Where is Human Nature on the Genome Map?

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:40

    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.