Sunday, December 6, 2009

Scientists Confirm Eastern Concept of Ren

In the Confucian Analects, Confucius introduces the Eastern concept of Ren.  Ren is described in a couple ways and though difficult translate directly the English equivalents are virtue (noun), virtuousness (adj), and virtuosly (adv).  That Ren can be used in many lexical categories is not surprising since language translation is difficult especially with concepts.  Western scientists have recently done studies on young children to determine if humans have an innate desire for sociable and helpful behavior. 
But biologists are beginning to form a generally sunnier view of humankind. Their conclusions are derived in part from testing very young children, and partly from comparing human children with those of chimpanzees, hoping that the differences will point to what is distinctively human.
The somewhat surprising answer at which some biologists have arrived is that babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.
When infants 18 months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full and who needs assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they will immediately help, Michael Tomasello writes in “Why We Cooperate,” a book published in October. Dr. Tomasello, a developmental psychologist, is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The helping behavior seems to be innate because it appears so early and before many parents start teaching children the rules of polite behavior.
In the Chinese language Ren is written as a combination of a standing man and two persons.  In between the two people there is something human beyond the physical that is the virtuous behavior that Eastern philosophers noted and recorded back around 500 B.C. with the concept probably originating before that time.  

As parents we can use this knowledge to help our children.  If the child has an innate goodness new doors in parenting are opened.
If children are naturally helpful and sociable, what system of child-rearing best takes advantage of this surprising propensity? Dr. Tomasello says that the approach known as inductive parenting works best because it reinforces the child’s natural propensity to cooperate with others. Inductive parenting is simply communicating with children about the effect of their actions on others and emphasizing the logic of social cooperation.
“Children are altruistic by nature,” he writes, and though they are also naturally selfish, all parents need do is try to tip the balance toward social behavior.
The shared intentionality lies at the basis of human society, Dr. Tomasello argues. From it flow ideas of norms, of punishing those who violate the norms and of shame and guilt for punishing oneself. Shared intentionality evolved very early in the human lineage, he believes, and its probable purpose was for cooperation in gathering food.
This concept would also be very applicable for teachers to use and could be applied by managers as well.   Though it was noted that the natural helpfulness evolves and changes as we grow older the natural inclination is still there and can appealed to through specific behavior that brings this out.
As children grow older, they become more selective in their helpfulness. Starting around age 3, they will share more generously with a child who was previously nice to them.
“We’re preprogrammed to reach out,” Dr. de Waal writes. “Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.” The only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are psychopaths.
Indeed, it is in our biological nature, not our political institutions, that we should put our trust, in his view. Our empathy is innate and cannot be changed or long suppressed. “In fact,” Dr. de Waal writes, “I’d argue that biology constitutes our greatest hope. One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”
 I can be much more hopeful in biology as my faith in our current political institutions has been almost completely eliminated.  My belief is that Ren will save us when the political institutions break down.

1 comment:

Keith said...

Very interesting. Evolution of a "nice" gene sounds pretty unique when comparing ourselves to chimpanzees or other primates, however, I think that they have overlooked the activity of other animals such as dogs whom also have an innate pack instinct to help each other. Horses as well. Dogs will lick another dog's wound to help in cleaning or promoting the first steps in healing. Wild canines such as coyotes hunt in packs communicating through their yipping and yapping so that all will be able to eat, albeit there seems to be a pecking order at the coyote, and wolf canine dinner table which is not so nice. Perhaps we have a "pack" gene instead of a "nice" gene, or both. Early man hunted in groups to bring down large mammals, herd small animals into nets or other confined areas, and to bring in whales in the northern latitudes. We hunted in packs for survival.

Regarding horses, I have personally observed horses standing head to tail, waving their tails to keep the flies off of each others muzzles. Definitely cooperative activities. Cats seem to be missing this gene. They will accept "nice" but probably because of the payoff of a steady meal ticket. They are more likely to lead a solitary existence. In the wild, the cats maintain a hunting territory and only come together during mating season. It would also be interesting to see how gorillas relate to a nice gene given there is good documentation on gorilla learning and even the ability to communicate and respond in a language format. They even have a gentler nature compared to chimps who are much more violent which is also an unfortunate human trait.

More food for thought: Could it be that this "nice" gene or our retention of some pack traits also is the reason we are the only species to worship a higher power. Could it be that we are so imbued with the "being nice" concept that we feel if we display sincere "nice" to a higher supernatural being we will be treated better on earth? Clearly the there exists an innate tendency for humans to seek a higher being. Even the concept of Karma is based upon a reward of "nice" if we are "nice". Certainly it fits the Ren definition. Or is it the "pack" concept or instinct. Our searching for an all encompassing pack leader to get us through our daunting existence?