Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The (lawless) laws of (human) nature

This week on The Forum, a BBC radio program, Bridget Kendall presented a show on translation -- specifically, the translation of Chinese poetry into English, the translation of science for the public, and the translation of the fall of the Berlin Wall -- what is gained and what is lost in translation. One of her guests was British Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, who has written a number of popular books about cosmology and astronomy.

Kendall asked Rees how scientists benefit from interpreting their science for popular consumption. He said that scientists often have a difficult time thinking beyond the details and remembering the larger picture, so that having to explain the big ideas is good for them. Kendall said that it must be particularly difficult for a cosmologist because people tend to feel that everyday phenomena should be easy to understand, but grander things like the cosmos are much harder. Rees says that's not true, that everyday things that people really care about, like diet or child rearing, are in fact much harder to understand than the stars; even experts don't understand them. If they did, ideas about what's healthy to eat or how to bring up a child wouldn't be changing all the time.

Now, we can't say whether or not cosmologists really have deciphered the stars. But, in some senses it doesn't really matter how much they've got wrong, because what we do with what we know about stars isn't nearly as relevant to everyday life as what we make of advice about what to eat and the like. Rees's point is reminiscent of things we write about all the time.

Why don't we know these things? We aren't stupid (well, 'we' here refers to science generally!). What is it about complex phenomena that's so hard to deconstruct? How on earth can a measly human be more problematic than zillions of stars, galaxies, and even voracious Black Holes!?

Why can't science even tell us what to eat? Here's our explanation -- we think it's because organisms have evolved to survive in a wide range of environments, and environmental changes can have from no to little to crippling to fatal effects, and their effects can vary along that continuum, even within a given species. This makes prediction nearly impossible, and the effects of change nearly undecipherable, due to the confounding effects of other, unnoticed, unmeasured changes, or to the fact that most changes don't happen in isolation.

Just as genes don't function in isolation, but in networks of genes, all of which are taking the measure of their environment all the time, via signaling, and responding by emitting signals of their own, to which other genes respond. And even when the information is false, in our current society, as soon as the latest Now-Eat-This story appears in the media, we modify what we eat, what kind of exercise we do, and so on, which then can change gene function and interaction, and down the road, disease risk. Stars, so far as we know, don't change their orbits just because some astronomer announces a different equation!

Which all, in a convoluted way, brings us back to Freud. Freud's explanation for behaviors was that they were the result of early childhood. One's upbringing. As opposed to the genetic determinism that's so prevalent today (though, in either case, mothers still get the blame). Well, we wouldn't go all the way with Uncle Sigmund, but there is clear evidence that even things happening in utero affect later life -- behavior, language, and even the late-onset disease risks. And add to this the way we meander according to our cultural fads and self-help advice, much less our exposures to chemicals, diets, lifestyles, and so on.

What's built in is our ability to assess our environment and act as we think is best, and that starts right at the beginning. What we're wired 'for' is not to be too wired, but to be responsive. That's a claim Betelgeuse can't match, and why the stars are condemned to circle obediently while our fault is in ourselves, not in our stars.


John said...

You are willing to associate The Mermaid's Tale (MT) in any way with with the fraud Freud? Sheesh! What can't he be given undeserved credit for? There is NOTHING in Freud that comes even close to MT, all attempts at revisionism considered. You have an important, nuanced message; don't lose it with some alleged association with Freudian nonsense.

Ken Weiss said...

Thanks for another substantial reaction to our blog, John. We did not intend to defend nonsense. But every era's cutting edge is almost by definition a mixture of sense and nonsense, or at least non-sense. There are usually grains of truth, even if mis-perceived as later science would show

Freud and Skinner and others of various ilks thought that very early experience was important in life. But our current DNA-obsessed era has implicitly adopted the view that genes (often single-genes) inherently determine each person's nature. So our comment was meant to point out that there was reason to believe that early experience was important and that more and more 'modern' evidence is showing that to be so.

It is, we think, more challenging to explain how genes-as-enablers work and evolve than genes-as-determinants. To a great extent, we're stuck in the latter as a product of the history of genetic research.

So, Freud was who and what and when he was, and has been discredited on his own merits, so to speak. But the whole world accepted his ideas, yes, including his mumbo-jumbo, for decades. There were grains of truth in his various writings which, as with today's science and its own component of mumbo-jumbo and self-importance, we need to filter, too.

And think how many scientists spent much of their income on their personal psychotherapist because they believed Freud was profoundly right! Now, we spend our funds on our personal trainer perhaps, but we may have to relearn the lesson that experience and environment are as fundamental as genes in the nature of life.

Anyhow, thanks again for your comment!