There was a pithy French observer of humanity called André Maurois, who for some reason took an interest in the short life of the outrageous nineteenth British political figure George Smythe. Smythe was a man of great and libidinous complexity who, like most politicians, said one thing and often did another. Maurois wrote of him:
“He was a cynical sentimentalist, a man who said life should be sipped and savoured to the full….but for his own part, drank it down at one gulp”.
Smythe died at the age of 39. Maurois died in 1967 at the age of 89. They both led interesting lives, albeit at differing speeds. But such is the nature of our species, neither of them was entirely right about what they said about others: modern neuroscience suggests that most people have certain personality traits and ‘standards’, but many of them are contradictory. “Consistency,” somebody once said – probably Mark Twain because he never stopped talking – “is the hobgoblin of small minds”.
The way neuroscience expresses this finding explains why, until the age of about 25, the very use of the suffix ‘science’ use to make me hide behind the sofa, and wait until those using it had gone away. Last year, neuroscientists set out to ‘Test Different Versions of the Affective Neuroscience Personality Scales in a Clinical Sample’. Their finding was as follows: ‘Further work needs to be done in order to realize a psychometrically sound instrument for the assessment of primary emotional experiences’. Not entirely conclusive.
‘Objective, method, materials, observations, conclusions’: How many over 50s still remember those classic sub-headings employed for every experiment done in the chemistry lab? In 1962 – in the smelly lab of Stand Grammar School – the conclusion was always the same: ‘the sodium reacted with the hydrochloric acid to produce salt, and hydrogen was given off’. (Also there was a loud bang after which Mr Revie panicked and hit the fire alarm while hurrying us out of a highly poisonous environment) .
While this same ‘conclusion’ principle theoretically applied to physics and biology, it always left me with the question, “Why?” There was a good reason for this: a great deal of medical research and cutting-edge physics was based on observation rather than conclusion. Nobody else knew what to make of it either.
Being now much older and less cowed by technical gobbledygook, I’ve become fascinated by developments in the ‘newer’ sciences because they’re often inconclusive: everyone loves a good mystery – and few people more than me.
Last year, a neuroanatomy team I think based in Seattle postulated that brain plasticity (ie, its ability to change shape and grow in some areas) means most ‘normal’ humans are capable of having up to eight personalities – each being dominant at different times depending on circumstances and real-time influences. Suggesting the same thing the other day, a regular correspondent wrote to me with the opinion that, if you take neoliberals out of a neoliberal “situation”, they stop sounding like neoliberals. This is also my experience. It doesn’t, unfortunately, work with Harriet Harman or John McCain: they’re always obnoxious wherever they are. But again, that’s just part of the human condition: infinite variety.
I notice this myself when it comes to accents. I’ll ring my brother, and come off the phone sounding like a Lancastrian. I spend at least some time every day talking to Americans: last month my elder daughter rang me, and after a few minutes she said “Have you been with Americans today?”. After a long dinner party with middle class Brits, I sound like I did when I worked at JWT in London. The artist David Hockney’s accent is also instructive: he says the word ‘photograph’ in the most delightful way that mixes LA with Bradford, and thus comes out as “fordagraff”.
Adopting the tics and characteristics of others has often been thought weird (one of Woody Allen’s funniest movies was the 1983 short Zelig, about Leonard Zelig – a little Jewish bloke who takes the tendency to extremes) but it is, when balanced, a perfectly natural herding instinct now confirmed by studying the brain. For myself, I display the characteristic…but then can’t resist telling the herd it is talking twaddle.
When giving the herd this largely unwelcome advice, I try to be Ray Rigorous, fearless reporter upon the anti-social antics of arseholes. But when doing DIY, I am Captain Slapdash, the man for whom the hammer will always be mightier than the drill. My woodwork teacher at school told my Dad, “Under no circumstances let him loose on chisels and wood: he is a danger to himself and others”.
That’s because everyone is an individual, and some things that grip us bore others. But to remain under the safe protection of the pack, we all need the ability to sympathise and show commonality with other members: hence the apparent contradiction. I have no empirical fieldwork support for this whatsoever, but it’s long been my observation that sibling rivalry is based not on dominance instincts but on metier diversity: evolution thought (and for once, it was right) that the best way for a tribe to flourish is for each family unit to produce an eclectic range of talents that can deal with any situation. That way, every family member is employed for the good of the community.
You may have noticed that neoliberal, target-driven education denies this kind of social anthropology. Because of this, we have in the UK hundreds of thousands of unemployed 2:2 Media Studies graduates….but no plumbers or plasterers. But then, all tragi-comic situations are based on the difference between human hubris and human achievement.
The Left-leaning concept of political correctness would militate against either of those sketches being either written or broadcast today. Just as the neoliberal ‘bums on seats’ instant-ROI instincts of the Right crush creativity in our time, so too do Left-wing ideologues vigorously discourage those things they deem offensive.
The moral of this ramble? One size will never fit all, because even within each individual, there are several potentially divergent characteristics. We are a whimsical species, and the one-dimensional Right-Left spectrum is at least 70 years past its sell-by date. The future ought to be a judicious mixture of of individual drive in concert with mutual needs.