Molecular Personality Research: Critique
According to the "American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language," Personality: The dynamic character; self, or psyche that constitutes and animates the individual person and makes his experiences of life unique; a person as the embodiment of distinctive traits of mind and behavior; the pattern of collective character.
The newspaper article (the study appeared in the journal: "Nature Genetics") went on to say, "About 15 percent of people in Israel, Europe and the United States carry the novelty-seeking form of the gene." It should be noted that the study took place only in those areas and countries, but, I see no reason not to extend these findings to read '15 percent of the world population.' In any event, the study concerns a connection discovered between genes and personality.
What do we have here? What are we looking at? What are the implications?
Chemical templates, archetypes and fundamental forms, patterns of behavior, characteristics and base features, genetic group arrangements; what is the difference, in this context, between the workings of this gene-brain-personality communications system and say, the biochemical strategies and survival/technique adaptations of a typical tree, as it grows and how it evolves over millenia?
The genes of a tree have to produce the correct chemical agents, not only to communicate, but to ward off infestation and invasion by insects. It must also cleverly spread the range of its genetic information in packets of differently emphasized strengths through its seeds in order to increase the odds against a changing environment, that which is most sympatico, continues. Symbiotically, this is also an enrichment of its environment.
As a tree is growing on a daily basis it not only must adapt to the prevailing wind, to the amount of rainfall, to the nutrients in the soil, etc., but each piece, each tiny detail, each cell, must be in constant feedback communications with all the other parts as a whole, a nonlinear relationship. Symmetry, balance, and the closest possible fit with all that is 'external' guide and regulate development and growth, they are the intertwining principles acting on and reacting to a scope of chaotic possibilities, on all levels simultaneously. In the midst of this morphogenetic environment, the organism, on whatever level, must maintain a state of disequilibrium in order to continue living.
The Human Genome Project has recently, (April, 2003), concluded phase one: the elucidation of the sequence of one billion nuceotides amounting to anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 genes. That number in itself is not spectacular; some plants, rice, for instance, have more. In addition, some decimal over 99% of these genes are identical to those of the nearest other primates, the chimpanzee and orangutan; this percentage is also what we all have in common, all of humanity. So two questions, at least, pop up: How is it that less than one percent of the genome accounts for such diversity, and, does personality emerge from this tiny percentage difference as it interrelates with the rest of the genome, or is it mainly a matter influenced by what's termed the "epigenetic landscape'?
To add to the mix, let's throw in a couple of other related facts. The phenotype, the human organism, is composed of approximately 300 different types of cells, liver cells, heart, muscle, etcetera. Now, independent of what specific type of cell a particular gene (well-defined) finds itself, it produces a protein necessarily of the same three-dimensional shape or form. That's the credo and the gist of the protein with regard to function; form and function are identical for a given protein, function is based on form, form dictates function. Inversely, a sequence of amino acids composing a protein is preset by a sequence of nucleotides composing a gene, for which the protein is the expression. All well and good; however, in spite of this logical cause-effect connection, depending on the type of cell a well-defined protein finds itself, the function it performs is uniquely specific to the requirements of that cell type, and different from the rest of the 300. The same sequence from gene to protein for each and every cell, yet behaving differently depending on the cell type.
It's almost as though a multi-purpose protein lives in a state of superposition during the initial stages of the process of forming, the transcription process. A subtle spin, a nuance from the surrounding field, somehow orients, infuses and formats the final protein-product.
In order to complicate the situation even further: each protein in any given cell not only performs a function indigenous to that cell, but also is capable of performing many different functions, or roles, within the cell depending on what grouping or arrangement it joins to form a composite macromolecule. So not only does a specific gene prescribe a specific protein, it somehow must also incorporate within the fabric of the protein a proclivity or potential for the inherent capacity to perform many different functions.
The biologist Robert Rosen has said: "The heart of biology is that it revolves arond the pattern of connections between components." Franklin Harold in his wonderful book: "The Way Of The Cell," writes: "An organism is, in fact, a self-organizing entity and more than the sum of its parts. The informational metaphor all but ignores the multiple webs of relationships that make up physiology, development, evolution and ecology."
Let's back up a bit and regroup. The article in "Nature Genetics" postulates a connection (one-to-one?) between specific genes and personality, in particular, it speaks of a 'novelty-seeking' gene. Is 'personality' an emergent property of life (Emergence: The appearance of new properties in a system that were not present nor easily predictable from the properties of its components), or, can the composite characteristics be traced back to certain definable genes? That is, are our personalities hard-wired into the genome?
From "The Way Of The Cell":
Let's return to our original question: Is there a direct connection between "version of gene" and "trait of personality"? What happens between a gene's sequencing of specific amino acids and the production of a protein whose behavior is constrained and regulated by the nature of the cell type whithin which it finds itself? Or does this 'something' happen after production?
