Home' Independence : Independence Vol 33 No 2 Oct 2008 Contents Independence Volume 33 No. 2 39
seems obvious as we use the term all the
time but, if you think about it, 'human'
disenfranchises all other primates, not
to mention other animals, and 'nature'
implies that there's something above and
beyond our environment, something that
we would have in common with rainforest
Indians or ancient Greeks. So you have to
try and think of things that are examples
of what ancient Greeks did and Amazo-
nian rainforest Indians do, that chimps
never do, and that is a hard call.
As human beings we often use human nature
as an excuse when we've behaved in a way
that needs excusing. People say, 'oh, it's just
human nature', or 'there's human nature
for you'. Using that as a starting point, my
own view is that human nature can embrace
animal behaviours, but that we do them in
an exaggerated way and out of the context
of survival. For example, eating a lot. I don't
think any other animal does it apart from
over indulged pets. On the whole, animals
when left to their own devices won't over
eat. Similarly, too much sleeping or even too
much sex, all these things which no longer
have survival value, have acquired a symbol-
ism among humans, according to the culture
you're in. I've been very fat or very thin in
certain cultures, for example.
So my own view is that human nature is,
funnily enough, the Seven Deadly Sins,
which is why they have such an appeal.
They are readily identifiable across cultures
-- we recognise them immediately, even when
they have different contextual expressions.
Human nature is the ability of humans to
symbolise things, even behaviours. If you
think about it, avarice and vanity and
envy and so on, all those things relate to
you as the individual using symbols that
stand for things. Whether it's money or a
Cartier necklace or a Burberry umbrella,
these are things that people might take
pride in, be jealous of, or covet, which in
turn gets people aware of the differences
between one person and another.
So I think human nature is, crudely, the abil-
ity to use symbols. Even behaviours are sym-
bols. And why we use symbols is because
we wish to make ourselves different from
someone else. So it's literally about status, a
standing apart from someone else.
And it's vulnerability in the age of
The vulnerability is because the associa-
tions and the culture are gleaned from the
environment in which one lives. 'We're
born citizens of the world' is a lovely
phrase. But then from birth we become
adapted to our particular culture.
The reason we're occupying more ecologi-
cal niches than any other species on the
planet is because we're very good at learn-
ing and adapting much more than any
other species. So, if that is the case, if the
environment changes, it means that we too
will change -- our brains will change.
What I am suggesting is that the envi-
ronment now for children in the West
is different from at any other time.
Technology can mean that for a large
part of their time children inhabit a two
dimensional environment, that is, on the
screen. I think we should at least query
whether that will actually force changes
in the brain in a way that we haven't
experienced in the past.
And that's a threat, you feel, more than
perhaps other changes in previous genera-
tions or times?
I think it will only be a threat if we
sleepwalk into it and say 'well, that's
technology for you, that's human nature,
there's nothing we can do' -- or, worse --
'no one's going to change my brain, I'm
inviolate, everything is fine'.
Educationalists and teachers and neurosci-
entists and parents and children should all
sit down together and try and work out (a),
what we want education to be in the 21st
century and, (b), how we're going to deliver
it by using various technologies. Otherwise
it's a bit like giving car keys to a kid aged
about 10 years old and saying, 'go and
teach yourself to drive'.
What would the neuroscientist suggest
schools can do to nurture the creativity
and inner genius in all their students?
Well, because I'm not an educational-
ist I would suggest several things. One
is, you must have an atmosphere that
inspires confidence. For many people,
and especially girls, the biggest fear is to
make a fool of yourself, or to be laughed
at, or to be wrong. Somehow you have to
create an environment where those things
don't apply, where no matter what you
say you will not be derided or laughed
at and where you understand that to get
something wrong is a way to learn.
The other thing is to allow people the time
to learn. I think the big problem at the mo-
ment, possibly with schools in Australia,
certainly with schools in the UK, is that
there's this huge pressure to gallop through
the curriculum, to tick the boxes and so on.
At the Royal Institution we invite schools to
come for a day and encourage students to
literally play around in a lab, with nothing
For a large part of their time children inhabit
a two dimensional environment . . . I think we
should at least query whether that will actually
force changes in the brain in a way that we
haven't experienced in the past.
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