A Very Human Animal

What is in your genes and what is not?

The nature versus nurture debate has long presented us with a false dichotomy as nurture, i.e socio-environmental influences, is very much part of nature. But many commentators have narrowed the definition of nature to refer only to genes, the mere blueprint or genotype that determines our potential subsequent development. To simplify matters, consider a newborn girl. Assuming she does not have pervasive brain damage, her future depends in large part on her upbringing and a multitiude of socio-economic and other circumstantial factors. Whether the girl becomes a university researcher twenty five year later or ends up as a prostitute roaming the streets of a foreign metropolis depends not on her inherent intelligence, but on the opportunities that arise in her life. Yet sadly the great advances in our understanding of human behaviour and intelligence are undermined by an obsession with behavioural or rather psychiatric genetics. Every day the mainstream media entertains us with news of new discoveries linking behaviour and facets of intelligence with genetics. Of course, in true PC form ther suggestion is seldom spun in terms of the genetic causation of intellectual superiority. and thus of ethno-racial superiority, but certainly takes us down that slippery slope. Is your child not doing very well at maths? Don't blame the teacher, TV, computer games or a culture of instant gratification, it is, or so we are led to believe, all down to his or her genes.

An Arithmetic Digression

Mathematical aptitude varies enormously among the general population. Some of us can perform amazing tricks with mental arithmetic. We probably paid attention in primary school maths lessons, learned our times tables and have continued ever since to make numerous conversions and comparisons. If I read the government has spent two billion pounds on something, before I scream what a waste of money, I work out how much that is per affected citizen. Thus if 2 billion were the annual expenditure on NHS-provided dental care for the whole of the UK, that would be fabulous value for money at just around £33 per UK citizen. Two billion is a very large number but divided by sixty million people yields a much smaller number, barely enough to employ a single dental assistant for an hour and without counting the cost of equipment, supplies and administration. Yet apparently some of us fail to reckon in such large numbers. The psychological impact of a Sun headline lamenting a government overspend of 20 million would probably differ little if the quoted figure were 20 billion, as your average casual reader just gauges 'a very large number'. Of course all this pales into insignificance when compared with the national personal debt of over 1 trillion (10 to the power of 12 or over a million millions), but that's whopping £16,600 per citizen or around £36000 per worker (all 28 million of us). Million, billion, trillion or quintillion? Who could care about the additional zeroes? The truth only a minority of us actively apply our minds to these problems on a regular basis, but could if the results justified the mental effort. Much is down to early training, but new skills can be learned with a slightly greater application of one's mind in later life too. If you understood basic concepts early on in life, you'll probably retain a comparative aptitude for number-crunching throughout your adult life. By contrast if you failed to grasp these concepts as a child due to lack of motivation, you might forever claim a natural or possibly inherited deficit in all matters of arithmetic and readily believe that the brains of number-crunching geeks differ fundamentally from yours, wired for managing relationships. Ever heard someone claim "I'm just not very good at languages", which basically means "As I can get by quite well in my own own language, I just couldn't be bothered to learn another. I'd rather apply my mental effort to something more rewarding.".

Precious little evidence reveals any biological basis for dyscalculia or innumeracy, in all but the most extreme cases with obvious intellectual deficits. Indeed numerical skills vary enormously across both cultures and historical epochs. Anglo-Saxon lacks words for number units greater than a thousand. Units greater than that are expressed with Latinate words like million, while Sanscrit-derived languages all have words for a hundred thousand (lakh) and ten million (crore). By contrast many languages of remote ethnic groups isolated from the rest of humanity until recently, lack words for numbers greater than ten or in some cases two or three. The entire Roman Empire was built without place-value notation or the concept of zero. Both modern decimal and binary notation use a place value system, e.g. 100 in decimal represents ten to the power of two, while in binary it represents two to the power of two or four. The ancient Romans used letters to represent the most common decimally rounded numbers and as a result the numeral representing 73 => LXXIII was counterintuitively longer than the letter C representing 100. Yet if we expressed all numbers in binary, few would confuse a personal debt of £100 0000 0000 (1024 GBP) with a corporate debt of 1 0000 0000 0000 0000 0000 (1,048,576 GBP). If we were to express the World's human population circa 2000 in binary it would be staggering 1 0110 0101 1010 0000 1011 1100 0000,0000, plenty of room for cultural diversity without adding another zero. My point here is that systems of representation shape the way our brains process complex phenomena. A computer program to represent the geometric movements of a walking human being could in its finest detail contain thousands of instructions, but more commonly this is simplified by calling standardised routines, limiting the same program to less than a hundred lines. However, your average person performs this action apparently without any greater expenditure of valuable intellectual resources.

