My wife chooses sides in the nature-versus-nurture war expeditiously. When our children are polite, she credits her nurture. When they’re rowdy, she blames my genes. But the nature-nurture war won’t be resolved anytime soon.
The gene played a significant role in the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata. Karna, abandoned by his mother, Kunti, and raised by a charioteer, was taught warfare by Parashurama, a gifted teacher with a fiery temperament, who despised warriors and only taught Brahmins.
One day, Parashurama was asleep with his head on Karna’s lap. Karna was bitten by a scorpion but did not move, because he did not want to disturb his guru’s nap. Parashurama, who believed that Karna was a Brahmin, seeing Karna’s blood on the ground realized that he had withstood pain which only a warrior could abide. Parashurama cursed Karna that he would forget his knowledge of warfare when he most needed it. Karna later fought for the Kauravas in the Battle of Kurukshetra. Parashurama’s malediction helped Arjuna beat Karna, which sealed the victory for the Pandavas. Neither Karna nor Parashurama knew about the double helix. The gene is an abstraction which has stood the test of time.
The battle between nature and nurture was never resolved in Hindu mythology. Lord Krishna said that it was “karma”, not birth, which made one a warrior. Yet, Hindus believe in destiny. The Hindu caste system is an example of genomic segregation. As a child, I was counselled that it was unlikely, based on my track record and those of others from my caste, that I would excel in sprinting, throwing javelins, or competitive football. In fact, I received granular advice. My caste (allegedly, I’m a Brahmin) was not adept at entrepreneurship, either. We’re supposedly competent at only one activity – sitting examinations. I became a doctor, and I’m still sitting examinations. I’m unsure if my DNA determined my fate, or if nature locked nurture, that is nature became a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Generalizations hold statistical truths, although it is unclear if nature or nurture, or both, explains these truths. Siddhartha Mukherjee, the author of The Gene: An Intimate History, is a Bengali, known for their literary talents. Perhaps there’s something in the air of Calcutta, in its wild, unpredictable traffic, which draws Bengalis to writing. This is hard to countenance because, superficially, Calcutta looks like any Indian city; polluted, anarchic, yet with a certain order.
If so much is determined by the gene, is anything left to chance? Chance, it seems, favors the genomically prepared. What if chance, if the dice we cast, is also predetermined? Is will only as free as deemed by our nucleic acid overlords? The prospect is at once redeeming and condemning. The gene’s paradox, or genius, is that it belongs to no ideology. If the gene condemns man to certain actions, it also exculpates man from those actions. The gene is loyal to neither conservatives nor liberals. If destiny is encoded, if talent is predetermined, if I could never have become a sprinter no matter how hard I tried, the implications are profound. Perhaps society should, like the sorting hat in Hogwarts, sort me away from the talents that I will never realize. The conservative may rejoice that society is indeed hierarchical. The progressive may feel justified that criminal inclination, for instance, is not the fault of the criminal. Even the egalitarian can take solace in the gene, for is not equality before destiny the ultimate equality?
The gene has a sordid past. Crystallizing twentieth century totalitarianisms, Mukherjee talks about two regimes that took genetic determination to a reductio ad absurdum. The Nazis believed genetic determination was everything; the Bolsheviks believed genetic determination was nothing. The Soviets and Nazis fought over genetic destiny in a war, ostensibly about control, but really between two competing ideologies of what made man, man, what made utopia, utopia. Stalingrad hosted the bloodiest war between nature and nurture.
The gene inspired not just tyranny, but social justice in its most perverse sense – the eugenic movement. Eugenicists, such as Francis Galton, Ronald Fisher, H.G. Wells, dreamt of making society more efficient by genetic centrifuging, or selective breeding. It was actually the dismal economist, Thomas Malthus, who sowed the seeds of eugenics, by prophesizing a doomsday when food would be in shortage because the species would multiply logarithmically. Malthus realized that the first casualty of famine would be the destitute. The eugenicists wanted to spare the poor from their destiny, by removing them. In an ironic twist, the gene thwarted Malthus’s prophesy by allowing itself to be modified in crops, leading to abundance of food and saving Malthus’s hungry generations from starvation and civil war.
