Underneath all that we do to convince ourselves we are in control, there’s a lurking spectre of biological determinism. What if we aren’t our own inventions, but our acts are determined by a kind of fate in our DNA? What if we’re just fooling ourselves with our justifications, emotions like love or hate, etc. and are just reacting like animals?
It’s a big taboo because it means, among other things, that nature has already sorted us. We cannot be anything we desire. We cannot mould ourselves into whatever we want to be. Makeup does not hide the inner self. And that means “freedom” is a lie — we cannot enjoy what we biologically cannot take advantage of.
THERE was a time when we thought humans were special in so many ways. Now we know better. We are not the only species that feels emotions, empathises with others or abides by a moral code. Neither are we the only ones with personalities, cultures and the ability to design and use tools. Yet we have steadfastly clung to the notion that one attribute, at least, makes us unique: we alone have the capacity for language.
The fact that we can interpret ape gestures also suggests that there is a shared evolutionary basis for gesticulation in humans and other primates. The innate similarities were demonstrated by Joanna Blake from York University in Toronto, Canada, who examined the literature on the gestures of human infants aged between 9 and 15 months and that on gestures by apes of various ages. She found that both human babies and apes use similar gestures to make requests, such as extending a hand to beg for food and raising both arms to be picked up and carried. Both use their whole hand to point. Infants and apes alike make the same gestures of protest, pushing someone away or turning away themselves while shaking their heads.
Dolphin calves also pass through a babbling phase. Laurance Doyle from the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, Brenda McCowan from the University of California at Davis and their colleagues analysed the complexity of baby dolphin sounds and found it looked remarkably like that of babbling infants, in that the young dolphins had a much wider repertoire of sound than adults.
In other words, we’re just like other species, just a little smarter. The “human” traits we thought we had alone are animal traits, but we’ve taken them farther thanks to our intelligence. In fact, our intelligence is all that separates us from mice, but obviously, we haven’t gotten that far — things are a mess and most people are completely in denial.
Just like a mother’s experiences are passed on to her children, we find that other experiences physically change us — alter our biology:
Child abuse can indelibly mark and alter genes in its young victims leaving them less able to cope with stress later in life, according to new Canadian research.
A Montreal team has discovered large numbers of “chemical marks,” which inhibit a key mechanism for dealing with stress, in the brains of young men who were physically or sexually abused as children and later committed suicide.
“It’s almost as if there is an imprint left,” says Michael Meaney at McGill University, who heads the team that has already toppled many views of how early experience effects behaviour and genes.
Experience can shape our biology, but that’s only highly traumatic or intense experience, not picking a course from a catalogue, a product from a shelf, or going to a different kind of meeting. Going beyond that level scares us, which is why modern people tend to retreat into their comfort zones and become atomized, insular.
Imagine if you could choose your baby the same way you pick out a new outfit from a catalogue. Perhaps some blue eyes, a bit of curly hair, and why not make her tall, lean and smart? One fertility doctor now says that he may be able to deliver.
Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg has already helped thousands of couples choose their child’s gender at his fertility institutes in Manhattan and Los Angeles. Within six months, he says, the clinic will offer a new service: allowing couples to select the physical traits of their babies.
According to Steinberg, the technology behind genetic screening has progressed to the point where parents can almost custom-design their babies.
We are just collections of traits. And now, we can edit those. But do we have the wisdom to do so effectively? Probably not, since we didn’t develop any higher traits already.