Human societies change by rapid cultural evolution not biological alteration
Stabroek News
October 27, 2001

Dear Editor,

In these depressing times of heightened racism, religious intolerance and xenophobia it is heartening to know that there are individuals like Mr Lutchman Gossai who believe that human behaviour is determined by both nature and nurture and that "individuals cannot be reduced to their genetic characteristics" [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] (SN 2001-10-19). I would hope to God that all racists, religious bigots and xenophobic patriots were converted to a similar persuasion and practice. Most of these intolerant and prejudiced persons believe that human social behaviour and culture are products of genetic heredity with little or no environmental influences. This belief leads to the maintenance of the status quo of the privileged elite classes and castes vis-a-vis the depressed and marginalised lower groups. I am glad to be reassured that Mr Gossai does not belong to the company of those disreputable people who believe such degrading and dehumanising things about their fellow homo sapiens. This was my main concern; his remarks about Christian creationists and fundamentalists were irrelevant and red-herrings.

By the way, my copy of Professor Gould's book "The Mismeasure of Man" is the revised and expanded 1996 edition of his original 1981 work. Below are two paragraphs under the heading 'Biology and human nature'.

"The impact of human uniqueness upon the world has been enormous because it has established a new kind of evolution to support the transmission across generations of learned knowledge and behaviour. Human uniqueness resides primarily in our brains. It is expressed in the culture built upon our intelligence and the power it gives us to manipulate the world. Human societies change by cultural evolution, not as a result of biological alteration. We have no evidence for biological change in brain size or structure since Homo sapiens appeared in the fossil record some fifty thousand years ago. (Broca was right in stating that the cranial capacity of Cro Magnon skulls was equal if not superior to ours.) All that we have done since then - the greatest transformation in the shortest time that our planet has experienced since its crust solidified nearly four billion years ago - is the product of cultural evolution. Biological (Darwinian) evolution continues in our species, but its rate, compared with cultural evolution, is so incomparably slow that its impact upon the history of Homo sapiens has been small. While the gene for sickle-cell anemia declines in frequency among black Americans, we have invented the railroad, the automobile, radio and television, the atom bomb, the computer, the airplane and spaceship.

"Cultural evolution can proceed so quickly because it operates, as biological evolution does not, in the "Lamarckian" mode - by the inheritance of acquired characters. Whatever one generation learns, it can pass on to the next by writing, instruction, inculcation, ritual, tradition, and a host of methods that humans have developed to assure continuity in culture. Darwinian evolution, on the other hand, is an indirect process: genetic variation must first be available to construct an advantageous feature, and natural selection must then preserve it. Since genetic variation arises at random, not preferentially directed toward advantageous features, the Darwinian process works slowly. Cultural evolution is not only rapid; it is also readily reversible because its products are not coded in our genes" (pp. 354-355).

Although Mr Gossai commendably believes in the nature-nurture inter-action, he still alludes to the outdated nature vs nurture debate in writing. "... some researchers believe that the impulse to creep, stand, and later to walk is a genetic imperative expressed at different times during the growth of toddlers. Others believe that babies perform these acts to mimic the movement of adults." I'm sure this would be news for him: both sets of researchers are right. There is no contradiction. There is no nature vs nurture dichotomy. Human babies mimic the movement of adults because they possess the genetic potential of human bipedalism. If Baby Jo, with all the genes in the world for human locomotion, were never to see a walking human, she would never creep, much less walk and run. And Chimpanzee Joe, surrounded by a world of walking humans, would never achieve human bipedalism because he doesn't have the genetic potential for it.

This is why I have always been amused by Tarzan stories. Having grown up in ape society and culture during his formative childhood and teenage years, the adult Tarzan would have found it impossible to integrate himself into normal human society. To all intents and purposes, he would be and forever remain an ape despite the best efforts of Jane. Sorry to spoil your fun, Tarzan fans.

Mr Gossai also mentioned the stormy teenage years fuelled by genetically coded hormones. But this is a social phenomenon found only in Western societies and in non-western societies, which have adopted the cultural mores, values and customs of the West. Before the West went East and the East came West, the East knew little or nothing about the so-called stormy teenage years. And while behaviour is influenced by hormones, culture also exerts a restraining or guiding hand on behaviour to ensure that they are socially and culturally acceptable. This was why the young handsome hormone-filled Joseph fled and got him out when Potiphar's amorous wife went on the prowl. He was guided by a moral code, not his gene code. You don't have to be a slave to your hormones; you can take guidance from a moral and ethical code.

In the case of genetic diseases, we humans do not passively sit and accept those diseases. We actively seek ways of alleviating the pains of sufferers by means of medical, scientific and technological inventions and developments. Short-sightedness might be 100% genetically caused, but it is 100% correctable with a pair of spectacles or a more expensive eye operation. Diabetes might be 100% genetically caused, but insulin injections can give an almost 100% diabetes-free life. Even genetic homosexuality may be corrected using the appropriate mixture of hormone injections. Genetic engineering is advancing so rapidly that humans can now tinker with the gene code to eliminate genetic diseases and disorders. In this way, human behaviour is not only influenced by the gene code, but human technological behaviour can now directly affect the gene code. Previously, we were able only to indirectly influence the gene code by manipulating the gene pool of individuals or groups using artificial selection means such as marriage restrictions, "race", class and caste discrimination, and even murder and genocide. Slavery drained the gene pool of Africa, and genocide wrecked the gene pool of the native Americans. Ultimately, the gene code was indirectly affected. Now we have the technological means to go to the gene itself.

So not only is human behaviour a product of the nature-nurture interaction, but it is better described as a result of the complex interaction among the environment, the individual's genes, and the conscious individual himself as an active agent in his own development.

I close with a quote by Mr Gossai's hero, Charles Darwin, taken from The Voyage of the Beagle: "If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."

Yours faithfully,

M. Hackett