As an interested layman, I try to keep up with new developments in science. But despite favorable advances in many fields, including genetics, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the interpretation of that science in recent years.
As aspects of genetics are more fully explored, science is discovering individual genes that play significant roles in determining our abilities and vulnerabilities as adults. This knowledge is a good thing, of course, but incomplete knowledge can prove harmful when extrapolated and applied.
An example: for years, people swore that musical ability was inherited, and when brain scans of musicians revealed that their brains were significantly different in composition from those of nonmusicians, many observers proclaimed it proof of inherited talent.
And yet, while there are proven limits on natural musical ability as a result of genetics, the only extreme examples seem limited to a relatively small number of outliers. There’s also an undeniable environmental advantage to being raised in a home where music is valued, encouraged and often heard; even moreso in a household of professional musicians, which demystifies the process of making music for a living. As we learn more about the brain’s ability to physically adapt, we’ve also learned that having a brain that’s wired for music is more the result of years of practice than any innate genetic trait.
Being raised in a home that listened mostly to ABBA and Englebert Humperdinck, I can’t speak about the musical household example from experience. But the problem with concentrating too much on the genetic components of musical skill is the oversimplification that results. Proponents speak rapturously about musical training that could be tailored to students depending on their genetic abilities—but how exactly would that work, and would it really be something we want?
The Beatles were known not for their technical musical ability, but for their creativity. Many rap artists have no formal musical training at all, but love it or hate it, rap has made its mark on our society. If children are handled differently at an early age because they don’t have some genetic advantage marker, what does that accomplish? In the quest to create uber-musicians, many meaningful tunes might be lost along the way.
Some look at Albert Einstein and say that he was a genius not because of his conscious choices, but because he was born a genius. We look at obesity, or alcoholism, and when genetic components or predispositions are discovered, many people consciously or unconsciously shift their problems from controllable to chronic, and their response from behavior modification to sad acceptance.
For another example of science interpretation gone awry, look at homosexuality. While Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way” might make for a rousing gay anthem, the jury is still very much out on whether homosexuality is genetic or environmental. The current science seems to indicate that it’s probably some of each (sort of—look up “epigenetics” for more), but there are, unfortunately, extreme agendas attached to both “all or nothing” interpretations.
Some see “environmental” as meaning “having made a conscious choice” (which it doesn’t). This leads to castigation from those who see that choice as immoral. And it seems that, perhaps in defense to this argument, many in the homosexual community cling to the “born this way” argument, as if apologizing for their orientation as having been beyond their control. Both interpretations oversimplify the science involved, and both overlook the fact that—environmental or genetic, consciously chosen or not—civil rights issues shouldn’t be clouded by the misinterpretation of science.
I’m not denying that there are genetic components to the things I’ve discussed, but I do quibble with the implications of predestination that often seem to follow such claims. When scientists can analyze an infant’s brain and predict with accuracy, “This child is the next gay Beethoven!” then I’ll change my musically and scientifically untrained tune.
Unfortunately, those who excel in a given field are often seen as having done so not because of hard work, motivation and crucial opportunities, but rather because they were along for the ride, doing as they were genetically programmed to do. Even more insidious is the implication that large segments of the population are naturally inferior to others.
But more important than keeping an equal playing field or giving credit where it’s due, is the simple reminder that despite the influences of genetics and luck, we are, in some large measure, masters of our own fates. In the end, I wrote this column not because I was forced to by some irresistible combination of genetics and environment, but simply because I chose to.
Peter Dabbene lives and writes in Hamilton. His website is peterdabbene.com. His essay “Life in the Movies” is featured at Wild Violet Literary Magazine: wildviolet.net/2013/01/23/life-in-the-movies.