Exploring the unique factor

2021-08-01, 12:59pm Literature

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Unique the new science of human individuality

Sudhirendar Sharma

There are aspects of human individuality that lack genetic explanation.

Sudhirendar Sharma

Javed Akhtar’s lyrical query ‘Main aisa kyun hoon, Main jaisa hoon main waisa kyun hoon’ (‘Why am I like this, Why am I like I am’ from movie Lakshya) reflects a persistent curiosity that has engaged mankind ever since. By default, nature insists on individuality as a unique trait to sustain diversity for harnessing limitless potential of human ingenuity and endurance. But if inherent randomness is an evolutionary reality, why should understanding the inevitability of human individuality be a matter of concern? It does matter, however, as it not only helps know ourselves better while judging others’ consciously, it also provides a basis for getting clarity on the politically volatile concepts of gender, race and nation. Else, racist supremacists like those in the US and the Hindu nationalists in India will continue to base their policies of racial oppression on population genetics. It isn’t that racial categories don’t exist but that such categories are not hereditary, and hence the need to refute racist pseudo-scientific arguments. 

Unique is distinct and timely, putting to rest the tired and inaccurate nature versus nurture discourse. Combining recent research with credible experiments, the book seeks to ascertain aspects of human individuality that lack genetic explanation. Not all intricacies of human idiosyncrasy are coded in the genes though, making humans more than the sum of all the genes they are born with. It is here that social experiences play up over genes to give the distinction to our individuality. Subject to how you were raised, what diseases you’ve had, which foods you’ve savored, and what weather anomalies you encountered in your formative years contribute to shaping individuality as a trait that sets each of us apart.  

Some of the science around genetics may remain a little hard to follow, but the book offers fascinating insights into an area that has subconsciously remained closer to heart. While stinky armpit is heritable, political beliefs aren’t gene dependent. Curiously, your flavor of wine or cheese is not exactly the same as mine because the sense of smell and taste is driven by no less than four hundred olfactory receptor genes which while applying to all sensory systems express differently in two random individuals. That is why, your green is not necessarily my green.   

Exploring the world of dreams, memories and senses, David Linden looks at everything that makes us distinctly ourselves: our height and weight, food preferences, personality styles, gender identity, racial bias, sexual orientation and intelligence. The findings reveal that gene expression is exquisitely regulated, over both short and long term, to reflect in human individuality as an impact of varied experiences over specific genes. Every experience worth whatever its weight plays a bigger role in making us who we are.

Written with authority and purpose, the narrative treads into an area over which scientific consensus is still at some distance. However, what Linden overtly achieves in conveying is that more than just genes, there are wide range of influences that determine our individuality. And, it may eventually seem to be an evolutionary necessity as individuality holds the key to our ability to live together. In this respect, there is no genetic evidence to suggest that racial group differences in genes are linked to any behavioral or cognitive trait. On the contrary, it is the very definition of nonscientific self-serving racial bigotry, asserts Linden. 

Unique addresses the types of questions about human individuality that can contribute to more informed discussion on a subject that often incites political passions. While racial discrimination is one of its crucial manifestations, the science of human individuality has also separated the political Right from the Left for over more than a century. Given this fraught backdrop, the book plays it straight in synthesizing the current scientific consensus and provides the kind of clarity needed from popular science books like this, especially the one that investigate both what makes us human and what makes us distinctly, immutably ourselves.

Individual variations not only define us outwardly but point inwardly too, informing us about the state of our mind and bodies. ‘Each of us operates from a different perception of the world and a different perception of ourselves’. These individual variations get elaborated and magnified with time as we accumulate expectations and experiences. Ultimately, the author concludes, ‘interacting forces of heredity, experience, plasticity, and development resonate to make us unique.’ Well researched and compelling, Unique has the potential to change the way we think about why and how we are who we are.  A fascinating story of human individuality has been told with pace and elegance. The book should provoke some fruitful debate. 

Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality

by David J. Linden

Basic Books, New York

Extent: 317, Price: US$ 30.

First published in the Hindu BusinessLine dated July 21, 2021.

(Sudhirrendar Sharma specializes in writing on development issues and is based in New Delhi, India)