Tag Archives: society

Are our fates determined by our genes? I doubt it. It’s not that simple even for worms.

I have done some work with the C. Elegans model organism. They are fun little bugs, and the PETA doesn’t get all up-in-arms when you shoot their brain with a laser. Here are some fun C. Elegans Facts:

wikimedia commons: adult caenorhabditis elegans

They are about 1 mm long at maturity
They are transparent
They have about 300 nerves
Their genome was sequenced in 1998
They can hunt down food on a plate
They have forms of memory and learning

Here are some things I have noticed: When illuminated with a blue laser, they panic and squirm all over the place. When you use a UV laser to blow up a portion of their outer cuitcle, they practically turn inside-out due to internal pressure. Some of the strains available through the WormBank have single nerve cells that express fluorescent protein, so that not only do their brains glow, but only the part you might be interested in glows.

Why are these critters cool? Well, despite being really small, they share a lot of biochemistry with humans. Their neurons function in the same way and the cellular processes that allow the worm to grow from an egg into a larva and from a larva into an adult are all analogous on a cellular level to changes in human development. But if you do an experiment on a worm, you can see what happens in a few days instead of months (rats) years (monkeys) or decades (humans). Also, there are some ethical constraints with humans that don’t apply to worms.

Here’s a new fact just released in Nature: they seem to have a sleep-like state. “Lethargus is a Caenorhabditis elegans sleep-like state” by Raizen et. al. “Conserved effects on sleep-like behaviour of homologous genes in C. elegans and Drosophila suggest a common genetic regulation of sleep-like states in arthropods and nematodes. Our results indicate that C. elegans is a suitable model system for the study of sleep regulation.”

They sleep, they eat, they learn (sort-of), they have lots of sex with themselves (they are hermaphrodites) and they make eggs. And they do it all in 3 days. And despite the fact that we know the fate of every cell in its body from birth to death – where it comes from, what it becomes and where it goes – we still don’t know how it manages most of its behavior.

I’d like to point out that this leaves very little hope for a reductionist perspective on psychology.  We know every connection of every nerve in this worm’s body and the thing is still a mystery. I wrote a post recently about how foolish it is to make sweeping assertions about genetic differences. Just to reiterate the big upshot: even in the simplest case, our understanding of the causes-and-effects that make up psychology is limited.  To think that a human being is perfectly predictable is… well… just plain dumb.


the battle of the sexes: taking a look back at dating, roles and culture

I read an article the other day over at The Last Ditch. It concerns the notion that the sexes have different roles to play in the world. A lot of people would find it offensive, but not me: I’m not easy to offend. I think there are some nuggets of wisdom in there, and at the very least I can identify a talented rhetorician when I read one. In any case, the point he makes is this: the sexes are not identical and, to a degree, they are equipped for different tasks; that different equipment affects their economic roles. In these vague terms, it seems obvious. I hope it’s hard to argue with that framing.

The problem (and the place that people get offended) is that the people who ‘agree’ with the sentiment are agreeing for the wrong reasons, and the people who are offended are offended for the wrong reasons. Men who feel like victims of women will see this article as saying that women should have a role in society determined by their biology. Those who disagree will see another opresive man trying to determine womens’ future through control of the culture.

There are tendencies given to us by biology and culture, but neither determine us. There is plenty of evidence that Nature and Nurture both play important roles in the development of an adult human. Twins can have the same genes and very different personalities, even to the point of one having a terrible debilitating mental illness and another being spared. At the same time, identical twins separated at birth have been shown to lead remarkably similar lives in many cases.


What’s the answer? Are women determined by their two x-chromosomes to be homemakers? Of course not. Should they be required to be homemakers? Of course not. Is it shameful to consider the possibility that many women might be happier being homemakers than doing other things? I don’t see why. The big upshot is that one bias is as bad as the other. Being offended by a proposition that maybe families would be better off with a mother around is as foolish as asserting that women are irrational. Taking the position that the culture is wholly responsible for peoples’ lives is as foolish as assigning that responsibility to genes. All of these foolishnesses ignore personal choice. More on that next time.