Should Shakespeare Have Consulted a Neurobiologist?


            It is safe to say that when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, the play about a young prince struggling to act within a world of unusual circumstances that has now become an icon of tragedy itself, he had little notion of neurons, DNA replication, or epigenetics. Similarly, when Oedipus first graced an Athenian stage, marrying his mother and killing his father as predetermined by fate, neither the actor playing Oedipus nor the audience could conceive that human beings generally have 23 pairs of chromosomes, or that their contents carry the coding that gives us the ability to perform cognitive tasks as complicated as writing a play. Yet these tales and stories like them of a sentient being grappling with their ability (or inability) to choose and take ownership of their existence, written without the consultation of a modern biologist, still seem to accurately assess the free will dilemma, agency, and the perpetual problem of nature versus nurture. By examining the information biology might give us about Hamlet’s dilemma, we will see that while science has given us incredible insight into many of the factors that shape our circumstances and tendencies – providing evidence for an integrated world of nature and nurture – we still must ask ourselves: after heritability and epigenetics have begun to sculpt our lives, do we have control over the ship that is our bodies to act within our given space and time?

            When asking if nature or nurture is responsible for our behavior, the most glaring piece of evidence any biologist might present is that of genetics, DNA, and heritability. Both the logical foundation of one of the single most elegant scientific discoveries and explaining the mechanism behind it, that living organisms pass on traits to their offspring immediately eliminates the possibility that we have complete control of our destinies. If we are the product of evolution and simply the best vehicle for gene transmission, doing exactly what we are programmed to do, how can we have free will? Although our genes provide the roadmap, one only has to meet a pair of identical twins with differing personalities and preferences to understand what the authors of Psychology impart on intro-psychology students: “Heritability is not fate. It tells us nothing about the degree to which interventions can change a behavioral trait. Heritability is useful for identifying behavioral traits that are influenced by genes, but it is not useful for determining how individuals will respond to particular environmental conditions or treatments (109, Shacter, Gilbert, Nock and Wegner).” Any decent biologist with knowledge of breakthroughs from the past few decades would have to acknowledge that genes can be effectively turned off by environmental factors “through epigenetic marks, chemical modifications to DNA that can turn genes on or off. You can think of epigenetic marks as analogous to notes that the movie directors made on Shakespeare’s play that determined how the play was used in a particular film (106).” Yet if an actor is given a script (our DNA) and director’s notes (epigenetics), do they not still have some agency in how they portray their character?

If actors could not make some choices within the specifications allotted to them, then they would be little more than puppets – but there seems to be some separation between puppets and human beings, and we generally refer to this difference as consciousness. When Descartes declared “I think, therefore I am” in Meditations he touched on importance of our ability to not only make process, analyze, and make decisions – but our remarkable ability to perceive the fact that we do these things. This begs the question – without a cerebral cortex, could we have any degree of free will? Does the added layer to our nervous system that is responsible for “higher thought” give us some extra degree of freedom that bacteria do not possess? According to an article by Scientific American, “What Neuroscience Says About Free Will,” our brains – the machines responsible for our higher thought and decision making, may deceive us into believing we are making a choice when in reality, the choice has been made by our subconscious workings already. Ultimately, we do not have enough evidence yet to definitively claim how much our brains lie to us, as “The illusion may only apply to a small set of our choices that are made quickly and without too much thought. Or it may be pervasive and ubiquitous—governing all aspects of our behavior, from our most minute to our most important decisions. Most likely, the truth lies somewhere in between these extremes (Scientific American).” Still, one must wonder whether Hamlet decided to kill his step-father, or if his neural networks pretedermined his actions.

If the future is completely predetermined, then the ability to accurately predict future events without fail is theoretically attainable, but this knowledge would do nothing for us in the present given that our choices could not possibly change the inevitable outcome. Clearly, we do not have control of a vast majority of our realities, (including, as demonstrated by optical illusions, our very perception of reality) and leaps in biology and neuroscience have given us a taste of just how little say we might have in our ability to make simple decisions like choosing a romantic partner. And yet, it seems unlikely that human behavior is completely predictable. If it were, Shakespeare may not have been able to shock and sadden audiences with Hamlet’s tragic demise.

Works Cited: 

Psychology, 4th Edition. Schatcter, Gilbert, Nock, Wegner.