Environmental Upgrade

It's always seemed obvious to me that if you expose a person to violence at an early age, that person is likely to become violent. But of course, the notion that environment could determine behavior has fallen into extreme disfavor among scientists. After all, as super-celeb evolutionary theorist Steven Pinker asserts, there's a lesson to be learned when twins separated at birth have the same propensity for practical jokes in elevators. It means behavior is innate, he claims, and (weirdly) seems to suggest there is a genetic basis for stupid, conveyance-based merriment.

But a study conducted over the past five years in Chicago - and published last week in Science - makes a compelling argument against the annoying elevator twins. To track the experiences of more than a thousand teenagers in 78 neighborhoods, public health wonks used a novel statistical model to demonstrate that young people exposed to gun violence are more likely to become violent themselves.

Led by Jeffrey Bingenheimer at the University of Michigan, the researchers used "propensity stratification," a method often favored by economists for generating a random sample of subjects out of what are often nonrandom circumstances (such as, in this case, what the subjects' neighborhoods and families are like). As a result, Bingenheimer and his colleagues were able to correct for biases caused by things like certain kids‚ greater exposure to violence in high-crime areas. But even after correcting for these biases, the researchers found that kids who were shot or shot at - or who witnessed someone else being shot or shot at - were twice as likely to engage in violence later on.

Nothing like a good, solid social scientific study to remind you that environment can and does determine future behavior. Obviously there are biological factors that can predispose someone to aggression - otherwise you'd never get homicidal people who come from "nice" backgrounds that hardly seem like the prerequisites to cruelty and murder. But where you're born and who you grow up with could really mean the difference between a life of violence and a life of peace.

There is also an argument to be made that we have some control over our environment, and therefore if we want to change our behavior, we should try to change the world around us - or, failing that, at least our personal circumstances. That's why I'm excited about Rebuilt, a new book about what it's like to become a cyborg, by science writer Michael Chorost.

Chorost is one of thousands of deaf people who have had a computer called a cochlear implant surgically placed in their skull to restore their hearing. Providing an interface between auditory nerves in the ear and the outer world of sound, the computer uses an elaborate system of antennae and processing software to translate noise into signals that the brain learns to decode as speech, music, wind, whatever. In Rebuilt Chorost explores - in moving detail - what it's like to have a computer mediating your environment and social experiences.

His life has changed in all kinds of ways, not the least of which is that he's realized there's no such thing as a "natural" or "true" form of sensory input. "One's most basic relationships to reality can be amended and edited and upgraded; reality is ultimately a matter of software," he writes. And we see this literally happening to him, as software upgrades to his computer alter his perceptions. When he first gets the cochlear implant, Chorost hears the characteristic "beep" of the microwave as a weird blatting noise. An upgrade restores the beeping he heard before he went deaf.

But what about all the kids growing up with these computers embedded in their heads - and there are many of them - who don't get that particular upgrade? Are they missing something because they hear microwave ovens "wrong"? This seemingly trivial question goes to the heart of the debate over changing the world in order to change ourselves. It asks whether changing our surroundings, our physical reality, changes us as people.

Some would say when we profoundly alter our bodies to change our social relationships, or attempt massive cultural transformations by changing educational or economic systems, we are wasting our time. There is no way to keep Pinker's twins from being obnoxious on elevators because it's just part of their unalterable selves. But what if we took their elevators away? Or gave them the ability to hear the sounds of discomfort their stupid jokes produced in people around them? Might they not consider changing their ways?

With Rebuilt, Chorost seems to argue that they would. It's the most hopeful thing I've read in quite a while.

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