“Why not go back to God’s drawing board and design better Sapiens? The abilities, needs and desires of Homo sapiens have a genetic basis. And the sapiens genome is no more complex than that of voles and mice.“ says Yuval Noah Harari. Many people are mesmerized by technology and think that there is a technological solution to everything. 'Designing better sapiens' is not just a matter of tinkering with the genes. The environment in which our genes are acting makes all the difference to how we turn out.
Many people’s understanding of the relation between genes and characters is based on the tiny minority of monogenic diseases. The popular view is that the person you see is largely the sum of the effects of his or her genes plus a little social-educational gloss. For the foreseeable future, predicting what a collection of interacting genes will produce in a certain set of circumstances is not going to be possible. Very often a change in a single gene does not have a consistent effect on the trait that it influences.
For example, low activity of the monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A) gene is linked to aggressive behavior and violent offenses. But not everyone with low MAO-A activity is violent, nor is everyone with high MAO-A activity nonviolent. People who grow up in extremely abusive environments often become aggressive or violent, no matter what their genes. Having high MAO-A activity can protect you from this fate, but it is not a given. On the contrary, when children are raised in loving and supportive environments, even those with low MAO-A activity very often thrive.
Constand and Abraham Viljoen were two identical twin brothers who ended up on opposing sides of the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Born on 28 October 1933, they were inseparable as boys. The brothers attended the same schools and were in the same classes. They listened to the same teachers and the same propaganda about the superiority of the white race. In 1951, when Abraham decided to study theology, Constand opted for a career in the army.
Army life suited Constand, and it became like a second family. While Abraham pored over his books and befriended students from all over the world, Constand jumped out of helicopters and fought in wars. Year by year, the brothers drifted further apart. Abraham began to realize that the apartheid he’d grown up with was a criminal system and contradicted everything the Bible taught. When he returned after years of studying abroad, many South Africans considered Abraham a deserter. Constand, meanwhile, grew to be one of South Africa’s most beloved soldiers. At the pinnacle of his career, he became chief of the South African Defense Force. In time, the Viljoen brothers stopped speaking altogether.
On 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years, became a free man. Finally, there was hope for peace and reconciliation between black and white South Africans. Four years later, on 26 April 1994, the first elections were held for all South Africans. Two weeks later, on 10 May, Mandela was sworn in as the country’s first black president. What is less well known is that the inauguration almost did not happen. In the four years between Mandela’s release and his election as president, the country came to the brink of civil war.
Constand became the leader of a new coalition calling itself the Afrikaner Volksfront. This group consisted of armed Africaners who were fearful of losing their privileges if Mandela won and was mobilising for war. Constand’s brother Abraham felt a deep sense of foreboding and realized that he needed to act. He knew that he was the only person in the whole of SA who could change his brother’s mind even though they had not talked for 40 years.
He persuaded Constand to meet Mandela and the meeting took place in Johannesburg on 12 August 1993. Each time Constand shook Mandela’s hand, his admiration grew for the man he once considered a terrorist. That first meeting opened four months of secret talks between Constand and Mandela which few history books mention today. Yet this was a pivotal moment in the history of South Africa. In the end, the former general was convinced to lay down his weapons and join the elections with his party.
The story of the Viljoen brothers is a textbook case of two people with same genes but exposed to different environments resulting in totally different characters. Virtually every behavioral effect of genes concerns the average of what’s being measured. It is possible to make statistical predictions at the level of groups but not about particular individuals within that group. The action of genes is completely intertwined with the environment in which they function; in a sense, it is pointless to even discuss what gene X does, and we should consider instead only what gene X does in environment Y.
It is fallacious to think of ourselves as merely the product of genes we inherited from our parents and see the future as nothing more than carrying those genes forward. It leads us to overvalue our ambiguous knowledge of how genes work and disregard other factors that shape our lives, factors that could be reshaped to improve the world around. Robert M. Sapolsky says in Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst:
If you had to boil this book down to a single phrase, it would be “It’s complicated.” Nothing seems to cause anything; instead everything just modulates something else. Scientists keep saying, “We used to think X, but now we realize that . . .” Fixing one thing often messes up ten more, as the law of unintended consequences reigns. On any big, important issue it seems like 51 percent of the scientific studies conclude one thing, and 49 percent conclude the opposite. . .
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