Steven Pinker argues that while our genes don’t determine who we are, they may have a great influence on our behavior (Jan. 11).As a biological anthropologist, evolutionary theorist and researcher of human behavior, I’m here to tell you Pinker is overshooting the mark.
Genes matter, but so do many other things.Our biology is always part of our lives, but so are social inequality and privilege, history, diet, stress, popular culture, activity patterns, familial pressures, etc.
Natural selection, one of the main drivers in evolutionary change, works on the whole body and behavior complex, not on single genes or even the genome itself.It is the dynamic product of genes, organs, behaviors, ecologies and societies that eventually affects evolutionary patterns in humans.No gene or even set of genes can be held in isolation of the systems in which they exist.
To imply that we can possibly better know our true selves through a genetic test is as misleading as to state that we can do so via an I.Q. test or an evaluation of our income, job, ethnicity, age or gender.The insistence that focusing on stretches of DNA will ever tell us who we are is an obstacle to the effective study of humans, one that has been fought against for nearly a century by anthropologists and biologists alike.
Professor of Anthropology
University of Notre Dame
- Notre Dame, Ind.