Where is Human Nature on the Genome Map?

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.



Our inner world looks defiantly
less fuzzy this month than last.


Move over, Mystifiers.


And yet for all the likely
impact of genomic physical knowledge, over the long run of say 30-40 years the
most substantial impact of the genome discovery may well be in the social sciences.
President Clinton struck just the right note in his press conference when he
emphasized that the genome project reveals that all humans share more than 99
percent of their genes. An immediate implication is that those differences we
have called "racial" are sharply trivial in the broader scheme of
things.


The necessary, and implacable,
corollary of this is we humans also share human nature. The renewed and now
decisively catalyzed search for human nature will over the next decades force
a major change in what are called the social sciences. We will realize over
time they should really in accuracy be called not-the-natural sciences.


Just think about it. Nearly
every university has two separate organizations for the natural and the social
sciences. The direct implication is that social behavior is somehow not natural.
But it is. And in years to come those social sciences that continue to segregate
themselves from biology, genetics, physiology and the like–as most now
do–will endure the kind of relationship to real science that theology has
to nuclear physics.


For example, faddish but
influential deconstructionist thinking fundamentally holds that all analysis
of events is really personal interpretation. In this system of thought, human
patterns are self-generated "social constructions." Intellectual work
is just the captive result of individual idiosyncrasy. It is especially constrained
by the holy postmodern trinity of the analyst’s race, class or gender (or
an alloy of all three). Therefore it follows that real social science is impossible.


But this is a wholly unsustainable
position. It unduly privileges individual difference. It bars the recognition
of human commonality in ways of social behavior and even thinking as much as
in body temperature.


Of course social forces
create social groups. These all differ. Nonetheless they differ in the context
of a common human behavioral core. What my Rutgers colleague Robin Fox has called
"ethnographic dazzle" has blinded people to what groups share. After
all, their differences are so interesting and often so puzzling. They usually
photograph well. Pursuing them has been the central task of much of ethnography
and cross-cultural research in general.


The unimaginable has become
normal–so normal nobody notices. It remains possible in nearly all universities
to receive a doctorate in nearly all social sciences without a single requirement
to know something about the evolution and broad biology of the human species,
let alone of any others. This is almost amusing, but it will have to change.
It reflects a fundamental misadministration of the university as a social resource.
If social scientists want to be able to contribute effectively to the high dialogue
about the nature of our species and its future, we will have to comprehend the
power of our past–the past encoded in the genome, the genome that we all
share.


The Nobel geneticist Jacques
Monod once wrote, "Tout etre vivant est aussi une fossile"–everything
that lives is also a fossil. You don’t have to go to a museum of natural
history to see the legacy of evolution. Just look in the mirror. What you see
is the result of millions of years of natural and sexual selection. It is the
fruit of a process of such exquisite but coercive delicacy that our genes make
for each of us one kind of hair for our eyebrows, another for our heads, another
for our arms. Genomic research will help us understand what goes wrong with
our bodies to create disease. This is a giant step to generating a remedy. If
only initially as a metaphor, the genome adventure will also provide us a sense
of what goes right when we’re healthy. It will provide a clear picture
of just what in our innards produces a normal reading of 98.6 on thermometers
all over the world.


This will happen not only
with bodies but behavior too. The 19th century and earlier were periods of avid
search for the nature of human nature. In fact, the 19th-century origin of anthropology
was in part the effort to find out if there was an irreducible human core that
would become visible in simple environments uncontaminated by the complicated
one made by industrial people. In the 20th century, the study of human nature
became a quaint embarrassment because it was thought self-evidently not to exist.
The more we learned about human groups, the more different they seemed. Hence
the less commonality they shared–that ethnographic dazzle again.


But the 21st century will
see a renewed legitimacy for the notion of human nature, and an enhanced zest
for finding it. The genome project establishes ground rules of plausibility
for the expedition. A stirring analogy is with ecology. In the 19th century
and for much of the 20th the assumption was that nature was flexible and benign.
You poured filth into the air and water and somehow it got laundered and straightened
out. Nature was bountiful, big, forgiving. Then Rachel Carson among others showed
us that we could as readily pollute nature as adore it. The ecology movement
provided a way of understanding that there is such a thing as nature. It became
clear that for industrial societies to persist in health and without a sense
of environmental squalor we would have to understand how we relate to our outer
environment.


The new challenge will be
about the inner environment. It will be about the nature inside of us as well
as around us. This is the environmental movement of the future. To meet the
challenge social scientists will have to regroup intellectually. They will have
to abandon the embargo now so widely and surprisingly sustained on the facts
and their meaning from natural science. Otherwise we will get the answers wrong
to the vast questions not only of science itself but also to the crispest one
of all: What do we do now?


The French poet Charles
Peguy said, "Tout commence en mystére et finit en politique"–everything
begins in mystery and ends in politics. We’ve just witnessed the beginning
of the end of the mystery of human nature. Very soon the politics will begin.


At the turn of last century,
when the industrial revolution made such a foul-up of the lives of so many people,
a group of English thinkers, including George Bernard Shaw, established the
Fabian Society. It was to first find out what was going on among people, and
then take informed action to provide better lives for them. Among other results
was the London School of Economics and the Labor Party.


Now it’s time for a
Biological Fabianism. The tools and the perspective are at hand to begin to
approach our troubled and troubling species using the gift of science and the
warm energy of our shared genetic legacy.


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