Monday, July 02, 2007

Acquired Competence or Instinct?

“How Hardwired Is Human Behaviour?” asks Nigel Nicholson, professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School in a Harvard Business Review article (July-August 1998). The theme of the article analyzes aspects of evolutionary psychology and its implications on “how the human mind came to be constructed”. It contends that the evolution of the human mind through the ages leaves behind ‘traces’ of the dominant psychology of the era, and how those behaviours manifest themselves in current day organizations and society in general.

So, it contends for example, that the reflexes developed by the human mind as a requirement of the physiological situation during the Stone Age are still remnant in our minds today, and that we are born with these qualities, pre-programmed into our brains.

After being introduced to this article and subsequent discussions on the same in the classroom during an Organizational Behaviour course, I have been trying to resolve conflicts in my mind about this. Its implications bother me, as it does not gel with my personal views on one the fundamental tenets of philosophy; epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, which studies man’s means of cognition. “Is reason a faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses – or is it fed by innate ideas, implanted in man’s mind before he was born” asks Ayn Rand on epistemology. And, being a strong believer in the advocacy of ‘reason’, as a basis of understanding, the idea of being hardwired seems incorrect to me.

Photograph courtsey Amartya De

I watched the tribal dance show put up at the Singapore National Zoo today, and observed reactions of the audiences’ fascination of the performer, who (during the show) accurately managed to puncture balloons from a distance by shooting darts through a ‘pea-shooter’. It got me wondering if this concept of ‘hardwired brain’ also extended to the realm of ‘skills’. Are we naturally gifted with certain kind of survival skills or does man have to gain these through the employment of sensory stimuli to a rational exercise of practice?

It also got me wondering if the audience would appreciate the performer being naturally gifted with these hunting skills, or if he had gained the same through practice. Personally, I believe it should be the latter, appreciation for competence gained through the application of reason, rather than it being available as an innate pre-programmed instinct.


1. “How Hardwired Is Human Behaviour”, Nigel Nicholson – HBR July-August 1998
2. “Philosophy: Who Needs It”, Ayn Rand

"It's just so perfect!"

Civilization is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbour
- Arnold Toynbee

Given my limited travels around this world, it’s in this harbour city of Singapore, that I have realized how true this above statement is. But hang on, one will need another adjective when it comes to Singapore, and that would be “Synchronized Movement”. The sheer scale of this synchronism boggles the mind! Call it culture shock or an alien milieu, for someone who comes from beautiful chaos of India, this place presents a paradigm change. So much so, that one feels a sense of aversion for the perfection; as a friend commented,

Why would you want to stay here? It’s just so perfect!

Singapore harbour as seen from the cable car

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