Even the Royal Society now concedes: genes aren't the explanation for the diversity of life; rather they are "merely a means of specifying polypeptides." In the recent paper, whose title says it all, "Genes without prominence: a reappraisal of the foundations of biology," the authors highlight that the incredible complexity in biology is summarized as follows: "everything depends on everything else, and phenotypes are emergent properties of their systems."
What This Means:
The observable characteristics and behaviors of any organism, humans included, are an infinitely complicated result (i.e. - an emergent property) from countless actions, interactions, and reactions (i.e. - systems); and no one culprit (least of all genes, let alone a single gene) runs the show. More importantly, this is the death knell for the belief that you cannot change. As already pointed out in the previous post, Genes Don't Make You Fat, a total externalization of self devolves into incoherence.
Consider this line of reasoning:
I'm not responsible for having that drink, the devil is, my genes are, my Freudian complex is, the society I live in is, Obama is, Fox News is, the Big Bang is, the Multiverse is, the alignment of the stars is, the lunar cycle is, etc.
Even if we could prove some non-self blame game, what would be the practical long term benefit of believing in it? Human progress is about controlling nature, not looking for every conceivable way to not control it.
Presence and Expression Are Not The Same:
Think of the genome as a banquet hall. Everything in it, the attendees, the silverware, the cups, the punch, the entertainers, are genes. Knowing every detail about every attendee, every type of food present, every chair will not tell you what happened at the banquet, its purpose, or who did what with what or whom, or even how, when or why. Just because Pavarotti was there does not mean that he sang Nessun Dorma at 9pm, nor whether the deaf attendees enjoyed it, if they were still awake, nor whether anyone of the deaf attendees is a writer for the Times, nor whether any Times' subscribers cited it on their own blogs, nor whether it was a blogpost that went viral with Facebook likes. That Pavarotti's assigned seat was next to Sammy Davis Jr. might be of interest, but not if Sammy got sick and left the party before he had a chance to talk with anyone. If Sammy did leave early, did Pavarotti know about the extra slice of cake; and, if so, did he eat it or turn it down?
How Epigenetics Crushed the Gene Myth:
You need only one example to wrap your head around this: bees. The worker bee and the queen bee are GENETICALLY IDENTICAL. There isn't one single gene dissimilarity. Not one.
That is to say, their banquet halls are set in the precisely same way down to the placement, angle and fold of each individual napkin. Not even one salad fork is a nanometer different than its counterpart in the other banquet hall.
How Mutation Crushed Our Hope in DNA:
It's fair to say that many once hoped the study of heredity and DNA meant we had acquired the lynchpin to understand and control all of biology. However, for over 100 years the fruit fly has been relentlessly pummeled with mutation, environmental pressures, and specific countless genetic alterations in innumerable ways in myriads of laboratories, the results of which are... fruit flies. That's right, they may be a really sickly, normal, or dead fruit flies; but changing their DNA can't turn them into a horse fly. Thus, DNA also doesn't provide the comprehensive explanation for why they are a fruit fly at all.
Monumental genetic mutation and DNA alteration does not even seem to impact basic body plans for a particular organism. Because of this, the field of epigenetics has come into being and many researchers are now looking to the role of the "membranome."
How ENCODE is Turning the World Upside Down:
If we return to the banquet illustration, the discovery of DNA was like becoming aware that banquet halls exist in buildings. Knowing they were there, we could open the doors and look inside. The next 50 years we spent cataloging the contents of banquet halls, one in particular (that of humans). Within that time we surmised that the only important part of the hall was the caterer's detailed buffet plan and the rest is junk, leftovers from various attempts at making banquet halls, some successful, some less so. That caterer's buffet plan is responsible for the layout of the buffet, accounts for about 1% of the banquet hall contents, and is very similar from banquet hall (humans) to banquet hall (chimps).
A project entitled ENCODE started in 2003 with the aim of finding out what purpose the other 99% of the banquet hall and its contents might have. Needless to say, what they've found is extremely complex - everything likely plays a role, and every role can change depending on what food is brought in through the kitchen, how the ventilation system works, what the restroom upkeep is like, and on and on and on.
Why This is Important:
There are few beliefs (maybe none) more empowering than the understanding that you can choose to be whatever you want. It's the bedrock understanding of a free society. Beyond that, it's true. Every 1/43rd of a second genetic transcription occurs, meaning that you literally become a different person every moment. And, in each moment, the sum adding up over time, you can "choose" (also a very complex system of actions, interactions and reactions) who next you'll be.
