Exiting my freshman college sociology course, I knew for a certainty that human behavior-all human behavior- was determined by the environment in which a person grew up and lived. The following year a psychology course made me aware that it was not the external, but the internal human world that fully determined our personal behavior. Then, a course in social psychology made the interaction of the internal psychological and external social worlds determinative. By this time I was increasingly suspicious of such exclusive claims and dogmatic utterances so that, when the field of sociobiology opened up (evidence that our human actions and social constructs are biologically based), I added to, rather than elbowed out, knowledge derived from other fields.
Over the years, other academic disciplines and folk wisdom joined in the claim to know the absolute determinative factor for human development and action: genes, the chemicals in our brain, hormones, food (we are what we eat), and will power (you can do what you set your mind to do).
We humans seem to be pervasively and insatiably curious. From Isaac Newton's explanation of the laws of universal gravitation, to examining the cells that operate our muscles, to my own simple question as to why I react so strongly to another person's mild criticism, there is this inner compulsion to understand ourselves and the universe in which we live. What puzzles me is the accompanying need to transform one's insights-as true and as helpful as they might be-into universal prescriptions.
Although religion has always been the happy hunting ground for those who believe they have the Truth and a need to impose that Truth on others, the dogmatic frame of mind is endemic, infecting all areas of human knowledge, including science. For, science can turn into scientism-the belief that the only truth is that which has met the criteria established by science.
It seems obvious (to me anyway) that the interaction of the various fields of our knowledge gives a far better picture of Truth than any one discovery. The mental picture/understanding/image of this interaction that I now carry with me comes from a journalist who writes: "Think of biology and behavior as dancers-one leads, the other follows. But which does which, and when? They tug at each other, and in turn are pulled by the music, the fluid melody of the environment. And do we ever know-can we ever know-where we are in the dance?"
Thus, I add to all of the separate academic disciplines and folk wisdom, that expand my knowledge in quite extraordinary ways, the words of this journalist who gives the mix a vitality through the image of the dance. Instead of solitary fields, each staring straight ahead while doing their rigid two-step, truth is in the flow of the interaction of the partners and the lure of the music.
In a strange way, the same truth was discovered by one large denomination when, in the early 1960s, it conducted a massive study of its missionaries, attempting to figure out what made some spend years and years living in a different culture and why others were sent or returned home within months. The cost of finding, selecting, training and transporting missionaries made this study essential. The difference was, according to the study, the ability of a person "to tolerate ambiguity." It was the ability to maintain one's self-identity while moving with the rhythms of a different culture that meant success or failure in living overseas.
Would you care to dance?
--Robert H. Tucker
18 October 1999
© Robert H. Tucker, 1999.
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