Saturday, 12 September 2009

On preference and genetics

Current advances in genetic science are unravelling many of the mysteries surrounding what it is to be human. Traits that were once held to have be learned are now known to be the result of a variant in a single gene. Scientists have uncovered genes responsible for a person's propensity for being religious, a good dancer, faithful in relationships, which suggest that whether you are a good dancer is as genetically determined as your height or your eye colour.

Being a good dancer is, apparently, dependent on serotonin transporter (SLC6A4) and the arginine vasopressin receptor 1a (AVPR1a). As is fidelity, apparently. Being religious is, apparently, dependent on VMAT2 gene. Whether you're an early riser or someone who can work on late into the night is determined by a mutation in the hPer2 gene. With each passing week, it seems that science is inching towards nature and away from nurture (although I still agree with my sister-in-law, Jane, who says it's 100% of both).

But what of preference? Preference for music, art, film, food, clothes, places ... how much of individual taste is determined by genes, how much by environmental factors - and how much by the soul?

Is preference genetic? Moni has much the same tastes in music and film as her father, Eddie as his mother. But to what extent has that taste been acquired, and to what extent has it been learnt?

What makes people respond emotionally in certain ways to a landscape, to a period in history, to a piece of music, to the thoughts conveyed in a poem? And why do some respond differently to others?

Reading a plethora of pop-science articles on the subject of the human mind and human consciousness, I reach the conclusion that mankind's knowledge in this area is very shallow, and often driven by ideology - political correctness, religious views or dogmatic reductionism. Mankind's knowledge of self, of the human mind, is as primitive today as his knowledge of chemistry in the days when alchemy was the dominant model used to explain differences between elements.

Again, if we are to make the fundamental split between beliefs, it is between monism and dualism. Either everything in this universe (our consciousness, dreams, imaginings) is the product of one reality composed of atoms - or there is a more than one reality - a physical and a spiritual world.

As far as I'm concerned, as of today, I am convinced that our artistic preferences are proof that there is something more than atoms and genes.

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