summer/fall 2007 no. 9
editors contributors links about back issues home
summer/fall 2007 no. 9
Modernized Mutating Vinegar Tasters
An Adaptation of the Ancient Chinese Vinegar Tasters Story
by Rosemarie Sokol
The Vinegar Tasters is an ancient Chinese tale about three wise men in a city in China, who, in fact, represent the three major teachings there: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Let's assume, however, for the sake of psychology, that we’ve instead walked down a very busy street in present-day Scholarville; where people of all kinds partake in various interactions. Each strikes up a different conversation about an aspect of psychology, and many disagree.
We happen upon a particular alley in which we see three prominent scholars around a large, black caldron. These three are dressed plainly, and do not speak. But as we look closer, we see each dip a ladle into the pot and draw forth some of the liquid. The smell is unmistakable – they are drinking warm vinegar!
We stay crouched behind some boxes and watch their expressions. Each drinks the vinegar in turn, and we notice that each has a markedly different facial expression. With the help of the Facial Action Coding Systems (FACS)1, we begin to interpret what each expression means. We learn that each expression reveals the scholar’s view about humanity, reflecting what the scholar has studied and learned over the years.
The first scholar tastes the vinegar, and immediately adopts an expression that can only be termed ‘bitter’. We recognize that this scholar is a proponent of the evolutionary psychological view of humanity, adopting the view that behavior and cognition is a product of thousands, if not millions of years of selection much as is our ability to walk upright. From this perspective, behavior can change within a lifetime, but that change will never be passed onto offspring2. A popular metaphor is borrowed from baking – the genotype of a given trait is the recipe, while the phenotype, or expressed trait, is the cake. The cake can change based on circumstances including the ability of the baker, the temperature of the oven, and the quality of ingredients – but the recipe is passed on to other bakers unchanged.
To this first scholar, humanity is bitter because while we can overcome our tendencies to rape, murder, and cheat within a lifetime, we cannot pass that ability onto our offspring. Our offspring will inherit the traits to rape, murder, and cheat because those traits allowed our ancestors to pass on more offspring, who in turn passed on more offspring. So in our modern society, in which rape, murder, and cheating are punished, we can learn to overcome these tendencies but not to pass that tendency onto offspring via genes. We can change the cake and suppress that need to cheat, but we can’t change the recipe. Therefore, the view of humanity is bitter – we must each learn how to interact in a modern world with an ancient recipe.
We keep hiding, and see that the second scholar has tasted the vinegar, and expresses a ‘sour’ look. This scholar is easily recognizable for reputable work in the area of socio-cultural psychology. From this perspective, the scholar’s view of humanity is that each person’s behavior is determined by the cultural and social groups to which he belongs3. Thus, if identical twins were separated upon birth, one raised in Culture A and the other in Culture B, each would exhibit much different behavior despite being genetically identical.
This scholar affects a sour expression, because the scholar is a member of the culture that is perhaps misstated and referred to as ‘American’ (meaning from the United States). This American culture seems to be obsessed with violence – the news predominated by stories about rape, murder, and cheating because that is what sells. In this culture, there is a notable class distinction that upsets some people, including this scholar. This scholar believes that if given a better environment, if exposure to violence is limited, and if people instead emphasize the positive qualities of human life, then we would be far better off as a culture. Thus humanity is sour, because there is no reason that we can’t be good – but something has gone wrong and our culture suffers as a result.
We turn to the final scholar, who is just drinking from the caldron. This scholar has an expression that we instantly recognize as ‘sweet’ – this scholar enjoys the vinegar more than the first two scholars. This scholar is referred to by many names – epigenesist, evolutionary-developmental scientist, probabilistic epigenesist, interactionist, and so on. From such approaches, scholars believe that we are shaped by our genetics, but also our environment, and changes that occur during the lifespan. What is more, this scholar believes that these changes can be passed onto future generations4. For example, this scholar has spoken of a mother rat that gave birth to 8 males and a masculinized female. In the womb, the female was exposed to so much testosterone from the presence of the 8 brother rats that when born the female exhibited many behaviors common to male rats, including trying to copulate with females. What’s more – when that female rat finally mated, her female offspring were also masculinized! This scholar believes that we can learn a lot about inherited traits at the human level by such examples. Unlike our evolutionary scholar, this scholar believes that the cake can change the recipe too.
This scholar makes a sweet face because she sees humanity as it is and does not try to change it. She believes that hope is not lost, because a person can reach his/her full potential through many pathways as long as one is open-minded. If a person is born with a trait to murder, but is raised in a loving environment that in turn changes that person’s biology, perhaps that person will not pass on that trait for murder. This scholar recognizes that our past does not have to determine our future. Further, this scholar recognizes that there are many ways to get to the same end point, and the same way does not necessarily lead to the same outcome. Studies in genetics have shown us this through studies of the genotype for a trait, and the accompanying (or more surprisingly, not) phenotype.
Each scholar is very influential in his/her own circle, and will be for years to come. Just as the ancient Chinese scholars, many people will flock to one or the other perspective. The challenge is the same for the Chinese and Modern Academic scholars – to find a way to integrate each of their convincing ideas and research. It has been over two thousand years without resolution for the Chinese scholars; perhaps our friends in Scholarville will not take so long.
1 The software program developed by Paul Ekman, Wallace Friesen, and Joseph Hager, 2002.
2 This perspective has entered the popular world via Richard Dawkins’ bestseller, The Selfish Gene, published in 1976/1989 by Oxford University Press.
3 Such as views borrowed from Clifford Geertz and Emile Durkeim. For more, see the critique by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides in their chapter “The Psychological Foundations of Culture” from in The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, published in 1992 by Oxford University Press.
4 This scholar is in part influenced by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb, outlined in their book Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life, published in 2005 by MIT Press.
Copyright © 2007 Entelechy: Mind & Culture. New Paltz, NY. All rights reserved.