17 October 2022

Nature or upbringing?

David Linden: "Why people are different: A Scientific view of Human Individuality." Review

Anton Tsybko, "Biomolecule"

In his book, David Linden, resorting to the help of genetics, neurobiology and immunology, vividly and fascinatingly demonstrates the inconsistency of the "nature versus nurture" dichotomy. Our intellectual abilities, skin color, gender, and even taste preferences are the result of a complex interaction of genes and environment. According to the author, the best way to take a thoughtful and unbiased look at ourselves and our uniqueness is to turn to the achievements of modern science.


David Linden. "Why people are different: A scientific view of human individuality." Moscow: Alpina non-fiction, 2022. — 328 p.

Human uniqueness is a subject of research for many sciences, but the most amazing insights about our nature belong, of course, to biology. Differences between people are the cornerstone in the foundation of our culture (we are not ants or bees after all). At the same time, it is biology, paradoxically, that destroys many of the "walls" erected earlier by the humanities. In fairness, it should be said that the biologists themselves helped in the early stages of the construction of these walls, diligently serving "bricks". However, progress in biological sciences has gone far ahead, and many fundamental things have been thoroughly rethought.

Over the course of eight chapters, Linden has tried to cover almost the entire spectrum of biological aspects that somehow make each of us different from each other. The first chapter is a brief introduction to the genetics of quantitative traits (this knowledge is very helpful for understanding the material in later chapters). In the second chapter, the author thoroughly examines the issues of environmental influence. The third chapter deals with the subjectivity of human experience — here the focus is on impermanence and, frankly, the imperfection of our memory. Chapters six and seven, devoted to the peculiarities of the formation of tastes, smells and dreams in humans, can also be attributed to the field of the formation of subjective experience. I will tell you about the chapters related to the conditional "social block" a little later.

In the first chapters, the author immediately makes it clear that the long-standing dispute "nature vs. nurture" (nature vs. nurture) does not make sense for modern geneticists and neuroscientists. As Linden writes, "most of all I'm sick of the terrible word "upbringing"." Me too. Like Linden, I am engaged in neuroscience and perfectly understand the stupidity of posing the question in this way (i.e. in the form of an imaginary dichotomy), and even with an emphasis on education. It's just the tip of the iceberg. Linden expands the non-hereditary impact of the environment by combining a variety of factors under the definition of "experience". What about the mother's diet? Or the time of year when you were born? But there are also just a myriad of random molecular events that occur in cells during development.

..individuality is not just the result of the struggle between "nature" and "upbringing", but rather the result of heredity interacting with experience and passing through the filter of randomness of development. It doesn't sound so nice, but it's true — that's Linden's conclusion

I would like this point of view, which is absolutely correct and accepted among biologists, to finally go "to the masses". Individuality viewed from this angle helps, in particular, to better understand the burden of social inequality. So, in the first chapter, mainly devoted to the heritability of intellectual abilities, the author writes:

...the proportion of intelligence variability due to heredity in poor populations is lower than in those where basic needs are met. For me, the political and moral lesson of this study of heritability is obvious: if you want to improve the life of humanity as a whole, the first step is to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to meet basic needs and thus realize their genetic potential.

Now about the socially significant topic. Speaking about human individuality, it is impossible to ignore such topics as "race", "sexual orientation" and "gender identity". Of course, they have separate chapters in the book. In particular, the author debunks the arguments of pseudoscientific racism, which has recently adopted elements of population genetics. According to Linden, it is important not to taboo research on race, but just to intensify them. He's writing:

From my point of view, population genetics is the very field that will help us understand human evolution to improve the effectiveness of medical intervention. But perhaps the most important thing is not to throw the baby out with water, because full-fledged scientific research, including population genetics, is needed to refute pseudo-scientific racist arguments.

On gender issues, the author, however, overestimated his strength and tried to fit into one chapter the widest range of problems related to both the genetic definition of sex and the evolutionary aspects of sexual behavior. The smears turned out to be quite wide in places, but the main idea was still conveyed — biological differences in the brain and behavior of men and women are quite real and significant, and some of them are congenital. The author makes it clear that the idea of the brain as a "blank slate", adored by supporters of so-called traditional values, is completely untenable. And here's another thing the author reminds the reader about:

Arguments in favor of sexual and gender equality, including intersex people and people of the entire spectrum of gender identity, should be moral arguments, not biological, whether it concerns a person or any other living being. If tomorrow there is definitive evidence of certain innate differences in the brain functions of women, intersex or transsexuals, this should not be an argument in favor of maintaining a system that denies them equal opportunities.

Perhaps, on issues of race and gender, it is quite obvious that the search for biological correlates of our individuality should not conflict with the principles of humanism.

In Chuck Palahniuk's "Fight Club" there is a fragment that most fully reflects the spirit of the time at the turn of the century, a spirit that has not dissipated to this day. "Our culture has equalized us in rights. No one can reasonably call themselves white or black, rich or poor anymore. We all want the same thing. Our individuality is worth nothing," reads the manifesto of one of the fighters of the "Project Defeat". David Lind's book demonstrates that this is a big misconception. Originating from heredity, experience and plasticity of development, self-perception and perception of the world determine our way of action. Our individuality is a biological phenomenon, it is a scientific fact to be reckoned with.

About the author:


David Linden is a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He is the author of books such as The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God and The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good (the latter became a New York Times bestseller), which have not yet been translated into Russian. The book "Touch. The feeling that makes us human" is published in Russian, as is the collection "Brain Trust", in which Linden acted as editor and compiler.

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