HUMAN MORALITY: How much lies in our genes?

I’VE recently been immersed in an era where mechanical augmentations are used to replace body parts; where humankind starts to become more machine than biological squishyness. This is not reality – not yet, at least – but is a video game called Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which depicts a portrayal of what the world might be like in 20 years time.

Darth Vader (image: biggest appeal of this popular title is that it raises significant questions concerning human morality. What makes us human? What makes people good or evil? These questions have been a part of philosophy and the human imagination for millennia and have now entered the realm of crime and punishment, with a new field of investigation called Neurolaw. In a nutshell, those accused of capital crimes can now appeal to have their mental states assessed by a neurologist during trial.

What we can be sure of is that it is not in our nature to take the life of another. We all share a moral instinct to protect life, specifically the lives of those we care about. However, when this moral instinct is suppressed, and people are forced to kill others, they can lose all respect for life and be filled with hatred, fear and confusion. This accounts for the high number of suicides during and after the war in Vietnam for example.

This is of course, unless one is psychotic. The majority of serial killers throughout history – the Ted Bundys and Jack the Rippers – were found to be psychotic. They lacked the human emotion that the rest of us share – specifically empathy, which made their killing sprees seem as regular as watering the roses.

The Moral Molecule and Warrior Gene

Luke Skywalker (image: have determined that psychopathy is mostly genetic, but also depends on brain structure and a chemical called oxytocin, which has become known as the “moral molecule.” Neuroscience has also isolated a gene which has become known as the “warrior gene.” Whether this nasty gene is triggered or not depends on upbringing and environment. An abusive childhood is the most common trigger to unleash the warrior within.

If a psychopath has a pleasant childhood on the other hand, the outcome can be vastly different. It has been discovered that the “successful psychopaths” are largely to be found in big business or powerful positions in society - almost four times as many as in the general population in the U.S. Psychologists suggest that corporate culture is the ideal environment for someone with such a disposition, where the lust for thrill-seeking can be sated.

Characteristics of the Psychopath

The correct brain structure and a lack of the moral chemical, oxytocin, can make for the most charismatic leaders. Although lacking profoundly in empathy and being supremely egotistical and shallow, psychopaths have at their disposal a large repertoire of human behaviors and emotions which can be easily mimicked. Psychopaths can put themselves in the skin of others intellectually, read their body language and use this to charm, intimidate or manipulate others.

Morality Test

So how can we tell whether or not someone might be a psychopath at an early age? One ‘morality test’ that has been done with babies is to put on a puppet show to do with sharing. A central doll plays with a ball before passing it to another doll to play with, which soon passes it back. The ball is then passed to a third doll which promptly runs off with the ball. The baby subjects are then encouraged to choose between the ‘good’ puppet and the ‘bad’ puppet. Experimenting with hundreds of babies revealed that 70% of them choose the ‘morally good’ doll and indicates that from an early age we are drawn towards kindness. In such experiments it is hoped that the remaining 30% perhaps fell asleep during the show.

So if you have any little ones in your life, go now and shower them with hugs and kisses and tell them how much they are loved, no matter how much they might protest.

  • This information on human morality and the moral molecule was largely derived from a BBC Horizon documentary called Are You Good or Evil?

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QUITE INTERESTING: Facts from long ago (not so general knowledge)

Quite Interesting Facts: Why do men's clothes have buttons on the right while women's clothes have buttons on the left?

Buttoned coatWhen buttons were first invented they were very expensive and worn primarily by the rich. Since most people are right-handed, it is easier to push buttons on the right through holes on the left. Because wealthy women were dressed by maids, dressmakers put the buttons on the maid's right. And that's where women's buttons have remained since in several buttoned outfits worn today.

Quite Interesting: Why do X's at the end of a letter signify kisses?

XO'sIn the Middle Ages, when many people were unable to read or write, documents were often signed using an X. Kissing the X represented an oath to fulfill obligations specified in the document. The X and the kiss eventually became synonymous.

