Blueprint | Code for morality

September 29, 2019 12:24 AM

For while it is within the realm of possibility that one is, by the end of the book's 400-odd pages, not rid of all one's doubts regarding the inherent goodness of humans, Blueprint is worth reading for the sheer elegance, audacity, and narrative fluidity of the ideas it propounds.

In fact, undergirded as it is by the feedback loop between genes and culture, Christakis’s claims make allowance for precisely the kind of flexibility needed to beneficially interact with an environment so far advanced — and continually improving — from the hunter-gatherer society of our hominid ancestors.

By Suvanshkriti Singh  

The times that we live in, rife with polarities, fear, hatred, ignorance, and violence, do little to credit the Rousseauian notion of the innate goodness of human beings. Given the numerous failures of human society, it is difficult, albeit crucial, to defend the view that “there is more that unites us than divides us, and that society is, basically, good”. Even more challenging, perhaps, is to base such an argument not on a moral conviction, philosophic logic, or sporadic anecdotes, but on scientific evidence from evolutionary biology, genetics, anthropology, and ethology. Nicholas A Christakis’s Blueprint does just that, asserting, compellingly as much as controversially, that the qualities humankind has come to value as fundamentally “good” are, in fact, foundational to our continued existence as a social species.

To argue that “morality, insofar as it relates to the making of a good society, which is what makes it possible for us to be fully human, is guided by our evolutionary past”, Christakis identifies eight features key to any functional society. This “social suite”— comprising individual identity, love, friendship, social networks, cooperation, in-group bias, mild hierarchy, and social learning and teaching— he theorises, has been naturally selected and encoded in the human DNA, conferring us with a competitive advantage for social living. The assortment of examples presented as evidence of the centrality, and universality, of the social suite is astounding, ranging from historic shipwrecks to utopian experiments in communal living to online gaming communities.

The better part of Blueprint is dedicated to narrating the fascinating history of the evolution of the social suite. Beginning with the simple premise of the necessity to mate and reproduce, in order to ensure the survival of a species, in animals, Christakis goes on to show how friendship, cooperation, a sense of identity, the need for hierarchy — indeed, even culture itself — evolved as responses to the exigencies of natural fitness. It is to the best advantage of human beings, both as individuals and as a species, that we be “good”.

The argument, like James Watson said of the double-helix DNA model so central to the book’s genetic core, is “too pretty not to be true”. That it is supplemented by analyses of phenomena as varied as grooming practices in primates, in-group cooperation among cetaceans, and comparative social behaviour in identical and fraternal twins, inter alia, should come as no surprise, given the author’s own background. In his employment and treatment of case studies and data across the sciences and social sciences, Christakis, trained in medicine and sociology, and a Sterling professor in five Yale departments, frames Blueprint as a powerful plea for greater interdisciplinarity.

But the book’s boldest, most imaginative proposal, is that genes affect not only our bodies and our behaviour but also the kinds of societies we construct. Introducing the idea of exophenotypes — “non-incidental, genetically guided changes that an organism makes to its surroundings in order to improve its prospects for reproduction and survival”— it argues that a living organism can affect the physical and behavioural development of other organisms, across species, without necessarily coming in physical contact with them.

It is easy, given this extent of evidential backing, to fall prey to the temptation of oversimplifying or exaggerating a claim. Blueprint does well to avoid both. Christakis is well aware that his arguments could be decried for being too positivist, too reductionist, too essentialist, and too deterministic. Biology, he argues, might not govern the flow of certain human behaviours, but it does prime them. Stated differently, genes are not, in themselves, the blueprint, but act to write it — “we have an evolved capacity…to manifest a kind of bounded flexibility shaped by our genes.” If anything, it is in his defence that the nuances and sophistication of Christakis’s argument best reveal themselves. So, too, do the shortcomings.

Much to its credit, Blueprint does not shy away from admitting the contradictions that define the human species. For instance, it admits, without compunction, that along with cooperation, competition, too, is an inherent human instinct, and that both are equally crucial in explaining in-group bias. Similarly, as much as the biological impulse to possess one’s mate underpins to the culture of monogamy, humans have inherited an equally potent, equally innate desire for variety in romantic-sexual partners. In fact, undergirded as it is by the feedback loop between genes and culture, Christakis’s claims make allowance for precisely the kind of flexibility needed to beneficially interact with an environment so far advanced — and continually improving — from the hunter-gatherer society of our hominid ancestors.

Given the complexity of the theory it advances, delving into the convoluted details of genetics, evolutionary biology, and scientific experimentation is, of necessity, unavoidable. While the notion of doing so might otherwise deter the lay reader, Christakis’s language remains lucid throughout, and is, at times, both poignant and humorous. Relatively elaborate concepts are explained without the presumption of advanced scientific knowledge or devolution into oversimplification. The book is rarely dense, and never cumbersome. This is just as well. For while it is within the realm of possibility that one is, by the end of the book’s 400-odd pages, not rid of all one’s doubts regarding the inherent goodness of humans, Blueprint is worth reading for the sheer elegance, audacity, and narrative fluidity of the ideas it propounds.

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