The newspaper article ‘To The Power of One’ by Duncan Campbell looks at the life of Bethany Hamilton, a young surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack. The article reports what happened in the immediate aftermath of the attack and how Bethany is living her life now. The following piece looks at a few of the many issues that emerge from Bethany’s story.
When reading the article, the first thing comes to mind is the extraordinary fact that she actually managed to paddle her way back to shore with only one arm despite the obvious shock and extreme pain that she must have been experiencing at the time. This brings to mind a question of survival instincts: do we as human beings have an innate instinct to survive? These are said to be abilities and reactions which are imprinted in humans by millions of years of evolution. Examples of such instincts are searching for food, shelter and clothing. These are all essential for survival and can be traced back to the very earliest of primates, yet are still fundamental in modern day life.
Evolutionary psychologists believe that over time, humans, as well as other species, have adapted to their environment and surroundings in order to survive; this could be a physiological or a psychological adaptation. As a result, they are in a better condition to mate and because of the innate human instinct to survive; these adapted humans will become more desirable in terms of mating. The features are passed onto the offspring and over a period of time the proportion of humans with the adapted qualities will rise, and eventually wipe out the ones without this new trait. Charles Darwin called this natural selection or ‘Survival of the Fittest’.
Dr. Beetle, however, suggests that this survival instinct is purely a myth; however mammals have better memory than other animals, so they remember what joy is like and want more of it. This is what makes them want to survive. This can be illustrated when hearing the words of people who have been in similar horrific situations to that of Bethany. Doug Goodale was forced to cut off his arm to free himself from winch hauling lobster pots up from the sea floor. He later said that he had lost hope and was sure that he was going to die, but the thought of being back with his wife and children made him amputate his limb. Similar accounts have been given by others, including those who have fought in war or captured and tortured by terrorists.
So do we have some innate survival instinct, as Darwin suggested, or, as Beetle believes, in this a false hypothesis and we simply want to experience past pleasures a bit longer? This is something that scientists and psychologists have been in disagreement of for many years – and surely will be for many more. This argument becomes even more interesting when one looks at the action of committing suicide. Whilst this affects only a small proportion of the population, it can be argued that if human beings do possess an innate instinct for survival then it would be virtually impossible for somebody to commit suicide.
Supporters of Darwin, though, must not be ignored. Scientists believe that suicide is brought on by a chemical imbalance within the brain. It could be said that if Darwin’s theory of ‘Survival of the Fittest’ is true then over time this undesirable trait will be lost and only those without the imbalance will survive generations of reproduction. Would this then lead to the elimination of suicide deaths? Which ever theory is correct, if either, only time will tell; until then the argument continues.
In the article there is one line that reads ‘God had a purpose for her in losing that arm’ and later Bethany says that ‘being a Christian has helped in every way’. This brings up the issue of religion.
In this modern, hi-tech world in which we now live what part does religion play in our everyday living? Until recently religion was considered to be the cornerstone of life here in the Unites Kingdom. Any question or reasons for certain occurrences were thought to be able to be answered in the bible, or other respective religious texts. This meant that people followed it, if for no other reason, through fear of what would happen to them after death. However, with major advances in technology allowing us to gain a much wider knowledge of ourselves and the world we live in, these questions can now be answered scientifically. This has led to a decrease in religious following over the last two generations.
Religion, though, is not immune to controversy. Throughout time is has been used as a reason for war. For example, in Tudor and Stuart times there was a clash between Catholics and Protestants and for more recent cases conflict in Northern Ireland and, currently a very topical and sensitive issue, Islamic extremist terrorists. In all of these cases there has to be one crucial question asked: why does such hatred between religions seem to exist? A possible explanation is that, rather than religion being the grounds for violence, it is what comes with the victory that is the root cause: power. In each of the examples mentioned above, it could be argued that rather than fighting for religion, the wars are being contested for power and ownership. Religion is purely used as an excuse for this.
So where does psychology link in with religion? English and English (1958) suggested that religion is ‘a system of attitudes, practices, rites, ceremonies and beliefs by means of which individuals or a community put themselves in relation to God or to a supernatural world, and often to each other, and … derive a set of values by which to judge events in the natural world’. The relationship between psychology and religion, though, does not appear to be very strong. It has been suggested that they are mutually exclusive to one another. Religion uses God as a source of explanation, whilst psychology sites physical and mental processes as the cause of human actions. This can be illustrated by the views of Sigmund Freud, regarded by many as the Father of Psychology. He described God as a projection of the image of the father, and ‘a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find nowhere else but in amentia’ (Freud, 1907, 1927).
Which ever religion a person believes in or follows, there is one fundamental aspect that is common in all of them: a belief in a God or some kind of higher power. Whether or not this is true, for these people this belief and faith is so strong that they feel that nothing is beyond them. It is perhaps only the presence of this God that can account for Bethany’s story, as well as horrific events of others. Whilst is popularity and importance may be on a downward slope, religion and God remains a subject of much debate and interest, whether it be in a positive aspect such as the faith demonstrated by Bethany or perhaps in a more negative manifestation as a source of conflict and war. For those, like Freud, who do not believe in religion, this faith is a false sense of protection and comfort from the real world.
In another part of the article there is mention of Bethany being given a prosthetic arm. Whilst there is little argument of this in extreme cases, such as that of Bethany’s, there is a huge amount of debate and disagreement over the process of artificially altering the body. This could be through cosmetic surgery or genetic modification, amongst many other methods. Whilst there are some people who have no qualms about this, others argue that humans should not have the power to ‘play God’.
There can be no doubt that such advances and procedures could be used constructively within medicine. As well as helping Bethany, life for victims of horrific motor accidents or those scarred by severe burns would incur minimal disruption. There are though, people who use this technology when there is seemingly no real need. A very recent example of this is in America where two boys wanted to become famous actors. In order to enhance their chances, they each underwent a face transplant so that they would look like the film star Brad Pitt. This led to a huge backlash from many observers.
These people may not need to condemn cosmetic surgery for much longer though. The evolution of genetic modification and cloning could mean that humans would not have to ‘go under the knife’ to gain their desirable appearance. In 1996, scientists famously managed to genetically clone Dolly, a sheep. As well as controlling visible physical qualities, genes also decide certain psychological and personality traits, such as intelligence. Whilst this is still in its infant stages, it is feasible that before too long it would be possible to choose certain characteristics for unborn babies. This could have devastating psychological effects once the baby is born and as they go through life. Certain physical traits may have been chosen to follow fashion; as fashion changes would the person may not be so desirable. This may lead to confusion, depression and self-doubt in both the genetically cloned individual and the person that chose their features.
With the rapid advances in the fields of science and technology over the last twenty years, there are very few psychological studies that have been carried out on the topic. The young nature of the topic also means that very few side effects are known. However, it is conceivable that one day Darwin’s theory of natural selection and ‘Survival of the Fittest’ could evolve to become ‘Artificial Selection’ and ‘Survival of the Prettiest’.