There are intellectual traditions that adamantly insist that human genetic behavior is not real. Genetic drives, however, are only one voice speaking to us, and ignoring it puts us at a disadvantage.
Go ahead, just sneeze. It should be no problem. If we are not simple biological automatons, if we are not subject to genetic control, then deciding to sneeze, and doing it, will be under conscious control.
Of course, it isn’t. We can’t sneeze at will; and the opposite is also true, we can’t suppress a sneeze when our bodies tell us to. It is entirely a genetic behavior.
Labor & Delivery
Sneezing is usually a minor problem, and it certainly doesn’t affect us in major ways. A behavior that is more important, however, is maternal labor. I will quote from my book:
Often our minds do control our bodies, but not always. I remember the point in my medical training when I became aware that, sometimes, the body is in control. I had a patient who was in advanced labor, and I was telling her not to “push” yet, because I was still getting everything ready.
It didn’t work.
In medical school they taught us that almost all of the muscles necessary for pushing out the baby are “voluntary” muscles (as opposed to involuntary muscles of the heart, the digestive tract, etc.) And most of the time, those muscles are voluntary.
But sometimes, the body just takes over what we thought was voluntary, and tells the mind what it is going to do, come hell or high water. It’s a very sobering experience. The mother says (screams, actually), “I gotta push!” Ready or not, you had better be there or the baby will end up on the floor.
So sometimes, our bodies control our minds. We experience this in a multitude of ways, but rarely think about it. We take it for granted that it is often impossible to stifle a sneeze or a cough, and never consider that perhaps it is just as difficult to stifle harmful, even self-destructive, ideas and behaviors.
Other behaviors are more complex, of course. Consider anger.
I remember a friend of mine whose military vehicle was hit by an IED in the Middle East. When he told me about it I said, “You must have been terrified.”
“When I calmed down, sure,” he explained. “But when it happened, I jumped out and wanted to kill somebody.”
It is important to note that my friend did not kill anyone, although we can imagine someone who might jump out and shoot random civilians in anger. For my friend, we can surmise that a lifetime of parenting, education, and then intensive military training, all created discipline for him. So he experienced anger, which he did not express through action, but his anger directed him to be fearless, even reckless. But his learning caused him not to respond to a genetic direction.
So we have a genetic direction, which may or may not result in genetic action.
Fear vs Anger
Just like sneezing, we do not choose to be angry. We can all recall situations which made us angry, and use that memory to help us recreate the emotion; it is an important aspect of method acting. But anger cannot be switched on by a purely intellectual decision. It is an innate – genetic – response to a threat, real, imagined, or remembered.
Of course, your response to a threat depends on whether your subconscious decides it can probably overcome the threat. If yes, anger is expressed. If no, fear. For instance, had my friend been in his own car when something blew up, and he did not have weapons or military back-up, his response might have been completely different. Certainly if the motor blew up spontaneously, fear would be the likely outcome. Both responses, however, are still genetic, and the choice between them appears to be instantaneous, and completely subconscious.
We cannot control our anger or fear, but with time, we can learn to control our actions in the face of fear or anger; and with experience and learning, we can control how we respond to threats. So again, we have a genetic emotional response, that may or may not result in a human genetic behavior. And what helps decide our behavior, is education and learning.
On occasion, I have been called in to help someone who was injured when I was not at work . Fortunately, the injuries were minor; or at least, they were minor to me. After the experience of medically treating injuries for years, while other people were panicking and even hyperventilating, I calmly examined the patient and assessed the injuries. Afterward, other people would sometimes tell me how impressed they were with my calm, which always puzzled me; I just didn’t see any reason to get excited. They were responding with fear and panic, genetic behaviors; I was responding with professionally learned behaviors.
I wrote the post on Lebanese genetics in preparation for this post. But other ethnic groups seem to have various tendencies. Years ago, Jimmie the Greek was fired as a sportscaster for wild speculations on why African Americans excel at sports, and his termination was understandable. But consider, however, a scant 4 years after his firing, the movie White Men Can’t Jump, which takes its title from a frequent jibe from black athletes, met with critical and commercial success. That’s a problem; if white men can’t jump, the implication is that black men can; or at least on average, black men jump better than white men. Those are simple anatomical differences, of course, they aren’t behaviors. But behavioral and anatomical traits seem to run together; consider bad eyes and an interest in reading. Given these considerations, would any of us be surprised to find that greater athletic ability – in people of either sex or any ethnicity – correlates with behavioral differences that might be advantageous in situations of fast action?
Again, that is hardly determinism. The Germanic tribes that the Romans faced were larger physically, and often numerically, than the Latins. Man to man, we can speculate that the Germans were innately better fighters, and at least some of this was genetic. But genetics are not the whole story; the Romans were better trained, more skilled, and more advanced in strategy, and so they regularly defeated opponents of superior size and numbers. That Roman dominance lasted until the Varian Disaster in Teutoborg Forest. And even here, knowledge and learning were the deciding factors, not genetics: the Germans prevailed because of Arminius, a German who had been trained by the Romans, and who laid out the strategy for the trap.1)‘Arminius’ is conflated with the modern German name ‘Herman’; much of the fierce nationalism of late 19th and early 20th century Germany traced its pride of ancestry back to Arminius.
