Can a leopard change his spots? Never.
Can an old dog learn new tricks? Sometimes.
Can people change? I sincerely hope so.
If people can’t change their coping style, learn new behavior, or grow into better human beings, then free will is a joke. If people are what they are, no matter what, how can anyone hold them accountable for their choices?
When I was taking Psychology 100 in the mid-Sixties, Skinner was hot. We were told that everything people do is conditioned. If you want better people, manipulate the environment, and positive behavior will follow.
The lecturers rhapsodized about a coming day when we would all get regular mental health check-ups, to nip antisocial tendencies in the bud before they turned into undesirable behavior. This scared me. Who would make up those tests, or determine what was desirable, and what was not? If one of those master manipulators had a nasty mother, thousands would suffer.
Our attempts to create the perfect environment failed. Despite our vast psychological knowledge, enlightened social and educational programs, and a plethora of behavioral technicians, significant sectors of humanity are self-centered, self-destructive, or downright dangerous. People with storybook childhoods sometimes turn out to be jerks, while people who have suffered a great deal of abuse mature into humanitarians. Is it time to for us to smell the coffee and start taking responsibility for our actions?
No such luck. We now have entered the wonderful era of genetic determinism. My chronic fear is not the result of traumatic experiences, but of some sort of “conservatism gene” which served my primal ancestors well by encouraging them to stay away from untried and potentially perilous situations. My kindness is not a laudable personal trait, but the result of an “altruism gene” which was favored by natural selection because it encouraged hominids to live and work in groups, affording them superior protection from predators and other hominids. It doesn’t matter whether these characteristics are good or bad: I am stuck with them.
The good news is, we can and do adapt to changes in our environment. Sometimes that environment is external, like climate change, our nurturing or toxic neighborhood, or a particularly inspiring teacher who believes in us. Sometimes it is internal, in the form of insights, decisions, and conversion experiences. With the right motivation and a lot of practice, we can learn to behave differently. In time those new behaviors become who we are.
When we see a professional athlete score, we never imagine that s/he was born that way and those exceptional abilities magically appeared. That person became a highly-specialized performance machine by combining natural talent with expert and persistent coaching, disciplined practice, and that relentless inner drive known as “heart”. Motivation, expertise and hard work can create a dazzling star, a loving parent, or even a saint. We get out of life what we put into it. Blaming our parents, or society, or our genes for the way we are will only stall our progress on the racetrack of life.
Our genetic material furnishes basic blueprints for how we are put together. Our experiences shape our responses to the challenges that confront us. From there on, it’s up to us. No matter what kind of hand we were dealt, we are the ones who choose how to play the game.