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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Friday, 12 August 2011

I Want a Riot of My Own

Riots, like nature, get interpreted according to pre-conceptions and their accompanying metaphors. So while we read "the message the kids are trying to send us" as an expression somewhere along a moral spectrum between good and evil, we can also, if we like, use political and commercial metaphors. From Primitive Accumulation to Conspicuous Consumption.

From the point of view of the latest stuff I'm trying to cram into my weary head, it's all about inherited behaviours, specifically group behaviours as opposed to individual choices. Our judgement of group behaviour being itself a group behaviour.

Deep breath. Start again.

It goes something like this: just as Hamilton and Maynard Smith came up with the idea that population and individual traits are actually explicable if we think of natural selection operating at the level of genes - an idea developed and popularised by Dawkins - so when we think about good and bad things to get up to, we have inherited instincts for group behaviour that actually determine our conduct far more any system of morality can comfortably cope with.

According to this group behaviour way of looking at things, we jointly and severally belong to families, gangs, groups of mates, football colours, nations, interest groups...but we belong to each one of them slightly differently at different times.

What makes an association real to us is that the association is FELT. And you feel differently depending on your context...your perspective is contingent on who you FEEL yourself to be with. The problems are experienced at the points where the interests of these associations are contradictory. Where we have a war. Or a riot. Groups are made not born.

The observations that the rioters have no stake in society or no proper fathers are observations of this kind. Each implies and reinforces the group to which "they" do not belong.

This shifting of identity is analagous to our biological status as, on the one hand, witless carriers of selfish genes...but, on the other, as social primates with all our complex accumulations of genetic material and associated behaviours, most of which is shared with most of our near nieghbours on the tree of life. And then there's culture...history... It's a question of levels, and all levels are "true". One level does not invalidate the others. We are subject to natural selection from our quanta on up. Same with group behaviour.

What is asked of us by moral and political codes is that we make a hierarchy of these personal identities and affiliations and stick to it. That we permanently scale their importance according to a moral and social prescription. Sometimes national identity on top, sometimes Celtic supporting, sometimes family...Never forget, my head teacher used to say, that you are representing the school when you pan in the window at WH Smiths.

David Cameron is placing family affiliation (because he's a Tory) at the apex of this hierarchy...his analysis being that it is a breakage of family self-identification that allows the gang collective identity to overwhelm social restraints agreed upon by "society" - which itself, in Tory-world, is a voluntary association of families who have agreed that only certain forms of robbery are legal. He is conflating social and legal definitions of selfhood with "family".

He also thinks that this hierarchy can in some way be jointly policed by all of the above. He wants us all to agree on that. To redefine our association. He is responding to group behaviour, then, by forming a "better" group...

The truth is, probably, that you can redefine a hierarchy, but you can't make it stick.

From the genomic view of group and social behaviours, humans and most other animals share very widespread (and hence very ancient) hormones expressed all along their genetic material that has been found to work on a large range of group/social/moral behaviours, all the way from monogamy (or not) to kicking the crap out of sexual competitors (or not)...through herd animals to multi-organism "collective" beings like ants.

Which means group behaviour as such is something we're all stuck with...and credit and blame are all part of the package. They too are evolved behaviours for managing the group. And not something we can take the credit or blame for.

We have evolved in a way that means we have no option but to have ideas about why things happen...but our feelings about why things happen (which are more ancient than our ideas) are rooted in the very ancient dynamics of making groups of us work.

Groups of altruists survive better than groups of self servers...but a self server can do rather well inside a group of altruists. Our outrage and humilation about being conned or attacked without provocation...that FEELING...is probably as old as the hills. We evolved to feel hurt and angry. Our metaphors of good and evil and society and all that...probably came later.

We hate it when our sense of ourselves is undermined or threatened...whether we're being stopped and searched or sweeping up broken glass in our shop. The feelings are the same, and they are undeniably powerful and part of us.

When I'm writing a play, the characters' feelings...how they experience themselves, is obviously central. But to write those feelings, I have to be morally neutral about them.

Everybody in a play thinks that they are A) the good guy and B) the most important person on stage. They're all right about that and they're all wrong. Bad guys must talk and think of themselves just like good guys do. (Unless you're writing crap)

Exactly the same values of love and solidarity and courage are required to join a criminal gang and keep faith with it, as to keep a family together or invent a better society. Those feelings are experienced the same way by the just and the unjust. It's a pious fraud to pretend otherwise.

What we have inherited genetically, it seems, is not a destiny...or a set of instructions. To tell us that family will always come first... or the master race or the working class...

What we have inherited is a tension within a hierarchy of loyalties and identities that never has and never will resolve. So the best we can do is come to temporary agreements with each other on what works. For the moment, anyway. For the individual, the family, the gang, the country, the human race...

So no problems there then.


The government's instructions to magistrates to ignore fripperies like sentencing guidelines and rules of evidence somewhat prove my point I think.

Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at the ESRC Genomics Forum April 2011 - April 2012. Appointed in partnership with the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, Peter will be hosting a number of public engagements as he explores ideas and seeks inspiration for a genomics related play.

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