As such, there are few beliefs more disempowering and pernicious to the human spirit than determinism. In my previous post of why genes don't make you fat, I took on this dark ages myth as it applies to losing weight; but that post did not go far enough.
Think back to the queen bee. Remember, her genes are no different than those of her attendees or drones. Somehow, through a process so complex we call it random, "she" is selected to consume royal jelly continually. The royal diet suppresses the expression of certain genes and allows for the expression of others, resulting in not just structural and functional differences, but behavioral and selection preference differences.
Why We Keep Getting Sucked Back in:
Genetic determinism is just another attempt at outsourcing responsibility. The logical conclusion of any determinism is that something else way down the line did it. Though seemingly more contemporary and in vogue, genetic determinism is no different than all its predecessors whose logical conclusions were bigotry, slavery, apartheid, the caste system, and extermination of "others."
Deterministic X made me superior; deterministic Y made you inferior. Insert whatever you want in place of X and Y and it doesn't give us any reason to think we can, could or should change.
But if determinism in any form is such apparent nonsense, why do we keep reformulating it?
This is perhaps a bit too philosophically hefty, but let me venture a guess. We want simple and elegant answers. Life is neither; so it's answers are most likely messy and overcomplicated. Despite that, we seek a path of reductionism, explaining psychology by biology, biology by chemistry, chemistry by physics, and physics by physical laws, which are merely descriptions of how the tallied constituent bosons and fermions act. Why do they act that way? Well, just ignore that question. In quantum mechanics, theorists have admitted defeat in trying to concretely explain the most fundamental particles, coming up with very sophisticated abstractions like superposition, entanglement and uncertainty. Remember, these abstractions are supposedly the floor level of why you are the way you are.
Never mind that at the bottom of reductionism is our understanding and estimation of the basic, the very formulation of which is derived from actions of the mind (i.e. - reason, observation, testing, prediction, etc.) or more properly psychology, the same point at the top of the reductionism tree that we were hoping to explain. This annoying little bugbear of a paradox shows you that there is no such thing as a drawn line of reductionism, but more so a circle of evaluation. Then, when one adds to the mix the confounding concepts of consciousness, mind, change, freedom, will and effort, well, it gets really difficult to neatly explain or explain away outcomes via reductionism anyway.
Determinism is anti-science. At least in biology, it is neither empirical (we cannot repeatedly test, observe, verify or falsify it) nor pragmatic. We can't get to it by means of reductionism; it just seems like we must. It is an assumption, an unproven and unprovable article of faith, an axiom upon which we fit the data. It is a wall, beyond which there is no inquiry, no challenge, and no choice. Thus, its explanatory power is bankrupt. Worse, it carries no weight to compel a better self. Everything just "is." There's no "ought."
But isn't that its charm? Isn't that its elegant appeal? Determinism is agelessly wrong, but yet simultaneously amenable to every current popular trend. And I think that's how we keep getting sucked in.
What You Can Do About It:
Remember the queen bee? You know how she becomes the queen bee? Royal jelly.
Great. But do you know how she stays the queen bee? By acting like one. What does that mean? Among other things, she keeps eating royal jelly.
You see, it isn't enough to select a certain outcome in the banquet hall for a day, a week, a month. If you have accorded a certain function and purpose, the opposing epigenetic expressions to hold your new course must be more than commensurate to the previous inclinations.
More plainly, you have been expressing the genes that have put you where you are for a certain amount of time. You must express the genes that will put you where you want to be for at least as long.
If you want to be the queen bee, eat Royal Jelly for at least as long as you haven't been.
Only Internal Competition Matters
You wouldn't know it from the picture, but this is what disappointment looks like. I have helped my client here fight through severe injury at the age of 59 to clinch a second place victory in a drug-tested professional natural bodybuilding competition. The journey was tough, mentally and emotionally brutal at times, doubtful many more, but completed. And by all accounts (even those of the judges in prejudging) she had trounced all of her competition. But some decision in the evening rendered a verdict of second place, astonishingly and, for a moment, crushingly. It was a good reminder that the only competition of real consequence was the fight she had gone through to get there, not the battle on stage as measured by select onlookers.
No matter what, in external evaluation, how you measure up will always be dependent on judges who just don't know what you went through and who may be carrying all sorts of baggage preventing them from seeing clearly where you are right now. Even in a forum like this, where the metrics are fairly clear cut, there is always room for a few decision makers to hone in on some distracting and ultimately inconsequential detail instead of who is the best overall.
