Not in our Genes

I picked up this book about a year ago because I was interested to read what Richard Lewontin (and others) had to say refuting genetic determinism (at around that time I underwent a fairly drastic shift in perception as I began to question the validity of free will). So, I was hoping they could provide me with good counter arguments to determinism.

I only recently finished the book. You see Sofia and I play a game, I start reading something and then put it down as I something else draws my fancy. Sofia then picks up the book and puts it away causing me to (1) become disoriented, since my environment has changed unexpectedly, (2) forget about it, since it is no longer within my ordered space, (3) grief as I foolishly try to discover where she has put it.

Anyway, it finally turned up again a few weeks ago. So I finished reading it.

I have to say that the book is very disappointing. I really was expecting better from Richard Lewontin. I had listened to (and bought the book) of his lectures on Biology as Ideology - which were really fantastic.

The main problem I had with the book, and perhaps this simply shows where I am at, is that he counter arguments to biological / genetic determinism, for the most part, were really, really weak.

Perhaps my expectations were beyond the scope of the book, I was looking for something to argue for free will and offer cogent arguments against determinism. This book restrict itself to genetic determinism and consequently does not address the larger issue of free will, only that genetics is not the overriding determining factor in our behaviour – nurture has a role in shaping us. Regardless, the book does not adequately answer or explore the issue of nurture being nothing more than an expression of nature. In other words, there is a lot of room for the argument that nurture is nothing more than nature (genetic determinism) acting extrinsically on the organism.

For example, we often practice something, say juggling, until it becomes second nature. The act of juggling is removed from conscious voluntary act, to ingrained autonomic activity. We simply reinforce certain neural pathways, feedback loops to allow us to juggle without having to think about it.

Another example, since returning to work in September 2005, I have modified my diet in an attempt to lose weight. This has taken the form of eliminating calorie dense foods (in general, anything with more than 2 calories per gram – taken in totality) – so, things like pasta, pizza, rice, chips, nuts, cakes have been out (not necessarily successfully, but I'm getting there.

Anyhow, for the past few weeks, I have noticed a definite lack of enjoyment of eating the prohibited items – Friday we went to Pizza Hut: I had a salad, everyone else had a personal pan pizza. JJ and Tania did not finish theirs, so I did, but I did not enjoy it as I once had – I’ve been noticing this with chocolates, nuts, and chips for a while.

Falling back to the theme, does this mean that neural paths, psycho-chemical associations that were once there are eroding? Are my preference changing because of chemical processes going on inside my body / brain? Are my tastes for high fat / high carb – sweet / salty foods being modified because of slow realization? Or because I am breaking a neuro-chemical feedback loop?

And, if I am breaking neuro-chemical feedback loops, is it because I am doing it out of volition, or because I am being influenced by other neuro-chemical messages saying "Hey! You're not 19 anymore, take it easy or you'll end up a coronary stiff." Or is it the environment around me that is imposing pressure on me. Is the environment around me a result of free will, or is it shaped by the genetics of those around me?

Is nature nothing more than intrinsic genetic determinism and is nature nothing more than extrinsic genetic determinism? Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) argues that we (and, in consequence, our civilization) is nothing more than a construct of the gene in order to propagate itself.

However, could we go further and claim that genes are nothing more than a construct of the Universe to facilitate the transition to entropy?

You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don't alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that need altering. - Doctor Who, The Face of Evil

Comments

I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this post (although it's a lot to wrap my head around this early in the morning). :) It will be great food for thought as I go through my day today. I have spent a great deal of time pondering the nature vs. nurture question, as I have observed (over the years) personality characteristics in my son that are so strikingly like his biological father, even though he hasn't seen his dad in nearly two decades. (In those moments I am convinced that nature plays a larger role than we imagine, but then I have to ask myself, is it really his nature or my own nurturing that brings out those personality traits in those around me? heheh) I haven't given as much thought to the subject with respect to free will though. Like I said before, great food for thought.

(P.S. Love the Dr. Who quote!) :)
Cavalock said…
Exterminate! Exterminate!
Dr. Who, The Daleks ;)
Richard said…
MIO: An interesting train of thought (possibly a depressing one) is to regard human behaviour at a macro level rather than a micro level.

If we look at individual human beings there is no real discernible pattern, behaviour is essentially random. However, when we take a bigger picture view then we see patterns of grouping and behaviour.

For me the question (as asked before) is: does this collective behaviour represent individuals exercising free will or does it show that free will is an illusion?

