Date: Fri 18 Oct 2002 - 21:53:31 GMT
Genes, culture and human freedom
by Kenan Malik
'Are humans the product of nature or nurture?' There are few questions
that have produced more heated, but less illuminating, debates.
Over the past half century there has been a fierce dispute as to whether
human behaviour is determined by our genes or by our environment. In
the decades following the Second World War, the experience of racial
science, eugenics and the Holocaust led many scholars to denounce
genetic theories of human behaviour and to insist on the importance of
nurture in shaping who we are.
More recently, disillusionment with social explanations, and advances
in genetics and evolutionary biology, have helped swing the pendulum
back towards theories that stress the importance of nature in the human
The latest round in the nature-nurture debate took place in the wake of
the publication in February 2001 of the first detailed analysis of the data
from the human genome project. This suggested that human beings
possess far fewer genes than previously thought; not the 100,000
genes that many had believed, but more like 30,000. We have a
genome barely bigger than that of corn plant, and possess just 300
more genes than a mouse.
There have been two responses to these findings. For some, the fact
that the human genome appears different from that of lesser creatures
seems to show that there is nothing particularly special about humans.
'It's humbling isn't it?', observed Ari Patrinos of the US Department of Energy, which funded much of the public genome research (1). But why should it be?
Perhaps we should rather celebrate the fact that a creature with barely more genes than a cress plant can nevertheless unravel the complexities of its own genome.
The second view is that the findings show that humans are more
controlled by nurture than by nature - that they provide an argument for
the existence of free will. 'We simply do not have enough genes for the
idea of genetic determinism to be right', claimed Craig Venter, the
founder of Celera, the private company which played a major part in the
human genome project (2).
An editorial in the UK Observer suggested that 'we are more free, it
seems, than we had realised'. 'Politically', the editorial continued, the
new research 'offers comfort for the left, with its belief in the potential of
all, however deprived their background. But it is damning for the right,
with its fondness for ruling classes and original sin' (3).
Given that fruit flies possess half our number of genes, should we
consider them twice as free as we are?
A moment's reflection should reveal how unfounded is the argument that fewer genes means greater freedom. If it had turned out, for instance, that humans possessed 200,000 genes, would that have implied that we are slaves to our nature? And given that fruit flies possess half our number of genes, should we consider them to be twice as free as we are?
That the UK Observer should seek political solace in the human
genome says more about the desperate character of contemporary
social thought than it does about the data emerging from the human
There remains considerable controversy about the extent to which
heredity influences human behaviour. But the argument for the
importance of heredity has never rested on arguments about the
number of genes we might possess. Rather, it has emerged largely from
studies of identical twins. The interpretation of the data from such
studies may leave much to be desired, but handwaving about numbers
of genes will not make any difference to that data.
The fact that humans have fewer genes than expected does not mean
that we are governed more by nurture than by nature. Even if it did,
however, it would not imply that humans are 'more free'. Being
controlled by one's environment does not make one any freer than
being controlled by one's genes.
The problem with the nature-nurture debate is that this is an inadequate
way of understanding human freedom. Like every other organism,
humans are shaped by both nature and nurture. But unlike any other
organism, we are also defined by our ability to transcend both, by our
capacity to overcome the constraints imposed both by our genetic and
our cultural heritage.
It is not that human beings have floated free of the laws of causation. It
is rather that humans are not simply the passive end result of a chain of
causes, whether natural or environmental. We have developed the
capacity to intervene actively in both nature and culture, to shape both
to our will.
To put this another way, humans, uniquely, are subjects as well as
objects. We are biological beings, and under the purview of biological
and physical laws. But we are also conscious beings with purpose and
agency, traits the possession of which allow us to design ways of
breaking the constraints of biological and physical laws.
All non-human animals are constrained by the tools that nature has
bequeathed them through natural selection, and by the environmental
conditions in which they find themselves. No animal is capable of
asking questions or generating problems that are irrelevant to its
immediate circumstances or its evolutionarily designed needs.
All animals have an evolutionary past. Only humans make history
When a beaver builds a dam, it doesn't ask itself why it does so, or whether there is a better way of doing it. When a swallow flies south, it doesn't wonder why it is hotter in Africa or what would happen if it flew still further south. Humans do ask themselves these and many other kinds of questions - questions that have no relevance, indeed make little sense, in the context of evolved needs and goals.
What marks out humans is our capacity to go beyond our naturally
defined goals - such as the need to find food, shelter or a mate - and to
establish human-created goals. Our evolutionary heritage certainly
shapes the way that humans approach the world. But it does not limit it.
Similarly, our cultural heritage influences the ways in which we think
about the world and the kinds of questions we ask of it, but it does not
imprison them. If membership of a particular culture absolutely shaped
our worldview, then historical change would never be possible.
If the people of medieval Europe had been totally determined by the
worldview sustained by medieval European culture, it would not have
been possible for that society to have become anything different. It
would not have been possible, for instance, to have developed new
ideas about individualism and materialism, or to have created new
forms of technology and new political institutions.
Human beings are not automata who simply respond blindly to
whatever culture in which they find themselves, any more than they are
automata that blindly respond to their evolutionary heritage. There is a
tension between the way a culture shapes individuals within its purview
and the way that those individuals respond to that culture, just as there
is a tension between the way natural selection shapes the way that
humans think about the world and the way that humans respond to our
natural heritage. This tension allows people to think critically and
imaginatively, and to look beyond a particular culture's horizons.
In the six million years since the human and chimpanzee lines first
diverged on either side of Africa's Great Rift Valley, the behaviour and
lifestyles of chimpanzees have barely changed. Human behaviour and
lifestyles clearly have. Humans have learned to learn from previous
generations, to improve upon their work, and to establish a momentum
to human life and culture that has taken us from cave art to quantum
physics - and to the unravelling of the genome. It is this capacity for
constant innovation that distinguishes humans from all other animals.
All animals have an evolutionary past. Only humans make history. The
historical, transformative quality of being human is why the so-called
nature-nurture debate, while creating considerable friction, has thrown
little light on what it means to be human. To understand human freedom
we need to understand not so much whether we are creatures of nature
or nurture, but how, despite being shaped by both nature and nurture,
we are also able to transcend both.
Kenan Malik is author of Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can
and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature, Weidenfield and Nicolson
2000. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).
On 10 July 2001 Kenan Malik launched 'What is it to be human?', the
first in a series of publications by the Institute of Ideas, at the Royal
Institution, London. To buy a copy, call Geoff on 020 7269 9224.
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