There is also the dilemma of sexual orientation, which we touched on before. If non-heterosexual orientation were not genetic, then the critics who say it is a psychological choice would be correct, and that people can be ‘cured.’ I think most serious observers today believe that sexual orientation is largely genetic, it is a human genetic behavior. But as we also discussed previously, there are some people with a non-heterosexual genetic orientation who nevertheless choose a heterosexual lifestyle, in order to participate in a ‘traditional’ family. We are not simple genetic machines.
In the same post, I talked about the sexes. There are differences, on average, between men and women. First, averages are only averages, and they do not apply to every member of a class. Not all men are larger, stronger, or more athletic than all women. Second, I have gone to great lengths here to argue that, even when stereotypes are valid, variation can be an asset, they can build diversity and strength into a group: in the military, medicine, teaching, and the home.
The Disney animated film Inside Out explored some of these themes. Inside of the head of Riley, the protagonist, each of her emotions represented one genetic drive, one innate influence on how she might think and behave.
What was largely missing from the film, however, was the intellectual moderator. Mostly in the movie we see human emotions, genetic expressions, struggling to influence the situation. But we never see characters representing experience, learning, and analysis. Clearly they are there, however; at the end of the film, Riley’s parents talk with her, and give her non-genetic information to help her learn to modulate and balance her emotions, and grow into an independent person.
Nature, Nurture, Knowledge
To my mind, the great resistance to human genetic behavior arises from a simple confusion. Human genetic behavior is, again, not human determinism. Genetics is simply one voice, among many, in our internal conversations.
When we are alert, healthy, and not suffering, we can make entirely logical and rational choices, we can use our training and our thinking to overrule genetic drives. When we are tired, sick, or in pain, we often lapse back into genetic behavior. We all experience this; we are much more likely to become angry with those we love when we don’t feel well.
We constantly listen to competing comments from nature, nurture, and knowledge. Our genes speak to us, our experiences speak to us, and our internal analyses speak to us. No one of them controls us, and at different times, different influences prevail.
Human genetic behavior is simply one conversant. But one we need to be aware of, if only to limit and control it.
Opportunity to Learn
So the Lebanese, African-Americans and other ethnic groups, men, women, non-heterosexuals, and all of us, have these genetic drives, these genetic differences, which may or may not conform to the stereotypes of the associated group. Education, experience and thinking provide other voices to our conversations, and those non-genetic considerations may lead us down paths other than those suggested by the genetic norms we contain.
This blog looks at biology, at education, and at government and public policy. For me, these are inseparable. If we are not clear about the biological drivers in all of us, then we cannot construct educational and child-rearing strategies to help each child choose differently, and intelligently. And if we are not clear about how we form public policy, and where we wish to go with it, then we cannot design schools and other social programs to give people the power to be more than genetic machines.
Sports & Learning
I had a friend of mine, a physician who was tall, and African American. He once told me that everyone automatically assumed he was a basketball player. That is unfair. However, it is also unfair to suggest that African Americans, particularly those with professional degrees, should not play basketball because it reinforces a stereotype. Just read some of the racist trolling that took place when President Obama played basketball. (Which unfortunately continued even when he played golf, a more ‘suitable’ pastime for the well-educated… )
It certainly seems that some young people have a predilection for sports. If that correlates with certain body types or ethnic groups, then we need to know that, not to stereotype the child but to help him. I have noted that in the emergency room, I encourage reading. When I find out a child is interested in sports, I suggest books by Mike Lupica, and the magazines Sports Illustrated and ESPN, both of which are well-written.
And what if an interest in sports presents challenges? Then we need to design around them. Perhaps the more athletic kids can’t sit at a desk as long as others; we simply need to design more breaks for them. And we may find that these kids don’t much care for sitting and quietly working, but they might thrive when given the math drills that create anxiety in other kids, or they would enjoy studying if they knew they were going to be in a College Bowl-type competition.
Because while intellectuals argue against the realities of human genetic behaviors, the practitioners have advanced far beyond those ideological platitudes: every teacher studies and designs around different learning styles. Those differences almost definitely have a strong genetic component. We need to avoid impractical dogmatism and politically correct posturing.
Fools Rush In
And this is why I have foolishly chosen to discuss the taboos of genetic behavior, and ethnic and sexual norms; not to chain people to stereotypes, but to free us all from them. We must recognize our genetic tendencies in order to design around them, and past them; as Bertolt Brecht noted, “When there are obstacles, the shortest distance between two points is a crooked line.” We cannot demand the ideological straight paths, we must avoid the easy paths of both genetics and senseless dogma. We need the crooked path of pragmatism. We must recognize our genetics, precisely in order to escape it; and we must be aware of the prejudices that our genetics may produce.
We must insist nothing about a person, neither that she must conform to a genetic stereotype, nor that she must not conform to the stereotype. We need to make her free to do either, or both. That is the critical insight: when we insist, not that our genetic behaviors and advantages are true at the moment, but that they must remain true permanently, then we deny people, and most of all children, the opportunity to learn, to grow, to become more fully human, and to choose and design their own path in life.
Even if it’s a crooked path.
Promotional image for Inside-Out ©Pixar, 2015. All rights reserved.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||‘Arminius’ is conflated with the modern German name ‘Herman’; much of the fierce nationalism of late 19th and early 20th century Germany traced its pride of ancestry back to Arminius.|