Neuroscience and Karma: 16. Society and Culture

0. Status-determining Karman

Biological characteristics concerned with social systems are mainly the domain of status-determining (gotra) karman.

Thus, we would expect our genetic system to have various inbuilt features and characteristics determined by the gotra karman and not a blank sheet for individual cultural development, but a sheet, at least, inscribed with certain tentative outlines of social and cultural behavior.

It should be remembered that the status-determining (gotra) karman is very intimately related with its counter-part - the body-making (nāma) karman and to a little less extent to life-span-determining (āyuṣya) karman. And, therefore, the inscription on the sheet will be the result of all these aghāti karman.

1. Cooperation and Altruism

Questions about our relations to each other, such as, freedom and equality, rights and duties are matters of intense concern to everyone. From the fables of Aesop to the fables of Orwell, men have tried to learn and to teach by using animal analogues of social organization. But human cultural organizations depend upon a fluent language, which animals do not have. Our societies are regulated by custom, which are altered from time to time. Cultural evolution, however, cannot be totally independent of its biological substratum and our social systems are possible only because we have certain biological characteristics. In other words, no human societies could exist without the special features of our brains, bodies and endocrine glands. Also, we are all influenced by our long childhood. (See chapter 4).

The virtues of cooperation and altruism, are common features in both human as well as social animals who have a genetically controlled system of ethics that regulates their responses to each other. Altruism broadly means to refrain from being selfish or endangering one's own life for the benefit of the society. It is at a maximum among the social insects where all the members of each colony are descended from one queen and therefore, closely related. They help each other and may even die in defence of the colony. Cultural practices involve the relations of human beings to each other and are symbolized in many ways including kinship. Kinship is certainly the dominant structure in the culture of many people, but it often has little or nothing to do with blood relationships.

Economic, religious and other relationships may be much more powerful than kinship. We can neither discard nor prove the possibility that some customs have survived because they promoted the spread of genes for altruism. It is doubtful how far human loving and caring (as we ordinarily understand them) are the products of specific hereditary influences providing the capacity to learn from experience. The question is whether the human behavior is mainly the result of social and cultural influences and whether these can be changed.

Altruistic behavior from parents increases chance of survival of the child. But the parent-offspring conflict (weaning conflict) would be inevitable because of the parent's ability to produce other offspring. Help of elder children in rearing of sibs will also be determined by their own genes, but the situation will vary according to the attitude of the culture to marriage. Thus the interconnections of cultural and genetic influences are indeed complicated.

It is clear that the advantages of altruism over selfishness depend upon many circumstances. Genetics and its determinant karman, plural especially gotra karman, thus provide some suggestions about possible basis for social behavior. Many species of animals and plants achieve success by cooperation. Rational human beings can save themselves by promoting the lives of not only fellow-humans but also animals and plants, by the doctrine of reverence for life and proclaiming that all men are 'brothers'. Geneticists may laugh at this but neuroscientists, who study actual human interactions, will know that we do have programs to ensure our own security by recruiting the assistance of others (see chapter 12, "Loving and Attachment") that is our natural selfishness is best served by altruism. There is no justification for the attitude that regards 'culture' as an intrusion separate from 'nature'. Study of kinship-systems of primates show elements of human kinship system as well as great complexity and variety. Finally, it is necessary to remember that patterns of culture are regulated by far more complex and immediate concerns than the proper distribution of genes.

2. Ethics

The capacity to learn ethical concepts develops during the long period of childhood when an individual is bound to be subservient to elders if only because one is genetically programmed to obey. It is during this period that the capacity to learn ethical concepts develop. Our capacity to learn the proper order of society is equivalent to learn the order of words in a sentence. Obedience is the 'dispositional cement' that binds society and it probably has a hereditary background. Heredity gives us the capacity of learning what is right or wrong in our relations with others as well as powers to be happy or angry. What they do not give us is our particular conceptions of morals, rights and duties.

The child, early, learns that his first selfish attitude must be modified. The demands for self-sacrifice will seem, at first, to conflict with its needs for comfort etc. and may leave traumatic scars in some cases. Ultimately and in most cases, it realizes that altruism helps him to fulfil his needs within society.

The existence of moral rules is quite common in human cultures and behavior and the capacity to respond to them is probably genetically inherited. So, the capacity to learn during the long period of childhood appears once again a central human feature. Culture is transmitted by virtue of this genetically determined pattern of growth and development of brain. The factors that ensure the development of an ethical sense are both external and internal. It certainly does not mature as do the ability for walking (or talking). The respect felt by the subordinate for the superior plays an essential part and it is this respect which develops to ultimately become 'conscience' and the basis for moral behavior. This building of the personality is at the very center of the system of hypotheses and actions that constitutes the model in the brain, which we are holding to be organized around the attributes of a person. The concepts of good and evil as well as tendencies to aggression and guilt are built up by a series of steps beginning with the child's mental capacity to establish people (first his parents) within his own mind. The basis of conscience is the self-condemnation for aggressiveness. These concepts (like all other sorts of knowledge) must depend upon the nerve-cells in the brain which are the physical basis[1] of conscientious action.

3. Leadership and Power

The particular patterns learned in youth of appreciation of rights and duties, submission and dominance remain to a large extent throughout life and all cultures are built upon them. One of the basic concepts is that of power which pervades perhaps all cultures. There may be some egalitarian societies but exercise of power and leadership are also conspicuous features of human relations. Power has been defined as the ability of a person to influence the behavior of others. The attitude that power and leadership are essential implies that disagreement[2] is typical of human organizations.

Recently, however, these attitudes tend to modify to reduce conflict. The acceptability of the personality and the attraction of the leader are reduced by coercive power, in these days. On the other hand, sharing of responsibility can give certain advantages. For the leader, himself, acceptance by individuals or groups is now considered more satisfying than monetary rewards.

4. No Justification for Division in Classes

Notions about rights and duties, freedom and equality vary with cultural patterns and are not determined mainly by genetic inheritance. Genetic differences do affect such notions, but it is impossible to say whether election of particular capabilities influence the direction of cultural growth. We have to remember the fundamental unity of the human race, and surely, there is no genetic basis for division into classes (or varnas) as is prevalent in orthodox Indian culture. Classes have different rights, duties and rewards in society. When all men are brothers, it is extremely difficult to justify gross injustice on the basis of the functions that people in different classes perform. Ironically, we take them for granted as entrenched in the order of society and are not shocked by such differences. But ethics and biology both tell us that it is not right to do so which vindicates the Jain view.[3]

Variety, whether inherited or acquired is a valuable feature for the polymorphic[4] human species, genetically and culturally. But there is no genetical foundation for the classes which are rewarded so drastically unequally.

5. The Right to Live

All individuals have equal right to live and they have the responsibility and capacity to make some use of life for the benefit of both self and society. We all have duties and obligations to our society. These are usually defined by custom, as also is the extent of the individual's right to be sustained by social facilities. Anyone who accepts the benefits of society has obviously some duties towards it. No society is perfect or eternal and all are liable to change and evolve. Privileged classes will resist change but violence is never justified even to promote aims of equality and freedom which is never absolute.


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Title: Neuroscience and Karma
Jain Vishwa Bharati, Ladnun, India
Editor: Muni Mahendra Kumar
Edition: Second Edition, 1994

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Page glossary
Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Aghāti
  2. Brain
  3. Cooperation
  4. Genes
  5. Genetics
  6. Gotra
  7. Gotra karman
  8. Jain Philosophy
  9. Karman
  10. Mahavira
  11. Nāma
  12. Varnas
  13. Vedic
  14. Violence
  15. āyuṣya
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