Culture and Numeracy

Are we to conclude that remote tribes of Papua Guinea with only basic numeration lack the inherent calculation skills that come naturally to ten year old Indonesian money changers, informing tourists in two or more languages of the exchange rate of their chosen currency (Euros, Yen, AUD or USD) in seconds, putting to shame most modern British school kids still struggling with their 7 times table? How do we explain that most British school kids circa 1960 had mastered their 12 times table before the age of ten and would learn to calculate the height of a tree in feet with a yardstick, clinometer and tangent table, while modern teenagers often struggle to accurately calculate how much change they should get from a tenner? Genetics explains very little here, yet arithmetic performance varies considerably. As a case in point, until nine years ago the world of programming remained a mystery to me. I sort of understood the transformation from rudimentary instructions into simple routines, which could then be handled as objects, but I would have struggled to interpret a simple Javascript function. Much that seems obvious to seasoned programmers appears quite daunting to otherwise intelligent newbies. Yet once you've got your head round one C-derived language, you can easily learn another. For me PHP proved a godsend (metaphorically speaking) because it let me experiment with procedural code and simple functions to produce meaningful and rewarding results. In the last three years I've transitioned to object-oriented PHP, Java, C++, Python and C# and am currently learning Ruby. At some stage something clicked. I successfully transferred a set of mathematical and linguistic skills I had developed for other purposes to a new domain. So I didn't learn vectors, matrices and quadratic equations for nothing in my high school years. All this dispells the myth that people are somehow born to excel in a given subject.

What Genetics does determine

We'd be mistaken to conclude genetics has no bearing whatsoever on the formation of our personalities and intellect, just that most of us have tremendous untapped intellectual potential, which will probably never be fully exploited except in the most fortuitous of circumstances. What exactly does a marketing consultant do, that millions of other humble souls cannot? He or she can simply offer experience and more important is well integrated into a network of like-minded professionals. I've personally witnessed project managers for IT companies give their mega-buck clients factually contradictory technical explanations, but embellished with fanciful buzzwords and pushing all the right psychological buttons. They are more concerned with persuasion, spin, public relations and perceived customer satisfaction than providing clients with key information about software development process. I've met a KPMG e-government expert who had no knowledge of HTML tags let alone XML, but could quote the percentage of businesses who use Microsoft Word (™) to justify the premium rate office suite's continued use in the public sector where free alternatives are available. Yet without HTML tags the Web would be little more than a disorganised directory of unlinked files. Next time you buy a washing machine, ask the sales assistant what an electric motor is. Despite considerable dumbing down, I think most store assistants realise a washing machine needs one. Yet consultants, often earning way in excess of £100,000 a year frequently display the most amazing levels of ignorance in the very subjects, on which they are supposed to advise local councils. Why? Because they lack the motivation to learn such trifling details and can attain much better results by remaining faithful to their bosses and focusing on what we tend to call people skills and report writing.

