Science: Why Pinker is wrong: It takes more than dodgy genes to produce a compulsive shopper

Stephen Pinker claims that the mind is a computer-like information processor, built of a series of "modules" for different behaviours, such as language and lying, and that these have become wired into our brains and minds as part of our genetic heritage. I think he's wrong - for reasons I discuss in my books The Making of Memory and Lifelines. Let me explain why I think that.

First, minds and brains trade not in dead information, but in living meaning. For Pinker, a footprint i n the sand "carries information". Wrong. It is the person viewing the footprint who ascribes meaning to it, derived from our evolutionary, developmental and cultural history. Think of the multiple meanings that viewing a footprint on his island seashore had for Robinson Crusoe.

Second, brains and minds aren't Swiss Army knives equipped with pull- out screwdrivers and bottle-opener modules, pre-formed in our genes; they develop dynamically and coherently as part of the constant interplay of specificity and plasticity that constitutes the living processes that create us. Neither behaviours, nor any other aspect of living systems, are embedded in individual "selfish genes".

DNA itself is actually rather an inert molecule (hence the plot of Jurassic Park). Without the web of enzymes and membranes in which the living cell embeds it, it couldn't function.

It isn't even the conductor of the cellular orchestra. Rather, like a well-practised concert quartet, each cellular element interacts harmoniously with all others without the need for a "master molecule."

The idea that our human capacities are frozen into presumed Stone Age habits (so-called evolutionary psychology, which operates on the Flintstones principle that our ancestors shared the values and practices of American suburbia circa 1950) profoundly misunderstands the ways in which our biology and culture are entangled through evolution and history. Our brains evolved from the same structures that snakes use to analyse odours, but this doesn't mean that we think by smelling.

This is why the idea of "neurogenetic determinism" - which claims that we can trace everything from infanticide through sexual orientation, alcoholism, compulsive shopping, tendency to midlife divorce and street violence to the consequences of some fixed genetic processes - is so misguided.

Such determinism crudely turns complex social processes into "tendencies" embedded in the brain and genes, suggesting "violence" is to be understood by searching for the "genes which cause aggression" - and presumably treated by selective abortion or genetic engineering.

So why, if it is "in the genes", is homicide so much more common in the US than in Europe? The 280 million handguns said to be in personal possession would seem a more likely part of the answer than any delving into genetics.

Gene- and computer-fixated thinking about living processes in general, and human behaviour in particular, fundamentally misunderstands the rich interconnectedness of life and the multiple levels at which it must be understood.

What I find very odd about all this macho evolutionary talk is the extent to which, in the last analysis, it wants to have its cake and eat it. Evolutionary psychology argues that we are merely the deterministically driven products of our selfish genes and of their sole interest, replication. All our deepest desires and emotions, our abjectly selfish failures, as well as our most selfless ambitions to create a more beautiful world, are simply shadow-play.

To be sure, even its most vociferous exponents ultimately recoil from this bleak vision, and claim that they are (in some unexplained way) independent of their genes. But where does this autonomy come from?

It is time to go beyond false dichotomies of genes and environments, determinism and free will. We can't choose either our genes or the world we are born into, but it is precisely our genes - as part of the living, dynamic processes in which they are embedded - which enable us to transform that world.

Steven Rose is professor of biology and director of the Brain and Behaviour Research Group at the Open University.

'Lifelines' is published by Allen Lane in the UK and Oxford University Press in the United States

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