Personality In The Great Chain of Being

We tend to talk as if what we are pleased to call “personality” is something that sets us aside from the animals and – especially when considered in tandem with the very confused concept of “soul” – contrasts with the animal or bodily agenda. In fact animals have plenty of this thing called “personality” too; dogs, cats, horses, parrots and so on have “personality” in the usual sense of the word, namely individually distinctive patterns of behaviour and response, additional to the patterns of their species and apparently quite gratuitous. The great apes, elephants and dolphins recognise themselves in the mirror and therefore have this thing that we call “self-awareness” in ourselves. How far down the “great chain of being” this kind of personality patterning extends I do not know, and it would be better to ask the people who live intimately with each individual species than to speculate in ignorance. Doubtless some animals of any given species have more “personality”, in the sense of vivid individuality and amusing quirks, than do others, but then we can say the same about human beings. It is not certain that this “personality” equates with the grander “sentience” or “self-awareness”; but then again, the universality of these latter qualities in Homo sapiens is not entirely obvious either.

The question is whether personality is an evolutionary adaptation, or an inevitable emergent quality of complex neural structures. We have already discovered that specialisation simply emerges when we build a robot based on virtual neurons. Now, it is very hard to see any survival or reproductive advantage in a particular cat’s preference for sleeping upside-down with two legs hanging over the edge of his master’s bed, or another cat’s fascination with a particular television programme, although these are the sorts of thing that we call personality. It might simply be the case that any sufficiently complex system has to settle into some pattern or other, and that this is the pattern it happened to settle into. Other senses of the word personality, however, are clearly evolutionary: an animal’s persona, how it projects itself to the world, is of immediate and incontrovertible relevance to its reproductive success.

A third source of personality is dysfunctional parenting, which is by no means confined to our own species. Some queen cats are lousy mothers, probably because they were never mothered properly themselves; so that it is in their best reproductive interest for their offspring to get re-mothered by humans. I should like to see papers on Parental Induction of Personality Disorders in Cats appearing in journals of psychiatry; this might both enhance our appreciation of the emotional life of our co-mammals and shed some light on the processes of creating human losers. It might also confirm suspicions that a personality disorder is in fact a tautology – to have a personality at all is to be disordered, relative to being a perfectly efficient survival and reproduction machine.

Posted on April 2, 2009 at 10:47 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, Beings and Gentlebeings

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