Racial hygiene was taken to an uncompromising level by the Nazis. Though unable to stem the tide of the Nazi massacres, the gene threw Nazi ambitions to the wind because the characteristics which the Nazis wanted to propagate – intelligence, physical strength and cunning – are polygenic. This means that more than one gene is responsible for any characteristic, and any gene is responsible for more than one characteristic. The gene may be selfish but it is also fickle, frivolous and temperamental. To distil the gene to perfection is to render it ineffective. Nature, it seems, has a bias towards nurture.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the Director of Hatcheries, the only person who self-evidently retained insight in the dystopia, boasted about mass production of embryos by the Bokanovsky’s Process, which yielded the right number of alphas, betas and epsilons, to carry out the labour in the country. Even in Huxley’s dystopia the gene, though necessary, was not sufficient. The babies had to be conditioned. Those destined to manual labor were conditioned to loathe reading books. The conditioning was nuanced because the laborers had to love the outdoors but not the countryside. The director achieved this by making them repelled by flowers but attracted to sports.
Huxley was a realistic dystopian. He once said that modern medicine was so advanced that scarcely a healthy person would be left behind. This was before genetic testing became cheaper than health insurance. Mukherjee reframes Huxley’s statement into a primal question: what does health and disease even mean? As the gene continues to spurn information, we will be given our chances of developing certain diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. This will shift disease from a certainty in the present to a possibility in the future. If our genes roll the dice, will disease be a roll of the dice? Will statistics maketh illness?
H.G. Wells was a more visceral dystopian than Huxley. In Time Machine, he imagined a society which bifurcated into Elois and Morlocks. The Elois were effeminate, emotionally restricted, and in permanent ennui. The Morlocks were not particularly endowed, feared light, but ate Elois. Wells extrapolated 19th century class distinctions took the nature-nurture duo to its logical conclusion. The gene alone did not produce the light-phobia in Morlocks, it was the deprivation of light over several generations. Wells might have been alluding to the most interesting and controversial part of Mukherjee’s tome – epigenetics.
Epigenetics is a plot twister in the nature versus nurture war. Researchers found that starvation changed the genome of Dutch survivors in the Second World War. Children of the survivors produced proteins which protected the body from acute starvation. The environment can leave an indelible mark on the gene. Nurture refuses to be forgotten. The gene is here to stay. The greatest challenge is in accepting the benefits of genetic knowledge, such as gene therapy for inheritable diseases like Huntington’s Chorea, while assuaging fears of parents using gene editing to produce “designer babies.” Mukherjee goes to great lengths to show that our fears, though understandable, are exaggerated.
The battle between nature and nurture cannot be won by any side because, as Mukherjee puts it in an elegant equation: Phenotype (what we are) = genotype (gene) + environment + triggers + chance. That chance still has a role means that choice, the harbinger of chance, is not dead.
Charles Murray, in Coming Apart, warns that American society may irreconcilably be transforming from a class to a caste system. Murray notes an emerging phenomenon in American society: educated professionals marry educated professionals. American society is being garrisoned in much the same way as the Indian society once was. Murray’s premise lies in the highly controversial inheritability of intelligence – intelligent couples have intelligent children. Murray fears that if intelligence becomes segregated, so does society. Even if the inheritability of intelligence is exaggerated, nurture can produce the same effects as nature. If the habits of the Boston Brahmins are systematically different from the folks in America’s Rust Belt, so that their children are more likely to become doctors and lawyers, nurture will ossify society as surely as nature can.
I’ve dissuaded my children from throwing javelins and playing American football, and forced them to focus on chess, spelling, mathematics and literature. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I blame their gene. But their gene may be incidental, an innocent scapegoat, in nurture’s perennial conformity with nature.
This piece originally appeared in The Telegraph.
Saurabh Jha is a contributing editor to THCB. He can be reached on Twitter @RogueRad