Friday, December 29, 2006

The Forbidden Experiment

yes, the baby in the box is me...aaaahI've touched on this briefly before, but I'd like to think a little about something known as the forbidden experiment. What is it? It is the question of what happens if you raise a human in isolation, without other humans to teach it things. What is a human infant born with and what does it learn? Nature vs nurture. So it's an age old question, but one which is extremely pertinent to all of the topics that I discuss on this blog.

Let's pose a thought experiment. I have cloned myself. I took one of my cells and grew it into a baby (the details are not important, just assume that the technology exists). The baby is a copy of my DNA, created by me, for this experiment. I can do what I want to it.

Okay, first I decide to raise the baby in a box. It is given food and water, heat and air. But it will never interact with another human being. It will never hear a person speak or see another's face. What would this clone be like at age 17? When I was 17 I was a youthful, happy, teenager. My clone though, has never learnt language. He does not know how to think. He does not know what anything is. He is an animal: alive with basic emotions (he shows fear and happiness). Importantly he is nothing like me.

Let's try again. This time, I give my clone to be raised by a chimpanzee mother. She is very experienced and has already raised a number of foster apes. Again the clone is not allowed any contact with humans, but spends all of his time with his new chimpanzee carer. Moving forward to 17, what is my clone like this time? He is different from before. More alert and aware of his environment. He makes chimp-like utterances and gestures, and acts very much like a chimpanzee. He does not have anything like a sophisticated language though and so he is only slightly like me.

The last time. I give my clone to be raised by a theist. His theist mother raises him as her own child, teaches him language and facts about the world. She also teaches him about her religion. She tells him that only people who believe in her god will live forever and that when he grows up he should fight against anyone who believes differently. At 17, this teenager is very like I was, but is still different. If only that he speaks Spanish and believes in a god.

What have we learnt from this thought experiment? That biology and genetics must only ever be part of what makes a human being. Yesterday I discussed the creationist claim that the world is 6000 years old. What I find astonishing is this. The only reason you believe anything is because you have been told it by another human being. You do not know if the world is 6000 years old or 4 billion years old, for sure. You know because you've been told (and reading about it is a kind of being told). More fundamentally, you were taught how to think and given language. If you had not been taught a language, you would probably not be like the person you are today. Your brain started out empty and began to be filled.

But language like religion is made up. You can have a baby without language but no language without people to use it. You can also have a baby without religion but there is no such thing as a religion without people. And since there is no god and life is ultimately pointless, I for one consider myself lucky that I was not the clone in the box, but have had an opportunity to understand my place in the universe.