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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Genetics, Disability, and Deafness

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But it is a paradox only if you assume that the self, or personality, is a stable entity to begin with. This is not a topic to be approached glibly. The subject of identity is a sea on which many philosophers have lost their way. Consider a bundle of sticks from which one stick is removed, then another, and then another. After the removal of which stick does the bundle of sticks cease to be a bundle of sticks? Or take the case of a knife whose blade has been replaced once and whose handle has been replaced three times. What grounds do we have for calling it “the same knife?” As with things, so with selves. The eighteen-year-old who is ready for anything, the puller of all-nighters, the consumer of three pizzas and a six-pack, on the one hand, and the sagging commuter of twenty years later, who staggers home hoping only to have the stamina to make it through the first half of Charlie Rose, on the other, are nominally the same person. But by virtue of what? Of having the same Social Security number? If we have a self, it is never the same self for very long. Identity is the artificial flower on the compost heap of time.

So that when we begin to talk about the self on antidepressant medication, we are immediately aware of a certain fugitive quality in the object of our attention, and chemistry need have nothing to do with it. Mood transformers have many agents. The person who has just polished off an entire pint of coffee ice cream with cookie dough is not the same person who opened the refrigerator door fifteen minutes earlier. The person who spent the night cleaning up after a six-year-old with a stomach virus is not the calm and obliging person who went to bed the night before. The person who paid ten dollars to sit through Gangs of New York is not the person who thought this sounded like a really good movie. Probably the only thing to say about our “real” self is that it is the self we are least embarrassed about owning up to. The rest of the time, we’re, well, just not ourselves.

In short, if genetic behaviorism is a kind of determinism, it is a very indeterminate kind of determinism. And the reason is that all behavior within the normal range is overdetermined anyway. There are too many inputs for us to be able to distinguish the true cause from what we might call, on an intelligence analogy, causal noise. If one gene is telling you to bite your fingernails, seven other genes might be pumping out the neurological equivalent of Easy Listening music, telling you to lay back and chill out. There are, as well, the environmental triggers, the mental history of the organism, the Rocky Road ice cream, the Prozac, the anhedonic effect of Charlie Rose, and all the rest. Another way to put it is to say that gene-based explanations for human behavior belong to a kind of polytheistic view of the universe. If you think about it, there is not that much difference between saying, “He jumped off the bridge because the gods made him crazy,” and saying, “He jumped because his dopamine made him do it.” Genetic explanation is a way of ascribing personality and behavior to some involuntary cause. In the ancient world, there were many gods, and if one god put a spell on you—if one god made you a bungee-jumper, let’s say—there were plenty of other gods around who could take the spell off. And so it is with genes and medications: few powers are so great that we cannot summon other powers to thwart their effects.

It is interesting that just as genetic explanations for behavior are becoming popularized, there is a parallel fascination with cultural explanations for behavior. In between the old polytheism of the ancient world and the new polytheism of the genome project, there were, of course, a number of fairly successful monotheisms, single-variable explanations that won wide adherence. In between “Circe put a spell on her” and “Her genes made her do it,” there were, besides the major religious monotheisms, “her subconscious rage against her parents made her do it,” “the iron law of history made her do it,” and “market forces made her do it.” Those monotheisms are still around, but cultural explanations are by definition polytheistic; they are the “his epistemology made him do it” explanations. The idea is that personality and behavior are determined by cultural input, which is why different cultures produce different sorts of human beings: some are warlike, some are peaceful, some are sexist, some are androgynous, and so on. There is a basic contradiction between the gene-based polytheisms and the cultural polytheisms, since what is wired into the hardware cannot be reconfigured by the software. You can’t believe that certain people have a naturally selected gene for aggression and, at the same time, that people become violent by watching The Terminator. Most people are likely to want to believe a little of both—that people are what they are, and that they might be made better by going to church more regularly. But one group of gods has got to go. It’s like having the Greek gods and the Incan gods in the same pantheon.

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