Quite Interesting Facts: Why is shifting responsibility to someone else called 'passing the buck' ?

Poker BuckIn card games, it was once customary to pass an item, called a buck, from player to player to indicate whose turn it was to deal. If a player did not wish to assume the responsibility of dealing, he would pass the buck to the next player.

Quite Interesting Facts: Why do people clink their glasses before drinking a toast?

ToastIt used to be common for someone to try to kill an enemy by offering him a poisoned drink. To prove to a guest that a drink was safe, it became customary for a guest to pour a small amount of his drink into the glass of the host. Both men would drink it simultaneously. When a guest trusted his host, he would only touch or clink the host's glass with his own.

Quite Interesting Facts: Why are zero scores in tennis & squash called 'love' ?

In France, where tennis became popular, round zero on the scoreboard looked like an egg and was called "l 'oeuf", which is French for "egg". When tennis was introduced in the U.S. Americans mispronounced it "love" as in Squash as well.

Cloud 9Interesting Facts: Why is someone who is feeling great 'floating on cloud 9' ?

Types of clouds are numbered according to the altitudes they attain, with nine being the highest cloud. If someone is said to be on cloud nine, that person is floating well above all worldly cares.

limeQuite Interesting Facts: Why are people in the public eye said to be 'in the limelight' ?

Invented in 1825, limelight was used in lighthouses and theatres by burning a cylinder of lime which produced a brilliant light. In the theatre, a performer in the limelight was the centre of attention.

Piggy BankQuite Interesting Facts: Why are many coin banks shaped like pigs?

Long ago, dishes and cookware in Europe were made of a dense orange clay called "pygg". When people saved coins in jars made of this clay the jars became known as "pygg anks". When an English potter misunderstood the word, he made a container that resembled a pig, and it soon caught on.

Now you know everything.

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ABC: The new alphabet for kids in the digital age

Learning the alphabet was fun. Singing the alphabet song has got to be one of the highlights of early life. When we started school many years ago, we had to learn the ABC. Kids still do, but the only thing that stayed the same is that A still stands for Apple!

Old School Alphabet Chart

Old Alphabet Chart

New ABC Alphabet Chart for kids in the Digital Age

New Alphabet Chart

Related Post: Learn the National Anthem the ABC way

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CAPE TOWN: How slavery has influenced Cape cuisine, Cape architecture, language and Cape Town traditions

by Niki Moore

Slavery and the Western CapeIt would be irresponsible to ignore our most significant events in decades, even in a travel column. So this week’s effort is about the universal franchise – or rather, the lack of it.

One group of South Africans never had a vote, never had any freedom at all, and yet their contribution to our society has been priceless. These are the slaves of the 17th century Cape Colony.

The Western Cape has its unique character because of slavery. There are still reminders of slavery around Cape Town: the Slave Lodge in Adderley Street (now a museum), the Slave Stone where slaves were displayed prior to being sold, the Slave Tree where they waited their turn to go on the block. But their influence goes much deeper than physical relics.

Slavery: A brief history lesson

The very first consignment of slaves arrived at the Cape on the ship Amersfoort on March 28, 1658. They had been captured by the Dutch from a Portuguese slaver that was on its way to Brazil, filled with captives from Angola. This was the first of only three shiploads of slaves from Africa. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) controlled the Cape and had extensive holdings in the East Indies. It therefore made sense for slaves to come from Indonesia and Malaya. And they did – thousands of them. Within 50 years of the establishment of a victualling station at the Cape, slaves outnumbered free men.

VOC ship - Slavery and the Western CapeFor 176 years (until slavery was abolished) the economy of the Cape depended on slaves. They worked in homes, on the farms, in shops and factories, on building sites. Officially, almost 7 000 slaves were brought to the new colony on VOC-sponsored slave ships, but many more arrived with Dutch East India officials returning home from Batavia. Because the Netherlands outlawed slavery, the officials sold their slaves in the Cape before embarking on the last leg of their return voyage home.