This will happen in college applications, job interviews, dating, bodybuilding shows, sales pitches, Shark Tank, performance reviews, strategy meetings, and life in general. Look no further than comments on YouTube or at the bottom of an online article. You'll find that most of the people who feel compelled to opine passionately on any given subject are fairly well disconnected from reality. Don't be surprised to find some of these same people in positions where they get to render judgement on others on a regular basis. Because they change as time goes on, their criteria of evaluation change, and so you may even find them judge a very similar event completely differently at a later date. The same will be true when they evaluate you, and anything you say, do or believe. What they think is arbitrary, subjective, naive and based on a set of values you do not share. So really, who cares, at all?
But there is one person who knows every tear cried, every deadline met, every assignment completed when exhausted and at wits end, every alarm clock set, every drop of blood and sweat shed on the way to where you are. Only one person knows this. Only you know the battle that raged inside to get to where you are. And only that internal competition matters when all is said and done.
An Empty Glass at The Mountain Top
By myself I ran, scrambled, trekked and hiked to the top of Mount Ithome this morning and took this picture. At just under half a mile tall, it's hardly the most difficult climb in the world, or even here in Greece. Nonetheless, it is the real deal untamed trail, so much so that it thwarted the Spartans from a siege in antiquity. The beauty, majesty, and solitude more importantly brought about a lot of thoughts about how to live "with an empty glass."
You see, everyone told me not to go. Yesterday, at least five others planned to climb to the Byzantine monastery on the peak where a temple to Zeus once stood some 2500-4000 years ago. So today I leapt out of bed before dawn to ensure I saw the sun rise at 6:20am from the summit. When I arrived at the foot of the mountain where my wife's family's house stands, I was subjected to naysaying and gloom and doom prophecies for the next 90 minutes, first in Greek, then a Greeklish mix, waylaying me from what I had said I was going to do. It was a little rainy and somewhat overcast, so to everyone else this was a valid excuse to turn their backs on the word they had given to themselves and their peers but a few hours prior.
To me, I had said I'm going to do it, so as far as I'm concerned it's already a historical fact. I soon realized that sitting around any longer was only going to surround me with more negative speak. So I sprinted up the foothill, in the wrong direction. Realizing my mistake, I turned around, and then found the right path up as the distant church clock chimed. Getting lost happened about four more times, since my impetuousness left me without an experienced guide or any companion for that matter.
In solace I plied through the rocks, fallen shale, slicked stone faces, billy goat crap, giant spiders and a handful of snakes. There were no toughmudder judges, Gatorade stands, paramedics or guides of any sort. I didn't know where to go, except up, through some of the most thickened terrain on earth. If you get on a side track and fall and break something, that's it. You're done. The search area would be several square miles in totally cloaked craggy brush country. Maybe the locals have some hunting dogs that could sniff you out. But the fastest road from Athens is almost three hours in a speeding car.
Somehow though, it seemed safe and easy. And as I approached the top, a lot of philosophy flooded my head. After all, this is the birthplace of Plato. Particularly striking to me was the petrification that comes by over-analyzing a plan to which you've already committed. I thought of the readiness the human mind has to entertain worst case scenarios, instead of victorious achievements. And I thought of the age old question to determine whether you are an optimist or a pessimist: is the glass half empty or half full?
Many people have come up with all kinds of cutesy answers to thwart this very simple question: there is no glass; a half glass is all full; a full glass is filled with a full half glass, etc. But on the way down from the mountain something more profound dawned on me. That is, I'm a realist. I realize the glass is half empty. But because of that I have room to fill it more or to enjoy drinking it down, emptying it to be filled anew. As such, I am a supreme optimist, enjoying any of an array of possibilities from my accurate assessment of the state of things.
Conversely, I know a great many people who see the glass half full. But because of that they dare not fill it any more, nor dare they enjoy imbibing any of its contents so as to preserve what little is left. Why unsettle such perfection after all? As such, they would suppose themselves to be optimists, but are in point of fact supreme pessimists frozen so often in a state of inaction.
Half empty I saw the mountaintop and drank deep the last contents of the cup in a fulfilling way. Half full they sat in its shadow hoping to preserve drops which they would only lament later. Peering out on this scene, I could, and you can, see the village of Mavrommati below, Ancient Messene beside, Arsinoi ahead and over fifty miles all they way down to the seashores of Kalamata and beyond. Standing at its foot, you can see only the long path up.
So today you have your own Mount Ithome in front of you. You can call yourself an optimist and stand in awe of the beauty in front of you. You can call yourself a pessimist and not even enjoy the view. Or you can climb and clink a toast at the top with whatever glass you prefer. Empty just means I liked the drink. Empty just means possibilities.