In the second chapter of The Pursuit of Destiny, Halpern briefly explores the classic “nature vs nurture” debate. Specifically, he presents an overview of genetic determinism – that all qualities are inherited – and of behaviorism – that early experiences can shape our biology – concluding that it is most likely a combination of our genetics and our environment which affects our personalities. He notes, however, that scientists contend the degree of each influence, and how much our biology controls the way we live. In other words, are our actions completely determined by our biology, or do we have some degree of free will?
Stanford neuroscience professor Robert Sapolsky argues the former; all behavior can be explained by our genetic makeup. As we discover more about neurobiology, the idea of free will becomes less realistic; all of our actions and emotions connect to chemical processes within our minds that cannot be controlled. In fact, various studies examining identical twins – identical DNA – provide significant support to Sapolsky’s claim. For example, one 1980s study in Minnesota observed a pair of identical twins raised in separate environments, but despite their different upbringings, the two shared remarkably similar intellects and personalities by adulthood. Similar outcomes have occurred within several other identical twin studies, suggesting that our unique experiences have ultimately very little bearing over what we do and who we become.
McGill University geneticist professor Moshe Szyf, however, argues otherwise – that our biology can be altered because of our experiences. Szyf cites one study where rats underwent different amounts of grooming from mother rats as pups, though not necessarily from their own mothers. Research found that the rats groomed more during their childhood proved more “successful” – less anxious, different sexual behavior, etc – than the other rats; in fact, further research demonstrated that the DNA of the successful rats was biochemically reprogrammed because of the early positive experience. This phenomenon also applies to humans as well; the children of mothers pregnant during the 1998 ice storm in Quebec proved more likely to develop mental and biological diseases due to their mothers’ anxiety. Therefore, even if genes control our behavior as Sapolsky argues, Szyf suggests that we may have the power to alter our biology (or the biology of others) through our interactions.
However, what leads someone to interact a certain way with someone else? Why do certain mother rats groom their pups more often than others, if not by some biological drive toward empathy? If our actions are determined by our biology, wouldn’t the ways our biology might change also be predetermined as well? Do we have any agency over how we affect others or how we will be affected by others? Isn’t free will still a lie?
Yes, we have no control over our biology and thus how we behave. I don’t think this really matters. Consider a circle: we can never create a perfect circle. We can never draw a circle with exact symmetry or even linewidth, and circles created on computers will always have some degree of pixelation, preventing complete roundness. However, even if we can’t create a perfect circle, we still draw imperfect circles to represent perfect circles because circles are important – we need circles in order to do math and paint fruit still life. Therefore, even if we have no free will, we can still act under the illusion of free will because free will is important – we need free will in order to help others, contribute to society, and write essays at 2AM. Between an ignorant sense of freedom and a miserable acceptance of inevitability, I’d choose the former any day (or perhaps the universe chose for me).
The Pursuit of Destiny, Paul Halpern