16 June 2007

Globalization Through the Lens of 2 Million Year-Old Genes

Q: Why do men have bigger brains than dogs?
A: So they won't hump women's legs at parties.

Jesus taught about the dangers of the world and flesh. Csikszentmihalyi, who I would judge to be an agnostic based on his writings and conversations with him, warns about how capitulation to social conformity (i.e., the world), or genetic impulse (the flesh) distracts from the engagement that characterizes our most productive, creative, and enjoyable moments. Doctors tell us that genetic impulse can be a misleading guide in a world of abundance - an environment with more sugars, fats, alluring foods, and drugs than at any time in evolution's long history.

Whether it is drawn from religion thousands of years old or research only days old, the advice seems to be the same: distrust the genetic impulse that would turn us into rotund, chemically-dependent, serial adulterers or serial killers, leaving behind us a trail of broken promises, broken relationships, and broken zippers.

Yet the genetic impulse need not trumpet its influence. It can be subtle. We're wired for relationships, not abstractions. We're wired to respond to the individual rather than the statistical norm. Research has indicated that we're more likely to respond to the plight of an individual ("This little girl is an orphan. You can feed her for only $2 a day.)") than to a group ("This people has been through a devastating catastrophe. It has left thousands orphaned. Please help with a donation of $2 a day.") This genetic impulse can be at least as harmful as the impulse for excess food or drugs.

What this means in practical terms is that Princess Di still gets more news coverage than 8 million dying each year because of extreme poverty. Paris Hilton's ... well, you get the point. We're absorbed in personalities and their dramas, the resolution of which will have no impact, and ignore issues that might actually make a difference to real lives, lives that appear to us in more abstract form.

We do make some attempt to warn - even legislate against - the genetic impulse when it comes to issues like rape, obesity, alcoholism, drugs, and violence. We seem less generally interested in warning against genetic impulses when they have to do with the alpha male impulse for place, or the tribal instincts that disregard the abstract issues that define our fate in a world of global interconnections and dominoes that fall over the horizon of time and space. Yet it is likely that history will show these genetic impulses to have robbed us of more years and more quality of life than those against which we've placed prohibitions.


Anonymous said...

Do you ever read the blog "Daily Bread?" He's been posting on the same subject lately. His perspective is a little different- he's a Benadictine monk.

Here's his link:

Anonymous said...

Hi Ron, there are many genetic impulses. The human mind is capable of the most amazing intricacy, or it can be brutally simple. We choose which impulses make the most sense to us depending on where we are at. Where we are at and where we can be are not always different things. But I am sure you already know this.

And Thomas, remember, you will always find dirt if dirt is all you seek. It's on the ground everywhere. Nothing wrong with it, though. It's just not that interesting because it's everywhere.