A counter argument might say that not everyone behaves the same way, likes the same things, consequently, individuals are free willed and any attempt to observe patterns is simply a product of the way our brain functions in trying to assign order where there is none.

We could counter by claiming that our world is homeostatic and people act, not out of free will, but automatically to try and maintain a stable environment (people hate change, always griping how things have changed too much, how the old days were better, how change is happening too fast). So while the majority wil be moving one way, there will be other groups moving in other ways to counter and maintain stability (how often do we talk of the pendulum swinging from conservative to liberal and back again?).

Being even more reductionist and claiming that the purpose of humans is simply to further entropy, then humans become non-essential parts of homeostasis - being nothing more than the "latest thing" to move energy from one state to another.

Only having two kids, I cannot draw sufficient nature vs nurture conclusions. Certainly, there are very compelling observations of my two kids which demonstrate that boys and girls are not identical humans in slightly different packages. They both behave stereotypically despite my best efforts to ensure no gender bias was given (although, Sofia stopped short at letting me dress JJ in pink).

Doctor Who is a great source for quotes.

Cavalock: I hope you have a chance to see the new series. I thought it was really good. Personally, I preferred The Master (Roger Delgado's version). I think the remodelled Daleks are much better.

One show from my childhood that I would like to see again is Ultraman.
Lunafish said…
I also loved this post. I enjoy reading books and other publications on human neural pathways. I'm also a student of Quantum Physics. I went to a weekend workshop with Dr. Joe Dispenza I came away wondering if we do have much more ability to control our experieces by our choices but some biological characteristics do seem to be in play - but perhaps we have the capability to change those by our own convictions.
I believe I can make myself not like pizza, not be sick when I don't have time to be sick and get over former lovers by changing my perception of reality.
Lunafish said…
Oops I gave you the wrong link:
Dr. Joe
Richard said…
lunafish: I am more than 50% in agreement with you (2/3 to be precise).

I believe I can make myself not like pizza agreed

not be sick when I don't have time to be sick disagree

get over former lovers by changing my perception agreed
Cavalock said…
argggh!!! they never showed Dr. Who shows here! Everything I know bout the good Doctor are from books. Read almost all the books on the first 4 Doctors when I was a kid. had a whole collection of them. Tom Baker was my fav.
Mum2One said…
I like your blog because it's quite up my alley... so sorry for asking more questions. But would you equate a learnt behaviour, ie the nueron synapses getting more efficient in doing a repeated task to nature's genetic endowment? That seems to be what I'm getting you're saying. I thought formation of synapses are just normal brain functioning/growth but genetic endowment is more a natural predisposition of specific DNA.

I think genetic endowment cannot be learnt to the extent that it is given to some. It's like a gifted musician verses a learnt by rope musician. The latter has to put in a lot of effort and still comes out mechanical and robotic and the former still have to put in a lot of effort but produces masterpieces. (I speak that from my own experience with playing the piano.) Nature would make things easier for the person endowed with those gifts/genetics to excel over and above in that area.

When you bring in free will, I assume you're talking about free will to choose the right from wrong therefore it's harder for some to choose the right due to their lesser endowment in certain areas? If so I believe no matter how much or less endowed we are, God has written his laws in our hearts-our conscience-and that we have the free will to choose to heed that conscience or not. With regards freewill to choose between two neutral choices, it doesn't matter and therefore you should choose depending on your natural inclination. Both are just as good.

Eventhough nature would make things harder for some who may have genetic problems or mental illness of some sort to choose right from wrong, it's still a choice they have been given. How accountable they will to God is God's perogative I think.

If I'm not making sense, rambling, or talking out of context, please feel free to tell me so!!!
Richard said…
cavalock: you can pick up the latest season of Doctor Who on DVD (it cost me CDN $100).

Of course, you might want to check it out first by going to the BBC site.

mum2one: I believe that most believe, barring serious mental / physical problems are capable of achieving pretty much the same. I believe I can learn to play the piano or dance. It may not come easily for me. It may require work, but I think I am capable becoming proficient at it.

Some people have neuro-physical advantages to learning or performing certain tasks and some are disadvantaged. However, I believe that most are capable of achieving greater proficiency than most would give them credit.

We have cases of idiot savant who are very capable in one or more narrow areas and completely incapable in a larger general sense.

For me, this used to represent the soul's attempt at breaking out of using whatever physical resources it had to express itself.

Lately, I am no longer so certain. The question of whether we are truly free or not plagues me.