The human species, contemporaneous, spread out across the globe, abiding in all possible climes and terrains, evolving and adapting physically and mentally, over millenia, developing behavior ensuring survival and promising genetic combinations supporting these advantageous traits, can be considered as a single entity. Each individual acts both as a seed of potential and promise, embodying certain permutations of characteristics in unique emphasis, and as an inextricable part of the whole. Each generation begins the cycle anew, the seed and the tree are one, adjusting to the 'external' in its give and take as it grows, all parts and functions working in unison, else it meets with catastrophe.
Whence the symmetry and balance of the human tree? What of this 'closest possibile fit with all that is 'external'? Could it be that culturally induced and internalized perceptions and beliefs, themselves finding occurence at root, noumenally, in certain genes and gene combinations, are self-perpetuating? Could those that are self-destructive and isolating represent kinds of a collective human illness, making the whole tree dysfunctional? Could the human tree then be covering its bets through experiments of variation, or even bifurcation, in a counteracting attempt to realign its nature and bring about a certain orientation, one not compromised by cross-purposes? Is control over our own evolution an illusion?
Our personalities find expression in the larger context of society and culture in a manner analogous to that of a protein finding its expression in a cell, its culture and frame of reference. If there is indeed a connection between genome and personality, then, by extension, is there a connection between personality and the kind of society/culture we create? Or does the society/culture create, or express, us as personalities? What of variation, selection and contingency in the morphogenetic field of a society?
From "The Way Of The Cell":
Group mind, the collective consciousness of a society, of a people, their perceptual reality, language, mores, their culture, its personality, are these genetically influenced in some way, part way, or is the personality of a society imposed, inherited, internalized, growing and adapting when challenged by external pressures, mitigated by internal moral and economic constraints?
If each distinct society is a cell in a world organism, and each protein-personality of each cell performs the same function in different ways, depending on the cell type, and also participates in multiple roles within a given cell as it integrates into varying arrangements, is it possible, then, for a symbiotic self-organization to take place among the many societies, as it does, ideally, within an individual cell-society? Or has that always been the case by the principles of nature, but we, being the myopic creatures of identity that we are, just can't see it?
Beyond the phenotype, the personality, of a protein, a cell, an individual, or a society, passes through an epigenetic landscape of many layers of order and organization, adopting global properties to express local features. A proclivity for novelty-seeking or risk-taking, having root in the genome, may find expression through the personality, but, the degree of nested complexity from the gene-substrate to the surface-personality is a treacherous and unpredictable path indeed.
From "The Way Of The Cell":
In some societies, of the many roles we play, it is sometimes best not to be too risk-oriented; suppression being the better part of rejection or imprisonment (or worse). And also, on the other hand, there is probably a large percentage of individuals who are novelty-seeking risk-takers but who do not have the version of the gene in question.
Again, from "The Way of the Cell":
We are humanity, historically and geographically. Our collective consciousness wrestles daily with the unconscious, that which, at root, binds us as One. We have not yet, in our primitive state of development, lost our total fascination with the cerebral cortex, or more precisely, the ability to reflect and be aware of self. We have also not yet transcended the belief that by the application of derived images and models alone we can control fate and increase the chances of our survival. What influences can our genome have on expressions of personal behaviour that we can reasonably see and understand to be fortuitous and beneficial for all Mankind?
I was standing on the edge of a cliff near a mountain top in Colorado once, a long time ago. There, at my feet was a huge tree spread out horizontally for sixty feet or more, barely two feet off the ground the entire distance. The wind blew constantly; nonetheless, the tree, although bent and twisted in improbable ways, grew to health and size by moderating push and pull, gravity and wind. I admired its flexibility, pragmatism, and determination, skills needed, to grow in spite of serious adversity, tough. Its seeds would be blown by the wind. Those that found a more favorable environment would have a better chance of reaching fulfillment, expansively stronger and more resolute.
Personality, as a holistic mixture of within and without circumstances, in a continuous state of flux and growth, wanting to be, may very well find its intended expression only when we are engaged in activities that are derived from that part of the genome we all have in common. Paradoxically, that is when our uniqueness stands out against the background of nature. The differences may only have to do with surface values, appearances and biological strengths and weaknesses. Risk-taking in any given individual may simply be the result of a realization, an insight, an emotional experience of some depth, or, more than likely, a complex combination of an unknowable number of interconnecting, constantly transforming, influences and contingent circumstances. In any event, I don't believe it's all that simple.
Implications from these gene-protein-personality discoveries can help to bring us closer to the truth of our own nature, and to the commonality we all have at root.
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