Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ahoy, Mr Communist: Selfishness starts young

The other day, a friend gave Sonny a pack of four little bath toys: Miniature animals that float and can be used to squirt water. Mum, sniggering, handed them over to the our five-month-old to see what he would make of them. In truth, she expected him to just try and eat them, since his standard greeting - extended towards all surfaces, people and items - is to get gummin'.

Sonny, however, gathered Little Cow, Little Frog, Little Pig and Little Hen to himself, all but lying on top of them before beginning to fiddle with them. Mum's jaws dropped. Apparently, some primitive notion of ownership was at work: The little fella was establishing boundaries of sorts, marking the toys out as 'his' before proceeding to explore (and, sure enough, chomp away).

Unreconstructed communists or anyone with an abiding hatred for the concept of private property might be hopping mad by now. But as far as we can tell, we had never given Sonny the impression that any part of the reality he was encountering was somehow his to own. We'd shown him around our little flat, introduced him to Mac the stroller and so on, but only as aspects of the broader world that he would be interacting with more or less regularly. His apparent identification of certain items as 'within his realm of control' seems entirely instinctive.

Is this a body blow to Marxism? Not really, since there are lots of 'social' arguments for why private property might be considered a great evil, on account of its encouraging wickedly selfish behaviour or dividing person from person so as to create unfortunate dichotomies. But the suggestion that common ownership is the natural way of things (prior to flawed individuals claiming specific things) surely takes a knock. Not to build too much upon the actions of an infant, but it would seem we are hard-wired, genetically, to 'own stuff'. Or so we might interpret Sonny's unprompted reaction to the squirt animals.

Naturally, more observation is required. We'll be leaving the toys about in various configurations, apparently haphazard but deliberately placed, to see whether a change in positioning disrupts Sonny's in-gathering predilections. Perhaps he will only 'claim' those items closest to himself, or only clusters of objects rather than individual items (and what on earth would that tell us, one wonders). And maybe timing is critical too: After a good meal, say, he might desultorily fiddle with objects that - when hungry - he automatically harvests.

It could be we're just being a tad silly. But why deprive us of our adult fun? Don't be selfish now.