I used to happily believe that my response, behaviour, actions, feelings were the product of my being true to my individuality and others being swayed by external influences. (You can call it arrogant if you like, but I do not consider confidence to be the same as arrogance - which requires a disdain for others).

Now, I wonder, if who I am is not so much the result of my acting in accordance with my free will, so much as it is my being incapable of responding in the same way others do.

In other words, what I used to believe was my unique individuality is nothing more than a defective neuro-chemical processing which does not allow me to respond the same way others do.
Richard said…
cavalock: you can pick up the latest season of Doctor Who on DVD (it cost me CDN $100).

Of course, you might want to check it out first by going to the BBC site.

mum2one: I believe that most believe, barring serious mental / physical problems are capable of achieving pretty much the same. I believe I can learn to play the piano or dance. It may not come easily for me. It may require work, but I think I am capable becoming proficient at it.

Some people have neuro-physical advantages to learning or performing certain tasks and some are disadvantaged. However, I believe that most are capable of achieving greater proficiency than most would give them credit.

We have cases of idiot savant who are very capable in one or more narrow areas and completely incapable in a larger general sense.

For me, this used to represent the soul's attempt at breaking out of using whatever physical resources it had to express itself.

Lately, I am no longer so certain. The question of whether we are truly free or not plagues me.

I used to happily believe that my response, behaviour, actions, feelings were the product of my being true to my individuality and others being swayed by external influences. (You can call it arrogant if you like, but I do not consider confidence to be the same as arrogance - which requires a disdain for others).

Now, I wonder, if who I am is not so much the result of my acting in accordance with my free will, so much as it is my being incapable of responding in the same way others do.

In other words, what I used to believe was my unique individuality is nothing more than a defective neuro-chemical processing which does not allow me to respond the same way others do.
Mum2One said…
Hmmm... so if we are just incapable of responding to the same way as others do, we do not have free will? Is that your dilemma? Depends on what you mean by free will. Free will to choose right from wrong or free will to choose anything?

Romans says free will to choose from right and wrong is written in our hearts and our conscience bear witness to it. Physical incapacity (barr mental incapacity) does not come in the way of choosing right from wrong.

On the other hand, free will to choose anything. Yes, I think then, that's dependent on our endowment but there's nothing unjustified about that. Different people are created for different purposes, hence the difference in abilities.

I think we can achieve some level of proficiency in the things we try very hard in but the results will still not match up to someone who is gifted in that area AND had put in the same effort as me.

That's why I believe in knowing our gifting and honing them because I believe God placed it there for me to have a purposeful life. That I am unique and special, and no one else is like me - handcrafted by the mastercraft. And that my purpose in life is to be the best ME that I can be.
Richard said…
For me, free will simply means the ability to make decisions, to take action based on my own volition.

We can argue to what degree we are influenced by external factors and internal biology, but in the end, the question is do I ultimately make the decision or am I simply nothing more than a bio-chemical computer responding based on the inputs given to me (we can further add "with the illusion of free will")?


Every decision I take has one of 3 moral implications: good, evil, indifferent. I choose sponsor my goddaughter through university: good. I choose to rape someone: evil. I choose to wear a blue shirt over a red one: indifferent.

Simply because an option or multiple options exist, does not mean that I am able to exercise any one of those options.

For example, many people (especially guys) like to watch hockey. Put the game on the TV and they will focus on that. I have no interest - not even vague. I never have had - despite my dad being someone who watched and played a lot of sport. Even as a kid, while I traded hockey cards, I had no knowledge or interest in the underlying players or game. It was simply something I did because other people did it.

Why is this? It certainly is not for lack of exposure - my dad, my friends, society in general, is pretty sports enthusiastic.

Is it because, neuro-chemically, or neuro-physiologically, there is somethign different about me that causes me not to respond to coordinated group behaviour. It is not just sports. Think Star Wars - I thought it was lacking in plot (I was 11), the same with Indiana Jones.

So if I am unable to respond in the same way, does that mean that my response is a free response, or simply an alternate response based on my particular neuro-biology.

In other words, given the same information, the same stimuli, do I respond differently because my processing mechanism is different, not because I choose to act differently?

I agree very much that we are all unique and special - a handcrafted masterpiece. But, I would go even further than that and say that we are Divine beings created in the image of the Divine. We are equal to God, but God is always greater in the same way that our children are in our image, equal to us, but as parents we are greater because we gave them life. (in computer science terms, this is called a transitive relationship)

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