Karen Joy Fowler was in Bristol last night promoting her latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which has just launched in the UK. As ever, Karen had a lot of interesting things to say, and consequently my thoughts rambled over a number of issues.
One of the big lessons of the book is how little psychologists knew back in the 20th Century, and how arrogant they were about what little knowledge they had. Pavlov was able to train dogs. Everything else was assumed to flow from there. The novel is, in a large part, about a psychology experiment that went disastrously wrong. And yet it is also about the malleability of memory — something that we now understand to be very real.
What struck me, listening in the audience is that there are things we can do to each other very easily, such as instill false memories, but there are others that prove hugely intractable. For example, we are unable to “cure” people of their sexuality or gender identity, despite the huge amounts of effort that has been poured into such endeavors, and the strong social desire to make such things possible. Why are some forms of what we rather blithely call “brainwashing” so much easier than we thought, and others so much more difficult?
I asked Karen for her views, and she said she thought it was all about working with what was there. Pavlov trained dogs to do things using behaviors that were natural to dogs (slobbering). The same techniques might have been much less effective had he tried to get the dogs to do things that dogs don’t normally do. She also talked about educational theories that suggest that children’s personalities are fixed at birth. You can teach kids to do all sorts of things, but training a naturally shy kid to be outgoing, or a naturally pessimistic kid to be more optimistic, is very hard.
The conversation also strayed onto issues of animal behavior, and Karen noted that chimpanzee society is strongly patriarchal and very violent. We now know that, in the wild, chimpanzee groups engage in wars of aggression against other chimp groups, something we once thought only humans did to each other. In contrast, bonobo society is matriarchal, and while violence does occur, is it much less prevalent than in chimp society. Apparently we’d see a lot more bonobos in zoos were it not for their fondness for casual sex, which is apparently deemed inappropriate for family viewing.
Now chimps and bonobos are as close as you can get to humans in evolutionary terms. Socially speaking, we seem to be rather closer to chimps than bonobos (though Kevin tells me that genetically it is the other way around). At some point in evolutionary history all three species probably had a common ancestor. So there is an open question as to whether susceptibility to patriarchy is something that is hardwired into human and chimp behavior, or something that we developed as an evolutionary response at some point in the past, and which has become fossilized in our social behavior, handed down from parents to children.
This also reminds me or Mary Beard’s recent London Review of Books lecture on The Public Voice of Women. Mary, being a classicist, made a point of tracing the exclusion of women from political discourse back to Greece and Rome, and for the UK that’s a fair point. But it occurred to me that similarly gendered attitudes are common in societies that owe very little to the classical world. I’ve been told that my voice, being somewhat deeper than that of an average woman, is good for radio because it carries an air of authority. Again, how much of that is hardwired, and how much something we pick up as children?
Finally, Karen talked about our relationship with animals. In particular she noted that small babies are given animal toys, and most books for children feature anthropomorphized animals as characters. Yet at some point we are supposed to “grow out of” such ideas, and to see animals as lesser beings. Why do we do this? Is it some part of how we learn to be those arrogant and ruthless creatures called humans? Is it just a behavior we have fallen into and have lost the original rationale for? It is certainly very odd.
All that from an hour of an author chatting about her work. I do so love listening to clever science fiction writers.