instead of them [41]. 
This is true of certain individuals, but not of all.  Not everyone has the kind of early-onset vocation that someone like Bewick exhibited.  I'm not sure what I myself was born "fitted for"; it's hard to see how either reading or writing could be inborn, since these abilities are human inventions.  Drawing, we know, is older, but what kind of innate endowment would produce a "born draughtsman"?  I have a good ear for music, a decent voice and the dexterity to play guitar adequately, but no driving need to make music above all else.  I can also draw fairly well but never worked at it.  I sometimes liked to tease people I knew by saying that I was born to be a dishwasher, since I fit so well into that job for thirty years.

In the communitarian society she imagined for her 1976 science-fiction novel Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy addressed questions like this.  Of one character we are told that she "does not switch jobs but is permanent head of this house of children" because:
Sometimes a gift expresses itself so strongly, like Jackrabbit's need to create color and form, like Magdalena's need to work with children, that it shapes a life.  Person must not do what person cannot do -- you have heard us say that a hundred times; but likewise, person must do what person has to do.
Most people, however, are expected to work at certain service jobs rather than identify themselves with one office.  Even Jackrabbit, the artist also mentioned, must work on food and other production, cleaning and so on; he must also go on defense against the mega-corporations that menace his community.  Connie, the novel's protagonist from the 1970s, is shocked to learn this: he's an artist, shouldn't he be free to commune with his muse?  Why risk such a talented person on defense?

Most of the characters in Woman on the Edge of Time are doubled, in the 1970s present of Connie, the protagonist, and the 2130s of Mouth-of-Mattapoisett.  One reason for this is to suggest how the environment shapes whatever innate characteristics a person has.  Jackrabbit's 1970s counterpart is Skip, a young gay man committed for to a mental hospital for electroshock by his parents in an effort to "cure" him; if he has a "need to create color and form," he never gets a chance to express it.

Luciente, Connie's guide in Mattapoisett, says of her daughter:
"At four, Dawn was timid.  We worried.  Me, my [co-mothers].  We all struggled to bring per out."

[Connie] "But you say you respect difference." 

"Different strengths we respect.  Not weakness.  What is the use in not actively engaging life?  It passes anyhow."
I'm sure that Midgley, who's a mother herself, knows this: respecting each child's individuality doesn't mean that one never intervenes to encourage growth in what seems a desirable direction.  Contrary to her paraphrase of Mill, some interference and shaping, conscious or not, is inevitable in the raising of human children, because of their long period of dependency and their great capacity for learning. What is desirable, though, is not determined by "nature" but by ideological preconceptions, and decided by judgment.  Somewhere I read that in 'the West' babies are seen as dependent beings who must learn to be independent and take care of themselves, while in Japan (and perhaps elsewhere in 'the East') babies are seen a little egoists who must learn to be connected to, and interdependent with other people.  This is probably an overgeneralization, like most generalizations about cultures, but the point is that babies aren't different in Japan and the United States, but the way they are seen and the expectations for them are.  Both of these ways of thinking about babies seem true to me at the same time: they are dependent, but they're also little egoists who must learn to co-exist with others.  "Human nature," whether we're speaking of individuals or of the species, is self-contradictory at its root. Woman on the Edge of Time is, among other things, a book about human nature, but I suspect it would annoy Midgley for dealing with questions she doesn't care to engage.  (A couple of years after Heart and Mind, Midgley co-wrote an awful book on feminism that I hope to dissect here one of these days.)

Another reason why talk about nature, human or otherwise, runs into fatal difficulties is that nature has history -- that is, a sequence of changes that can't be predicted though they can, with luck, be described in hindsight.  The pitfall of doing so is that, no doubt also as part of human nature, the historian is tempted to find a story in the sequence: an ordered, causal narrative, which implies that with a bit more wisdom one could have predicted how it would turn out.  Darwinian evolution is the anti-story of change in Nature.  Not only do languages and other cultural features change over time and from place to place, but the biology of organisms changes too.  It's indeterminate -- not infinitely malleable but not fixed in place either.