This is an interesting presentation from Dr. Konner - he has a new book out on play: The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind.
This article was posted at his blog.
Read the rest of the article.
A couple of weeks ago I posted some musings about “the self” in anticipation of being on a panel with Steven Pinker (author of The Blank Slate and The Stuff of Thought) and Noga Arikha (author of Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours) at Tufts University. The panel, convened by Jonathan Wilson, was titled “The New Biology and the Self,” and what follows was my contribution. The graduate student referred to is Monica Chau of Emory University.
I told a very smart neurobiology graduate student named Monica yesterday that I’d been asked to speak on “The New Biology and the Self.” She said, “What’s the new biology?” I said, “I don’t know, but that’s the least of my problems. What’s the self?” Why I don’t know the answer to this one is legitimate to ask, but let’s just say it’s not because I haven’t been thinking about it since middle school.
I said to Monica, “Well, you probably use the word ‘myself,’ what do you mean?” She said, “It’s the part of me that’s unique, that no one else has. It’s also my consciousness, my private thoughts, my identity.” I thought that was about as good a definition as I could offer, although I added that the self is what you alone see, a kind of parallax shift from what others see and even measure, but what subjectivity allows only you to access.
Nevertheless, as Leopold Bloom muses in Joyce’s Ulysses, we do try rather desperately to “see ourselves as others see us”—we are intersubjective from childhood–and so every new outside measure of who we are has the power to change that parallax view.
As to my notion of “the new biology,” it has to include at least four things.
First, especially in this year of Darwin’s birthday and anniversary, it has to include the new evolutionary biology.
Second, it has to involve the new genomics, including personal genomics and ethnic tracing.
Third, it must take account of the revolution in brain imaging.
And, finally, it has to acknowledge the transformative and accelerating power of enhancement drugs.
So please indulge me while I try to figure out how these four kinds of facts might, for better and for worse, be changing our ineffable—our nearly unutterable–subjectivities.
From the time I ceased to be religious at 17, evolution has been my overarching narrative of origins, and to say it affects my sense of myself is putting it mildly. At the time of a famous debate between Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Worcester, the bishop’s wife is supposed to have said, “Descended from apes! My dear, let us hope it is not so, but if it is, let us pray that it does not become generally known.”
This marvelous reflection declares a profound fear of the consequences of this particular piece of objective knowledge for the self writ large, the selves, as it were, of millions. I agree with her intuition that the consequences are momentous, but not that they are dire. Her first fond hope, alas, was not realized; it is indeed true. But her second hope, a prayer, remains alive, at least in the United States, where more than half of our fellow citizens reject this important fact.
But what’s new?
Too many things to list them all, but I will mention one. The October 2nd issue of Science contained 11 articles in which the great paleontologist Tim White and his many colleagues described in detail the fossil species Ardipithecus ramidus, unearthed in hundreds of specimens over two decades.
This species, interred by nature for over 4 million years, has now had its eternal rest disturbed, but it is taking revenge by disturbing our complacency. Walking upright on the ground, but with apelike feet for clambering in the trees, it is the clearest example of the transition we have so far, a million years before the justly famous “Lucy” species. The bishop’s wife, if she is listening, has never been more chagrined.
But the news doesn’t end there. Ardipithecus males are very similar to females—around the same size and with small canine teeth. This means they were not competing very fiercely for mating opportunities. In the light of neodarwinian models of behavior that have made many people think differently of late, this creates a new view of our origins.
It rules out, for example, an ancestor just like the chimpanzee, a species where males are brutal to females and, even fatally, to each other. It suggests instead that we arose from a species with less violence and more shared parental care of the young, which is looking more and more like a key to our evolution.
I don’t know how this will ultimately be resolved. Will the answer affect your view of yourself? I have to say it will affect mine. And in this case the “new” biology is more than 4 million years old.
Which brings me to a slight disagreement with Monica. While the self entails a uniquely private viewpoint, the mind it sees is not unique. Not just since Darwin but since Linnaeus, we have known that we share some things in common with all human beings, some with all apes, some with all mammals, and so on.
Part of the new genomics, different enough from genetics to deserve its new name, has been a clear confirmation of these shared heritages. But I used to say we were 99 percent chimpanzee, and I can’t any longer. Why? Because the past decade has revealed that much of what we called junk DNA is not junk at all, but is making RNAs that have crucial regulatory functions.
We have no idea as yet how much our regulatory RNA differs from that of apes, but we already know that their evolution has been exceptionally rapid, especially in the brain, where the complex, poorly understood hierarchy of our genomes controls the course of development.
Still, it is clear that the genome is widely shared among all humans, and that is why there are many universals of culture and mind. Cultural anthropologists like to stress the differences, but my two years among the !Kung Bushmen of Botswana made me think long and hard about the similarities. Modern humans arose in Africa over a hundred thousand years ago and spread throughout the world; we are one species, with different cultures but profoundly similar minds, and similar selves.
But that doesn’t mean there are no important differences, and that’s where personal genomics comes in. Steve has explored his own genes, and we all will have that option increasingly in the future. I learned in medical school and in life that few things separate people as illness does, and specific illnesses create exclusive clubs of shared subjective experience that almost entail new selves for the members.
What happens when you find out that you may be destined to join one of those clubs in the distant future? Well, if the club is one you can easily do something about—say, the Type 2 diabetes club—your self becomes an agent in changing your destiny. When there is little you can do—Alzheimer’s for example—other than doing away with yourself or buying long term care insurance (if you can still get it), does your self now include passivity and victimhood? I don’t know.
Not yet, but some day soon perhaps, personal genomics will tell us something about the things Noga studies—whether we are phlegmatic, say, or choleric, although we’ll use different words. What will this tell us? If your life has told you that you are a timid person, what will genetics add? a greater sense of calm about it? a new passivity in the face of something that might otherwise be changed?
What if you find you have a genetic tendency to exploit others? Will this lead you to want to change, or to justify what you do? The genomic self will raise many new questions.
It will also answer some. In between the selves we share with the species and the selves no one shares, there are intermediate sharings: identical twins, families, ethnic groups, and cultures. Finding ethnic origins in the genes is very important to some people, for example for some African-Americans. When you have had your origins torn away from you by oppressors, you may especially need to explore them. Listening to Henry Louis Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and others talk about what they found and how it affected them, it is impossible not to be moved.
But although Gates and, say, the rapper Diddy probably share ethnic genes, they belong to different cultures, and I suspect this is at least as important in their self-definition.And this can easily go too far.