A System of Systems
You are not you. Not in the sense that you imagine yourself to be. That internal monologue in your head and that world view you have, that’s not your singular identity. It’s an assembly of complex and conflicting components that your brain smooths out into an image of unity. Western civilization says that we’re all unique individuals. Zoom out and abstract enough and you can fool yourself into thinking that. It’s true that we are all unique, but we’re not individuals. We are all multiple systems and forces working together and at cross purposes.
Who we are is built on a biological substructure billions of years in the making. You are the unique incarnation of a genetic blueprint. For better or worse, a number of traits are decided at this chemical baseline. The notion that anyone can do anything is an obvious falsehood even at this level. No matter how much effort I bring to bear, I will never be a star point guard in the NBA. I’m okay with this, mostly because I hate basketball. But even if I didn’t, my DNA is not on board with this life plan.
Genetics provides a number of set points from which to start our journey. On top of that, we have the various drives that come with being human. These are driven by hormonal systems and primitive brain patterns from the lower limbic system. The fight or flight response is something we have in common with all other animals. Our drives for food, shelter, sex, security and other essentials are hardwired and they can drive our thinking even without us being consciously aware of it. If you don’t think this influences behavior, recall how little patience you have had when you are famished. Or all the stupid things you’ve done in your life to impress someone of the opposite sex. These are just the primary drives. We also have a number of secondary drives that take the field on account of us being a social species. These include impulses for dominance, cooperation, signaling, jealousy (and other complex mating controls), shame and most every other human behavior.
On top of this already complex biology and neural structure, we overlay millennia of cultural systems. You are embedded in multiple tribal and civilizational networks of meaning and sense-making. Your language shapes your thinking just as your worldview is predicated on a set of religious values, narratives ancient and new, and the philosophy that has guided your group ethos over centuries. Some of this you might reason your way out of, but other parts are so foundational that they establish the core axioms that you may be unable to verbalize let alone challenge.
Our cultural programming helps to guide, shape, mold or curtail our biological drives in a manner that is useful to memetic advancement. Civilization, like nature, is a system that does not care about individuals. If the biological drives of too many people detracts from the system, then either the system corrects itself or the system fails. The error-correction mechanisms might be imprecise and ruthless, but they are necessary to the continuation of the system. This is simply a different dimension of evolution. Once our brains became complex enough to communicate, build tribes, comprehend the future, and spread unifying ideas it became a new environment for competition and fitness functions. This cultural system not only conflicts with our base drives, it also has an abundance of internal inconsistencies. Culture is not a unity, it is a balance of oppositional ideas and forces that change as the landscape changes. Because different ideas have different utility in different contexts.
We do not quite appreciate the role of luck in who we are. The fact that you are reading this means you are among the wealthiest and most fortunate cohort of humans who have ever lived. Not to stay that you are fortunate to be reading my work, just that you are fortunate in the general sense. Our environment plays a large role in shaping who we are and the opportunities that we have. It is much easier to have a good life when you are born into a well-off family within a law-abiding society and a functioning economy. Much harder in a war-torn country where it’s a struggle to find food let alone plan out what to do with your life.
Those that are fortunate enough to win the birth lottery in terms of geography could still encounter problems if their family and peer group are not well-functioning, or if their socio-economic status is impoverished. We tend to vilify the poor as lazy, undisciplined and morally unfit to achieve success. To be sure, some of them might be, but that ignores the stark reality that it is really fucking hard to be poor. Those of us that are not don’t understand the circumstances such people are fighting against. Don’t think you would do any better because you cannot fully conceptualize a context that is so different from your own. Also consider that you would be different if you were born in that context.
Sometimes our circumstances are powerful enough to override or modify our genetic predispositions. A psychopath given a good upbringing in a loving home is unlikely to do violence or harm even with their neural proclivity to do so. Similarly, someone raised in the worst of circumstances might have their very biology changed in epigenetic fashion. So much so that their response to stress and pain is passed on genetically through successive generations. Much of the reduction in crime and violence in the last few centuries is not the result of better humans or better ways of thinking, it’s the result of better circumstances. Difficult times make for desperate actions out of pure survival instinct. The only antidote to a Hobbesian existence appears to be a baseline of abundance that is available to everyone.
Given all this, what is left for us? Taken together, the genetic lines of 50,000 generations, thousands of years of history and the random accident of where and when we happen to be born constitute a lot of predetermined infrastructure for who we are. What is our own personality and limited willpower compared the weight of all this? These things shape who we are and what we do. And so do we. What is up to us seems to be a matter of deciding whether or not it is up to us. In psychology, this is called the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset. Perhaps being the protagonist of your own story is simply choosing to take up that mantle. The alternative is to let life just happen to you. Whether you think 50% of who you are is up to you or as little as 1%, that’s still on you. Consider this alternate perspective. Given that billions of years of change, evolution and history led to your existence, even a self-determination percentage of less than one percent is remarkable if not outright awe-inspiring.
Biology, culture and circumstance are the starting point for our journeys. They are also a set of constraints that we travel with, operate within and, on rare occasion, overcome. Taken together, we are a number of co-located ‘selves’ operating simultaneously. To say that even our primal, biological programming is a single self is too simplistic because even at that level there are actually multiple forces in play. Our high-level neurological structure gives us an ordered, logical left-brain consciousness and an intuitive, imagining right-brain consciousness. These two selves can process our reality independently. We also have darker selves, higher selves, other selves (the person that others think us to be that we respond to in order to fit in), and a narrative self that has the rather thankless job of trying to weave all this together into a coherent story.
Each of us is a process of becoming influenced by a myriad of complex, interacting forces. You are the product of multiple systems interacting with each other and fueling still larger systems. One of the characteristics of such networks is that they possess feedback loops. Our biology shapes future biology, our contribution to culture shapes future culture. The epigenetic outcomes of our circumstances impact future genetics. And our personal choices impact these systems in large and small ways at varying levels of analysis. We are shaped and we contribute to the shaping. As often happens, perhaps a line of poetry captures some of this better than my attempts to make sense of it all.
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. - Walt Whitman