Slavery: The life of a Cape slave

A slave’s lot was not a happy one. If they survived the journey (an ‘acceptable’ casualty rate for slaves was 15%), they died of overwork and malnutrion, torture and mistreatment. Many committed suicide. The hardy ones existed entirely at the whim of their masters – punished harshly, executed, married off or sold willy-nilly.

It is hard to think that anything good can come out of such sustained human misery, but amazingly, the Cape has some reminders of slavery that are testaments to the resilience of the human spirit.

Slavery and Cape cuisine

koeksisterSlaves were cooks and kitchen staff, and they had a huge influence on Cape menus. Our national dishes such as bredie, koeksisters, bobotie, sosaties and tameletjie (toffee) all have Malay influence. C. Louis Leipoldt – a writer and keen cook – was the first Afrikaner to recognise and formalise Cape cuisine, a mixture of East and West.

Slavery and Cape architecture

Initially slaves only did menial work, but as slave populations stabilised they were trained in skilled occupations. Slaves were taught to build houses in the Dutch style, but they introduced many little Eastern flourishes in the ornate stone pediments and ornamental gardens. The Castle, Groot Constantia, Vergelegen and Simonsig were all built by slaves.

Slavery and Cape slang

It is believed that Afrikaans developed as a ‘kitchen-language’ – a simplified form of Dutch that slaves learned in order to communicate with their Dutch-speaking masters. Proof of this, perhaps, is the fact that the first Afrikaans was written in Arabic script. The language is also enriched by many Arabic words such as piesang (banana), bredie (stew), baklei (fight), soebat (to plead).

Slavery and slave names

There are a surprising number of people who (whether they are aware of it or not) are descended from slaves. A dead give-away is the name. Slaves were always given names by their owners. Unimaginative people would choose an easy name such as the month in which the slave was bought (Februarie, September). Names of Roman heroes such as Cupido or Hannibal, biblical names such as Moses and Solomon, or whimsical names describing some attribute such as Fortuijn (if the slave was expensive), Witbooi (if they were light-skinned), or from their region of origin such as Basson, Claassen, or Snyman, were also popular choices.

Slaves were Muslim and introduced their religion into the daily life of the Cape. The Cape Peninsula is ringed by 20 kramats, or holy sepulchres, that have fulfilled a 250-year-old prophecy that a ‘circle of Islam’ will be formed around Cape Town.

Slavery and Cape slave traditions

Some current traditions in Cape Town date back to the days of slavery. On the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday women cut up orange leaves in the mosques. This slave tradition, known as ‘rampie-sny’, is unique to Cape Muslims.

The most enduring relic today is the Kaapse Klopse, or Tweede Nuwe Jaar. The slaves got this one day a year off, perhaps because their masters were too busy recovering from hangovers to need their services. Annually, on January 2, the descendants of slaves take to the city streets with bands and dance. The bright street parades and music are a joyous celebration of life over adversity. It's a custom as unique to Cape Town as the noon gun and the flower-sellers on Adderley Street.

Now wasn't that Quite Interesting ?

  • Used with kind permission of Niki Moore - a freelance feature writer and reporter currently living in St Lucia. You can read her original article "Throwing off the shackles" here.

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BIOLUMINESCENT PETS: Glowing creatures that light up your life

BIOTECHNOLGY is a fascinating field. It has so much to offer society. It is not inaccurate to say that it will inevitably be the salvation of our planet. Advocates can immediately point to its beneficial uses in agriculture and the production of eco-friendly fuels.

However, it seems that a very fine line is crossed when science begins to toy with nature. In fact, it is almost impossible to utter the term “genetic engineering” without raising several ethical questions and rallying its opponents.

