There are many evidences that the genes have strong impact on human behavior and personality. They may, for instance, influence whether a person tends to the left or right in political spectrum. Recognizing the role of the genes on culture will impact our moral, ethical, religious concepts, but are we ready to include the genetic discussion in social issues?
I. Dreams in a lazy afternoon
One afternoon few years back, I was alone at home picking up something from the cleaning cupboard when I saw a brand new sponge. It was a big, rectangular and yellow sponge, a true prototype for a SpongeBob SquarePants. Seeing that, I helped myself of scissors, glue, some paper and color pens and created my own version of the TV cartoon character. It does not have legs or arms. The brown of its famous pants was improvised with one of my wife’s lipsticks. But, overall, I was quite satisfied with the result, which still rests on my bookshelf.
Few weeks later, my father updated me the family news over the phone. As a side note, he told me that my brother had just made himself a perfect Homer Simpson out of play dough, which was now resting on a shelf between portraits.
Why would two adult brothers, living in different sides of the Atlantic, without knowing about the artistic enterprises of each other, decide more or less at the same time to make artisanal models of TV characters? Just a pathetic coincidence? Probably. Supposing, however, that it was more than coincidence, what could be the causes for this correlated behavior?
My brother and I live in different countries, with distinct professions and hobbies. I am married and live in a house without children. He is single and is constantly surrounded by two young nephews. The correlation is not obvious.
We were raised with a sister in the same home. Would this urge of making SpongeBobs and Homer Simpsons in the adulthood be a weird legacy of this social link? But we also share 50% of our genes. Then, it could also be a legacy of our genetic link.
II. Whom twins vote for?
It would be quite strange to find out that we share “genes to make models of TV characters”. It does not sound like the kind of trait that would give any survival advantage to a hunter-gatherer running in the savanna half million yeas ago.
But think of identical twins. Their political opinions are much more correlated than those of fraternal twins. Identical twins share 100% of their genes, while fraternal twins share 50% in average. Therefore, it is quite likely that the correlation is due to their genetic heritage. And the same question emerges: why would genes for voting for one or other party be selected at all?
Naturally, the question is not well put. People may have genes that may – with all the rest being equal – induce them either to be more open to new experiences or to prefer to live in their comfort zone. Transferred to the contemporary world, these behavioral tendencies may reflect in their political preference.
At this point, I would not be surprised that there are hereditary traits that could explain my brother’s and my correlated-geekness episode.
Faced to the possibility that I made my SpongeBob under influence of my DNA, I do not feel myself diminished or a kind of slave of my genes. I keep making my choices, but conscious that there is an intrinsic whispering from a genetic Jiminy Cricket in the basis of my being. This knowledge in fact increases my freedom as well as my responsibilities as it allows me to question whether certain decision was made because it was the best option for me and the people who I care about, or because I am just genetically or culturally biased towards it.
III. Neither left nor right, exactly the opposite
Since the pioneering works of John Maynard Smith, Robert Trivers, and Edward O. Wilson laid the foundations to the understanding of the human behavior from a biological perspective, cognitive sciences, in particular evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, have flourished. We learn on a daily basis unresting facts about ourselves and our society, like the relatively small role of the parents on the child personality, or the almost anecdotic higher tendency of judges to grant parole after lunch than before.
But it is still early to think that this emerging knowledge may be of practical usage for our decisions. Quite often, I see people appealing to the Prisoner’s Dilemma or mentioning the latest neuromapping analysis to prove a point in social or political issues. When they do so, they sound just pity.
I am pretty sure that the cognitive sciences are bring us to the edge of an intellectual revolution, which may not only become a major way to help to formulate social policies, but will also shake all our traditional approaches to moral, religious and political questions. But right now, this knowledge overflowing from neurosciences, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology and a myriad of other academic disciplines is still embrionary and fragmented.
While a new Immanuel Kant does not show up to make sense of all this cognitive explosion, it safer to keep it just as an alert for each one of us that we are much bigger on the inside.
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