Thursday, 2 February 2012

It's not just your genes, but how you wear them

IT’S one of the oldest, and most intractable, debates going: nature v nurture. Are you the way you are because of your genes, or the way you were brought up?
Pop science of the downmarket, fancy-that variety seems obsessed these days with the nature side of the argument. It is, I suppose, a step on from the idea that your character is formed by the star sign you were born under. But only just.
Talk of a “crime gene”, a “gayness gene”, a “warrior gene”, is so simplistic as to be not just misleading but – to all intents and purposes – wrong.
Crime, for example, cannot be innate because the very concept of “crime” can only apply within a developed society. It can only have arisen after societies did. Which, in evolutionary terms, may not be that many ages ago.
A gene for liking high heels? Oh, do me a favour. It’s hard to imagine greater poppycock. Yet I read a supposedly serious discussion of it in one of our popular prints.
It may seem like harmless rubbish, but there’s a dangerous agenda lurking just below the surface.
“It’s in my genes” could be the most arrant excuse for evading responsibility for one’s own actions.
Conversely, “it’s in their genes” could be a vicious way of branding a whole section of society – a racial group, say – with some supposed defect.
That, in fact, is precisely the gobbet of pseudo-science the Nazis used to justify the mass murder of Romanies, Jews and the mentally ill. Which is about as far from harmless as it’s possible to be.
Sure, we’re the product of our genes. They make us the colours, heights and shapes we are; they make us more or less intelligent; they influence our character. But (I really want to shout this bit in big loud capital letters) only in reaction with our environment. Which includes the people around us – our society at large as well as our families.
People in relatively rich countries, such as ours, are not only fatter than they used to be, they’re taller too. It’s not our genes that have changed, but our diet.
Americans aren’t more religious than us, less keen on public health provision, or more inclined to carry guns because of their genes. It’s cultural.
And here’s a fascinating thing I didn’t know. The Japanese have blue apples.
It’s not their fruit that’s different – or their eyes. It’s just that the same Japanese word covers both green and blue. They literally can’t “tell” the difference.
Which sounds odd until you realise that English only got the word “orange” in the 16th century. Until then, carrots were yellow. It’s not the carrots, our eyes or our genes that have changed. Just the language.
I got that fascinating fact (about Japanese apples) from a new book by a New York professor, Jesse J Prinz – Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape Our Lives.
It ought to be required reading for every Daily Mail reader – except that their upbringing and culture may not have prepared them for it.

The partially sighted leading the blind

THE internet is a wonderful research tool. It’s been readily available for less than half my career as a journalist yet I can’t really remember how we used to manage without it.
Of course one has to remember the usual warnings. That Wikipedia, brilliant as it is, is not totally reliable. That it’s always worth cross-checking, and looking up its sources. Not to mention applying that too-often-forgotten tool, your brain.
It’s worth bearing in mind that online, just like in the real world, there’s usually someone trying to sell you something.
Then there’s the net’s prodigious capacity to distract, to lead you off at tangents.
All human life (and much else) may be there, but I’d like to see the Google or Bing that can find a literal needle in a real haystack. And I’d like to find the grim nugget of history that I set out in search of just a few paragraphs ago.
In 1209 Simon de Montfort (father of the man often credited with calling the first English parliament) did a nasty thing in southern France. After capturing one Cathar castle, he had the eyes of 100 men gouged out. He left one man with one eye to lead them to the next, stronger, castle as a gory warning to its defenders.
This I remember (and have checked). What I can’t recall is which Roman, Greek, or other earlier macho-man is said to have done the same thing – and presumably gave Simon the idea.
I’ve looked. Indeed, I’ve wasted some time looking. But all I’ve come up with is some stuff about classical beggars, some arcane details of the Catholic mass (?), a page about a Danish jazz-player (!) – and lots of people trying to sell me Roman blinds. Whatever they are.
Oh, and also, I suppose, this little disquisition, which has ended up having nothing to do with the subject I sat down to write about (see main piece above). Well, almost nothing.

No comments: