Genes, culture and human freedom

What it is to be human.

‘Are humans the product of nature or nurture?’ There are few questions that have produced more heated, but less illuminating, debates.

Over the past half century there has been a fierce dispute as to whether human behaviour is determined by our genes or by our environment. In the decades following the Second World War, the experience of racial science, eugenics and the Holocaust led many scholars to denounce genetic theories of human behaviour and to insist on the importance of nurture in shaping who we are.

More recently, disillusionment with social explanations, and advances in genetics and evolutionary biology, have helped swing the pendulum back towards theories that stress the importance of nature in the human make-up.

The latest round in the nature-nurture debate took place in the wake of the publication in February 2001 of the first detailed analysis of the data from the human genome project. This suggested that human beings possess far fewer genes than previously thought; not the 100,000 genes that many had believed, but more like 30,000. We have a genome barely bigger than that of corn plant, and possess just 300 more genes than a mouse.

There have been two responses to these findings. For some, the fact that the human genome appears different from that of lesser creatures seems to show that there is nothing particularly special about humans. ‘It’s humbling isn’t it?’, observed Ari Patrinos of the US Department of Energy, which funded much of the public genome research (1). But why should it be?

Perhaps we should rather celebrate the fact that a creature with barely more genes than a cress plant can nevertheless unravel the complexities of its own genome.

The second view is that the findings show that humans are more controlled by nurture than by nature - that they provide an argument for the existence of free will. ‘We simply do not have enough genes for the idea of genetic determinism to be right’, claimed Craig Venter, the founder of Celera, the private company which played a major part in the human genome project (2).

An editorial in the UK Observer suggested that ‘we are more free, it seems, than we had realised’. ‘Politically’, the editorial continued, the new research ‘offers comfort for the left, with its belief in the potential of all, however deprived their background. But it is damning for the right, with its fondness for ruling classes and original sin’ (3).

A moment’s reflection should reveal how unfounded is the argument that fewer genes means greater freedom. If it had turned out, for instance, that humans possessed 200,000 genes, would that have implied that we are slaves to our nature? And given that fruit flies possess half our number of genes, should we consider them to be twice as free as we are?

That the UK Observer should seek political solace in the human genome says more about the desperate character of contemporary social thought than it does about the data emerging from the human genome project.

There remains considerable controversy about the extent to which heredity influences human behaviour. But the argument for the importance of heredity has never rested on arguments about the number of genes we might possess. Rather, it has emerged largely from studies of identical twins. The interpretation of the data from such studies may leave much to be desired, but handwaving about numbers of genes will not make any difference to that data.

The fact that humans have fewer genes than expected does not mean that we are governed more by nurture than by nature. Even if it did, however, it would not imply that humans are ‘more free’. Being controlled by one’s environment does not make one any freer than being controlled by one’s genes.

The problem with the nature-nurture debate is that this is an inadequate way of understanding human freedom. Like every other organism, humans are shaped by both nature and nurture. But unlike any other organism, we are also defined by our ability to transcend both, by our capacity to overcome the constraints imposed both by our genetic and our cultural heritage.

It is not that human beings have floated free of the laws of causation. It is rather that humans are not simply the passive end result of a chain of causes, whether natural or environmental. We have developed the capacity to intervene actively in both nature and culture, to shape both to our will.

To put this another way, humans, uniquely, are subjects as well as objects. We are biological beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws. But we are also conscious beings with purpose and agency, traits the possession of which allow us to design ways of breaking the constraints of biological and physical laws.

All non-human animals are constrained by the tools that nature has bequeathed them through natural selection, and by the environmental conditions in which they find themselves. No animal is capable of asking questions or generating problems that are irrelevant to its immediate circumstances or its evolutionarily designed needs.

When a beaver builds a dam, it doesn’t ask itself why it does so, or whether there is a better way of doing it. When a swallow flies south, it doesn’t wonder why it is hotter in Africa or what would happen if it flew still further south. Humans do ask themselves these and many other kinds of questions - questions that have no relevance, indeed make little sense, in the context of evolved needs and goals.

What marks out humans is our capacity to go beyond our naturally defined goals - such as the need to find food, shelter or a mate - and to establish human-created goals. Our evolutionary heritage certainly shapes the way that humans approach the world. But it does not limit it.

Similarly, our cultural heritage influences the ways in which we think about the world and the kinds of questions we ask of it, but it does not imprison them. If membership of a particular culture absolutely shaped our worldview, then historical change would never be possible.

If the people of medieval Europe had been totally determined by the worldview sustained by medieval European culture, it would not have been possible for that society to have become anything different. It would not have been possible, for instance, to have developed new ideas about individualism and materialism, or to have created new forms of technology and new political institutions.

Human beings are not automata who simply respond blindly to whatever culture in which they find themselves, any more than they are automata that blindly respond to their evolutionary heritage. There is a tension between the way a culture shapes individuals within its purview and the way that those individuals respond to that culture, just as there is a tension between the way natural selection shapes the way that humans think about the world and the way that humans respond to our natural heritage. This tension allows people to think critically and imaginatively, and to look beyond a particular culture’s horizons.

In the six million years since the human and chimpanzee lines first diverged on either side of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, the behaviour and lifestyles of chimpanzees have barely changed. Human behaviour and lifestyles clearly have. Humans have learned to learn from previous generations, to improve upon their work, and to establish a momentum to human life and culture that has taken us from cave art to quantum physics - and to the unravelling of the genome. It is this capacity for constant innovation that distinguishes humans from all other animals.

All animals have an evolutionary past. Only humans make history. The historical, transformative quality of being human is why the so-called nature-nurture debate, while creating considerable friction, has thrown little light on what it means to be human. To understand human freedom we need to understand not so much whether we are creatures of nature or nurture, but how, despite being shaped by both nature and nurture, we are also able to transcend both.

Kenan Malik is the author of Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and The Meaning of Race: Race, History, and Culture in Western Society, New York University Press, 1996 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

(1)  The Times, 13 February 2001

(2) Observer, 11 February 2001

(3) Observer, 11 February 2001

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