So do we explain that person A became a high-earning consultant, and his sibling, person B, ended up teaching English abroad in second rate language school before retraining as a programmer? Do they have fundamentally different brains or have circumstances just programmed their respective brains to concentrate on different aspects of life? I would suggest that with the exception of individuals born with severe brain damage, our genetic differences determine mainly physical and motor-sensory attributes. While access to sports facilities and training play an important role in deciding who will belong to the next generation of tennis champions, undoubtedly a high proportion of us will never attain such heights of dexterity no matter how hard we try. In cruder terms the World's fastest sprinter can run a thousandth of second faster than the next fastest man and probably within one hundredth of a second of scores of other athletes who have undergone a severe training regime in their physical prime. That the difference in performance among the world's top athletes is so minute belies the conspicuous fact that this more than almost any other pursuit is the most dependent on genes and most prone to subtle genetic variations between different racial groups, e.g. most of the world's top sprinters carry genes from Sub-Saharan Africa, while most of the world's top swimmers are either of European or East Asian descent. Minor adaptations have thus led to huge differences in competitive sports within the same species.

Somatopsychic Affects

Many of use understand the concept of psychosomatics, the way our state of mind affects our bodily functions. If you feel depressed for whatever reason, you may change your eating and self-care patterns gradually losing the will to live or may succumb to the lure of recreational or psychoactive drugs with equally deleterious effects on your longevity. However, less well understood is the concept of somatopsychology, the way your body influences your state of mind and development of your personality. The two obviously interact to create a vicious cycle, in which your sadness causes you to neglect care of your body, which changes the way others treat you and may fuel downward spiral of depression. However, we are not all blessed with a photogenic, hypersexy and athletic physique that may compete with today's role models. The media inundates us with images of what we should look like, which features are most treasured. Despite all the empty rhetoric about tolerance and diversity and just being yourself, if you lack the implicit qualities required to compete socially and fail to develop the necessary compensatory skills, life can get very tough. An extremely high percentage of jobs in postmodern postindustrial countries like the UK require either excellent client-facing or teamwork skills. Both require you to act out complex social rituals, heavily reliant on your cultural integration, sense of self and mastery of numerous gestures.

Using Genetics only when it suits an agenda, but downplaying it when it doesn't.

It comes as a perverse irony that today's corporate establishment adapts the genes versus memes debate to suit its own agenda. If it wants to sell mind-altering drugs, then emphasising the role of genes works best, but if it wants to sells cosmetic surgery, for some reason the role of genes is deliberately and counterintuitively downplayed. Otherwise those who need cosmetic surgery most to compete in a society obsessed with superficiality might claim state aid or guaranteed places of work. Thus if you have ugly teeth, acne, a slightly crooked nose, wrinkles, small breasts, a small penis or are going bald, you do not simply exhibit a perfectly natural variation of the human condition, but suffer from a degenerative disease caused in large part by your lifestyle or failure to follow the advice of dentists and social workers. Of course, diet, exercise and basic self-care affect your general appearance and health, but anyone whose travelled to the remotest and financially deprived regions of Africa only to see smiling people with gloriously white teeth should cast some doubt on the theory that bad teeth are caused solely by a lack of oral care. Like it or not, some of us are just blessed with ultra-resilient teeth. Some of us fall victim to tooth decay despite regular brushing and modest consumption of refined sugar, while others can get away with a relatively carefree attitude to dental care and still flaunt white teeth after happily devouring cakes or boozing all night long. As an inherently physical feature it stands to reason that teeth, hair, skin and genital organs are subject to genetic variations, all of which need not matter in a tolerant society that emphasises people's inner beings rather than their exterior manifestation. Maybe we should insist on TV presenters with stained and misaligned teeth, but once a critical mass emulates Hollywood looks, the sheeple will follow suit.


Over the last three to four decades our whole sense of self has metamorphosed. Kenneth Gergen theorises that the modernist, rational and firm sense of self has given way to a postmodern multiphrenia, in which we adapt our sense of self to the occasion as we engage with an ever-widening multitude of people in different locales and contexts, something known as social saturation. One markets oneself in the same way as one markets a consumer product.

Look at me! I'm youthful, into fun culture, have shining white teeth and a degree in project management and am fully trained in Microsoft Office TM. I'll impress your clients and bond with my colleagues.

We all love to declare our politically correct devotion to tolerance and diversity. Unfortunately this tolerance does not extend to those whom the system cannot fully exploit, somehow out of sync with the new social hierarchy unable to accept the superiority of the new class of people managers and manipulators.

Neil Gardner