When I saw the cover story in the Sunday Times Magazine by Steven Pinker, "My Genome, My Self," I was ready to pounce. I thought: here comes a biological determinist trying to assert that we can understand personal identity and psychology by a rather simple reference to genetics. I was pleasantly surprised to the contrary, however. Pinker lays out a sophisticated and nuanced analysis of the interaction of genetics and environment, which sounds about right to me. So, even though I was gearing up a Confucian counterargument on the social (as opposed to the genetic) construction of the self, I found myself thinking about the Taoist resonances in passages like this:
Even when the effect of some gene is indubitable, the sheer complexity of the self will mean that it will not serve as an oracle on what the person will do. The gene that lets me taste propylthiouracil ... might make me dislike tonic water, coffee and dark beer. Unlike the tenuous genes linked to personality or intelligence, this one codes for a single taste-bud receptor, and I don’t doubt that it lets me taste the bitterness. So why hasn’t it stopped me from enjoying those drinks? Presumably it’s because adults get a sophisticated pleasure from administering controlled doses of aversive stimuli to themselves. I’ve acquired a taste for Beck’s Dark; others enjoy saunas, rock-climbing, thrillers or dissonant music. Similarly, why don’t I conform to type and exploit those fast-twitch muscle fibers (thanks, ACTN3 genes!) in squash or basketball, rather than wasting them on hiking? A lack of coordination, a love of the outdoors, an inclination to daydream, all of the above? The self is a byzantine bureaucracy, and no gene can push the buttons of behavior by itself. You can attribute the ability to defy our genotypes to free will, whatever that means, but you can also attribute it to the fact that in a hundred-trillion-synapse human brain, any single influence can be outweighed by the product of all of the others.
Yes: Way (Tao) is vast, complex beyond our comprehension. Pinker, as a scientist, probably would not go that far (does he hope for comprehension some day?) but he is bowing to complexity here, not trying to assert a singular interpretation that captures all of human development. Peering into a genome, which personal genomics allows individuals now to do, will not tell you all you need to know about an individual. Context matters, environment matters, will matters, culture matters, as Pinker recognizes. The uniqueness of each thing in Way, the Te (Integrity) of each thing, cannot be reduced to genetics. Genes are a part of one's Te, but they are not determinative of it.
Indeed, will is a interesting problem for Taoism. It is obviously a natural part of the human experience, and thus wholly within Way, but it can also lead, at least as suggested by the Tao Te Ching, to human actions that seem to contradict the natural unfolding of Way. Humans are, then, both within, but capable of acting against, Way. This is captured in this excerpt from passage 77:
The Way of heaven takes away where there's abundance and restores where there's want, but the Way of humankind isn't like that: it takes away where there's want and gives where there's abundance.
The Way of humankind can contradict the Way of heaven, and the latter comes close to Way generally. In a way(!), this also captures Pinker's point: the natural unfolding of any particular human being, as expressed genetically, can be transformed and turned by will or experience or environment. People are complex that way(!).
A Confucian might have more trouble with personal genomics. The science suggests that our hard wiring creates certain social and psychological tendencies for an individual. This would suggest the possibility of a genetically-based barrier, not insurmountable but significant, against the enactment of Duty according to Ritual. Some people may have personalities that distract them from their social duties, making it harder for them to do the right Confucian thing. While this does not fundamentally subvert the Confucian optimism regarding perfectibility, it at least suggests that some people will be less susceptible to humanizing behavior than others. Or, to put it another way, Mencius might be wrong when he says: "Everyone has a heart that can't bear to see others suffer." (3.6) Maybe such a heart/mind is heritable. Not everyone has it to the same degree. Conversely, maybe the geneticists just haven't found the Mencian good heart/mind gene yet.
It would seem that Taoists would have an easier time absorbing Pinker's conclusions than Confucians. The article is a confirmation of the vastness of Way, the existence of observable patterns of natural development simultaneously existing with spontaneous, context-created variations and particularities.
And it was nice to see Pinker warding off those who want to jump to undue generalizations about genetics and intelligence:
Still other genes have been associated with trust and commitment, or with a tendency to antisocial outbursts. It’s still a messy science, with plenty of false alarms, contradictory results and tiny effects. But consumers will probably learn of genes linked to personality before they see any that are reliably connected to intelligence.
If the face of such messiness, we cannot be confident in our general statements.