A BIOENGINEERING MARVEL

We are one as well as many. We are virtuous as well as vicious. We are simple as well as complex. We are disciplined as well as chaotic. We are cooperative as well as competitive. We are leaders as well as followers. We love peace as well as violence. We are preys as well as predators. We are angels as well as devils. We are mirrors as well as windows. We are unique. We have an upright posture and protuberant nose. We use language. We can smile. Laughter is our unique trait. We are the only species that gossips, blushes, and sheds tears. We have opposable thumbs and we use them for making tools. We indulge in sex, mainly for pleasure, and also for procreation. We can read other people’s minds. We aspire to move ahead of even ourselves, knowing fully well that it is not possible.

Some ‘unique’ human traits - culture, mind reading, tool use, morality, emotions and personality - are also the traits of some animals. It, however, must be noted that the cultural sophistications of humans are not available in any other animal. One might wonder at the ability of mind reading in other primates. Great apes and some monkeys have shown some signs of mind reading, as they have indicated the capability of deception that is related to mind reading. Animals use tools to crack nuts, but can they be equated with the sophistication of human tools. Animals have their representative personality. It is also true that many animals are not as characterless as we might expect them to be. It has also been argued that social mammals understand the rights and wrongs of social interaction and few norms of sharing food, defending resources, grooming and giving care. Animals have emotions, as plants have. One wonders if these are a result of conscious feeling. Many species outnumber humans. They dominate the Earth, number wise. They reproduce and mutate faster. They may know traditional rules of warfare. But can they be seriously considered as human competitors?

We are a bioengineering marvel. We are the last word of biology and the first word of sociology. We are governed by the same biochemical reactions as other animals are, but we are different from other animals. Our difference with other animals is qualitative. Our brain and mind make us different. Some argue that we are no different than other animals, as some of our base instincts are even worse than those of the animals. There is no disagreement on this point, but because we share bestial urges doesn’t make us cats.

Michael Gazzaniga says that the question is not how we are fundamentally different, but how fundamental the differences are. Our differences are millions of years apart. The difference is not due to the strength of our muscles or our bones. The difference is due to the “phase shift” our brains and minds have undergone during evolution. Water is water, whether it exists as liquid or solid or gas. But there is a difference between liquid water, steam and ice. Latent energy is required to change one form to the other. Similar “phase shift” occurs in evolution, says Gazzaniga; shifts so large in their implications that it becomes almost impossible to think of them as having the same components. We must recognize an important fact, and that is, in a complex environment, very similar substances behave very differently in action as well as in form. Unless there is incentive to become complex, one doesn’t become complex.

Man was once the weakest animal on Earth. The incentive for the evolution of man was that he wanted to rule the Earth. There is nothing wrong with being at the top. Man rules the earth, because he knows judicious application of reason and instinct. Man is a sum of inherited and acquired qualities. He has learnt the ways of integration, as well as disintegration. His various orientations and interactions with the outside world essentially form what he is. If man had not inhabited the earth, the earth would not have been the same. Nature once frightened man with her mysterious vastness. It now frightens man with its limitations and fragility.

We are different. Our ideologies are different. Often we have sharp differences in our ideologies. Due to our differences, there is a possibility of a clash. The clash of ideologies results in animosity and acrimony. Asks Jonathan Haidt, can’t we all disagree more constructively? Getting along, despite differences, seems a difficult proposition. It is because of our morality. It binds and blinds us. Our morality binds us to our group’s ideologies. We like to believe that our group’s ideology is the best. We reject alternate ideologies that are offered to us. The two Bs —Bind and Blind — lead us to “groupish righteousness.” Due to this, our moral foundations have different configurations, and we “agree to disagree.” The compatibility between two temperamentally different personalities, therefore, becomes difficult. A balanced mind is needed to overcome this difficulty. In a balanced mind, both empathising and systemising factors are equally strong. Such a mind is disciplined, creative, ethical, and respectful. A balanced mind respects the views of others. A balanced mind is not blind to the anomalies in the group. A balanced mindset is both a mirror and a window, as it can see the self as well as others.

Our mindset can make a big difference to our outcomes. Ellen Langer conducted an experiment on elderly nursing-home residents. One group was encouraged to live more fully; they were allowed to make more decisions for themselves. The second (control) group received no such instructions to make their own decisions. For example, the first group was given houseplants and was asked to take care of them, whereas, the second group was told that the nursing staff would care for them. A year-and-a-half later, Langer found that members of the first group were more cheerful, active, and alert. How did this happen? Langer’s explanation was that the results were due to the power of making choices and the increased personal control it affords. Making choices results in mindfulness, and we could change our physical health by changing our minds. She calls it the Psychology of Possibility. In another carefully planned experiment, Langer and her colleagues sent two groups of men in their 70s and 80s to spend a week in an old monastery; “The right spot needed to seem timeless, with few modern conveniences.” She wanted to find out “If we put the mind back 20 years, would the body reflect this change?” The first group was asked to pretend as if they were young men. The second group was told to stay in the present and simply reminisce about the time when they were 20 years younger. For one group, the clock was turned back, and for the other, it was not. The first group was asked to write a brief autobiography in the present tense, whereas, the second group wrote their biography in the past tense. Before and after the experiment, both groups of men took a series of cognitive and physical tests. Langer and her colleagues noticed a change in behaviour and attitude in both groups before and after the experiment. They found participants ‘younger’ in many respects. Both groups were stronger and more flexible; for example, both groups came out of the experience with their hearing, and their memory improved. The first group (as if they were actually young) showed significantly more improvement. Langer’s experiments indicate that the mind has enormous control over the body. These experiments indicate that it is not our physical state but our mindset that limits us. Langer believes that our fixed ideas, internalised in childhood, can affect the way we age. Context matters; “I can see a candy bar from a great distance when I’m hungry.” Her advice is to keep our mind open to possibility, because the power of possibility is huge. Mindfulness, she says, is the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mindsets, and then acting on the new observations.

Mindlessness blinds us to new possibilities. She argues that our mindless decisions can have drastic effects on our physical well-being. Langer says mindful health is not about how we should eat right, exercise, or follow the right medicine regime, but about the need to free ourselves from constricting mindsets, and the limits they place on our health and well-being. Langer writes, “Over time, I have come to believe less and less that biology is destiny.”