Genetic Programming, Cultural Programming, and Self-programming

image of axons in the human brain
Axonal nerve fibers in the brain as determined by the measured anisotropy (directionality) of water molecules inside them.  Image Credit: Connectome

David P. Turner / March 13, 2022

There are many specific prescriptions about how humanity must change to restore a hopeful future (e.g. a global renewable energy revolution), and implementing these prescriptions will require new pro-environmental behaviors by individuals along with shifts in societal values.  In this post, I briefly examine four aspects of a simple psychological framework that shapes the personal sphere of social transformation, and I consider how adoption of that framework could inspire pro-environmental behavior.

A common first approximation to explaining how humans behave is by reference to “nature and nurture”.  I will add a third factor – the influence of self-determination, i.e. the products of self-directed thought.  My fourth factor in this framework is one’s personal experience, which of course can crush us or enable us to blossom.

1. Nature refers to our genetic inheritance.  Neurologists broadly understand the genetically-based architecture of the brain, and the role of neural circuity in brain function, but they are still working on how processes like memory and consciousness actually work biophysically. 

Studies of brain function associated with specific activities show that certain areas or modules of the brain (genetically derived) perform particular functions, e.g. mathematical operations or making music.  Psychologists and neurologists generally believe that humans are born with genetic predispositions in how we feel, think, and act (presumably related to the wiring of our brain).  Some examples include our attraction to sweet foods, our fear of snakes, and how readily as children we learn a language.  

Without going overboard (i.e. espousing that genes alone determine behavior), we might use a computer programming metaphor to indicate significant genetic influences on behavior.  Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson opined that “genes hold culture on a leash”, referring specifically to the influence of genes on values. 

Regarding our feelings and behaviors related to the environment, it is important to recognize that some genetically-influenced traits – while being the product of millions of years of biological evolution – may be obsolete in the context of our contemporary high technology civilization.  We are much better at paying attention to rapidly changing threats (e.g. a charging rhinoceros) than to slow onset threats (e.g. climate change), yet now we must attend closely to threats in the long-term future. 

On the other hand, some proposed genetically-based traits – such as biophilia (love of nature) – may be particularly helpful in the context of fostering pro-environmental behavior.

2) Nurture refers to the influences of our cultural environment on how we think, feel, and act.  The success of Homo sapiens is attributed in part to our capacity for social learning.  Children mimic behaviors of their caregivers and tend to adopt their belief system.  As adults, we continue to learn from a variety of cultural sources.

Learned behaviors (e.g. hunting in a hunter/gatherer society) are often adapted to the local environment, and learned cultural beliefs help bind us to our local social group.  Here again, I think the term “programming” is appropriate if used in a metaphorical sense.  We are culturally programmed in some respects. 

Richard Dawkins referred to the units of cultural inheritance as memes.  Note that memes do not have to be true to be useful.  A mythical narrative of tribal origins may help create a sense of tribal identity, which could strengthen within group solidarity in the face of inter-tribal rivalry.

As with our genetic influences, some of our cultural influences may be obsolete or need modifying in the context of on-going environmental change, e.g. the current emphasis on consumerism in the developed countries.

To complicate things, we have significant biases (going back to our genetic programming) about what we learn.  We are particularly likely to believe or imitate leaders (prestige bias) and tend to believe what is believed by a majority of our peers (conformity bias).

3) Self-determination (self-programming) is an overlay on genetic and cultural programming.  Mature human beings can consciously consider alternative views and reflect on what to believe and how to act (albeit there is always a lot going on unconsciously).  This capacity introduces a sense of agency and inspiration.

Self-determination is certainly impacted by emotions, thoughts, and information that originate from genetic and cultural programming.  To some degree, however, impulses from these sources can be consciously recognized and over-ridden

Education is in a sense cultural programming, but training in critical thinking and more broadly learning how to learn, can open the door to robust self-programming.  The firehose of information now available through the various media (some true and some not) makes this kind of thinking especially relevant now. 

4.  Personal Experience.  Many genes are expressed only under particular circumstances, and learned behaviors can only be acquired when there is exposure to a relevant example or information.  Additionally, the degree to which learned information is internalized and begins to affect behavior depends on other psychological factors.  Motivation to learn is stimulated by a) a positive connection between teacher and learner, b) a sense of autonomy or self-direction rather than being controlled, and c) a feeling of competence associated with accomplishing a well-designed gradation of tasks and getting approval from significant others.

Let’s consider two cases of pro-environmental behavior in which the three types of programming and experience interact.

Slowing Population Growth.  Historically, most cultures encouraged high levels of reproduction, which is certainly predictable in the face of the kind of intergroup competition common in human history.  More group members make for stronger groups.

Considering the importance of reproduction in biological evolution, it also makes sense that there is a strong genetic influence in favor of reproductive behavior (e.g. mate seeking and sexual pleasure in humans). 

For a woman or couple to decide to have few or no children for pro-environmental reasons (potentially in the face of their own instincts and pro-natal cultural policies) would require significant self-programming.  Growing up (experiencing) a society that values education and opportunities for self-actualization other than parenthood would make the choice easier.

Global and Planetary Citizenship.  Global scale problems, like anthropogenic climate change, require humanity to work collaboratively towards changing the current dangerous trajectory.  However, we seem to be genetically primed to identify with a social group of some kind, which also implies a tendency to classify everyone outside the group as suspect. 

Our local society inculcates a unique language and a belief system that differentiates us from outsiders and may induce xenophobia.  Nationalism is on the ascendency these days, but it is not the limit of what a society can be. 

Thus, becoming a global citizen requires some degree of self-programming.  Individuals must learn about issues of global environmental change and deliberate on how to participate in ameliorating the problems.

Besides identifying with humanity as their tribe, it will be important that people identify with the Earth system as their home, as a whole of which they are a part

A common model for societal change begins with an early adopter minority that inspires broader uptake of new values, leading (with some help from prestige and conformity biases) to a majority view (e.g. the broad adoption of anti-littering in the U.S. in the 1960s).  The early adopter minority may come from people who recognize the possibility that the majority view is wrong, and then begin to envision and act on alternatives.  It is encouraging to see a bubbling up of pro-environmental minorities nearly everywhere on the planet now that could grow in an organic manner to become a pro-environment majority.

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