Thursday, July 17, 2008

Geneticists Confront Integral Reality

David Brooks can be pretty interesting sometimes. In his column from Tuesday, he stumbles upon a deeper truth about reality that informs all of integral thinking -- we cannot separate the It from the I and the We and the Its.

This is from his column on genetics research, The Luxurious Growth:
The bottom line is this: For a time, it seemed as if we were about to use the bright beam of science to illuminate the murky world of human action. Instead, as Turkheimer writes in his chapter in the book, “Wrestling With Behavioral Genetics,” science finds itself enmeshed with social science and the humanities in what researchers call the Gloomy Prospect, the ineffable mystery of why people do what they do.

The prospect may be gloomy for those who seek to understand human behavior, but the flip side is the reminder that each of us is a Luxurious Growth. Our lives are not determined by uniform processes. Instead, human behavior is complex, nonlinear and unpredictable. The Brave New World is far away. Novels and history can still produce insights into human behavior that science can’t match.

Just as important is the implication for politics. Starting in the late 19th century, eugenicists used primitive ideas about genetics to try to re-engineer the human race. In the 20th century, communists used primitive ideas about “scientific materialism” to try to re-engineer a New Soviet Man.

Today, we have access to our own genetic recipe. But we seem not to be falling into the arrogant temptation — to try to re-engineer society on the basis of what we think we know. Saying farewell to the sort of horrible social engineering projects that dominated the 20th century is a major example of human progress.

We can strive to eliminate that multivariate thing we call poverty. We can take people out of environments that (somehow) produce bad outcomes and try to immerse them into environments that (somehow) produce better ones. But we’re not close to understanding how A leads to B, and probably never will be.

The essential truth of how "A leads to B" is that individuals can respond to environmental conditions and change accordingly -- why and how this happens is still the mystery, but some of us believe in an innate drive to evolve, when given the proper conditions. Of course, Brooks takes this to mean that we should uphold traditions, be "respectful toward accumulated practice." He's a conservative and that's what he believes in.

He would argue that attempts to create more hospitable urban environments in the 1960s and 1970s (those "horrible social engineering projects") were clearly misguided. And they were, but not for trying -- for getting it wrong. Since then we have learned how to engineer social landscapes to make them more person friendly, more supportive of interaction, and more immune to crime. This is not a bad thing.

Brooks uses the word "multivariate" in mentioning poverty -- and this word applies to any understanding of human experience. We must look at all the information -- the I, We, Its, and It. This applies to poverty, the energy crisis, racism, "the war on terror," and everything else.

There is much to be learned in studying genetics, but we will never find the answers to who we really are in the genome, or in neurotransmitters, or in our minds and experiences, or in our cultures and religions, or in the societies we create -- but we will find the answers, someday, in how all of these interact.

1 comment:

gregory said...

oh, gosh, genes ...

it is a diiscovery of the bumps on the orange, with maybe some analysis of the pigment making the color ... with NO knowledge of the fruit lying within, and totally ignorant of the magic of the seeds inside the fruit that can make more oranges!!

science really shouldn't be paid much attention to ... they so easily dupe themselves .... lol

we are still in neanderthal times, mostly :)

nice article by brooks, though for the high school mind that is american life