The world today would be a very different place if science was unregulated. In many instances, control over its application is necessary for there is such a thing as mad scientists who will stop at nothing to test their latest scientific experiments. However, the more level-headed scientists become frustrated when practical and theoretically beneficial applications are simply dismissed on ethical grounds.

Bioluminescent biotechnology is one seemingly innocent branch of science that has brought some interesting ideas to the table. Bio-geneticists in this field have spoken about glowing trees that light up highways, agricultural crops that glow when they need watering, and even bioluminescent methods of detecting dodgy meats and other foods. Yet the real controversy arose when they began speaking about bioluminescent pets.

Bioluminescent pets: GloFish sparks debate

Pet stores in the United States have been under the spotlight since 2004 over the sale of genetically-modified fish that glow in the dark. Sold under the name GloFish, these creatures carry a lofty claim to fame: they are the nation’s first officially sanctioned genetically-modified pet, and scientists say that they won’t be the last.

The GloFish is a Zebra Danio that is made to glow red by the insertion of a gene found in sea coral. Naturally black and white, the new GloFish has gone from curiosity to a focal point in the debate over biotechnology and bioluminescent pets.

There are valid points to be made on both sides of the debate. The central ethical concern centers on the idea of altering the genetic make-up of an animal when there’s no purpose besides our own pleasure. However, most bio-geneticists will argue that this has already been occurring for years.

Bioluminescent Pets: The Eighth Day

The Eighth Day

The pet industry is in many ways a peculiar venue for such a heated debate over the wisdom of genetic modification. The whole notion of a pet, after all, is based on generations upon generations of selective breeding aimed at drawing out certain characteristics that make animals more suitable companions.

Think about dog breeding and all the breeds of dog that wouldn’t be around without human interference. These pooches may not glow in the dark, but the fact that their genes were somehow manipulated can still be used in favour of genetic engineering.

The scary part is that geneticists could very well create an alien-looking, glow-in-the-dark dog. They’ve done it with mice and fish — the latter being the more popular. In fact, the GloFish has absolutely opened the floodgates to a whole new pet trade in genetically engineered animals.

Bioluminescent pets: Upsetting the natural balance of the wild

People who are opposed to the idea may also bring up the risk of unregulated gene-altered or bioluminescent pets upsetting the natural balance of nature and the wild. However, the idea of a rogue GloFish escaping its aquarium and spawning an army of mutant glow-fish in the wild that ultimately wipe out other species of fish, does not presently have a lot of backing.

Yet the question remains: How will a glowing fish benefit society? What’s interesting is that the GloFish was not originally engineered to be a pet. In fact, its creation was rather strange. According to a Washington Post article:

"... glowing fish of a related species were originally developed in a Singapore laboratory for use as a modern-day canary in a coal mine. The fish were supposed to indicate, by glowing, if a given body of water is polluted."

Although this practical use of glowing fish failed, there still seems to be more weight on the side of the debate that argues that genetic modification of animals in general can be advantageous to both people and pets. Researchers are already at work trying to create a cat that won’t aggravate its owner’s allergies. Other possible creations include a dog that isn’t as susceptible to hip dysplasia - an ailment common among German shepherds and Labradors that is associated with over-breeding.

Proposed applications of engineered bioluminescence

Some other proposed applications of engineered bioluminescence include:

• Detecting bacterial species in suspicious corpses.
Novelty pets that bioluminesce (rabbits, mice, fish etc.)
Agricultural crops and domestic plants that luminesce when they need watering.
Bio-identifiers for escaped convicts and mental patients.
Glowing trees to line highways, thus saving on government electricity bills.
Christmas trees that do not need lights, reducing danger from electrical fires.
New methods for detecting bacterial contamination of meats and other foods.

So will (or should) biotechnology be left to genetically modify our future pets? It seems that this is already the case. Whether they will be bioluminescent remains a question of personal taste and will ultimately be left to public demand. There will always be a market for the bizarre. Would I ever add a GloFish to my aquarium? Sure. You can get them in the U.S. for $5.

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