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  • When I was a young man...

  • growing up in New York City...

  • I refused to pledge allegiance to the flag.

  • Of course I was sent to the principal's office.

  • And he asked me "Why don't you want to Pledge Allegiance"?

  • Everybody does!'

  • I said, "Everybody once believed the earth was flat...

  • but that doesn't make it so".

  • I explained that America owed everything it has...

  • to other cultures...

  • and other nations...

  • and that I would rather pledge allegiance...

  • to the earth...

  • and everyone on it.

  • Needless to say, it wasn't long...

  • before I left school entirely...

  • and I set up a lab in my bedroom.

  • There I began to learn about science...

  • and nature.

  • I realized then...

  • that the universe is governed by laws...

  • and that the human being...

  • along with society itself...

  • was not exempt from these laws.

  • Then came the crash of 1929.

  • Which began what we now call...

  • "The Great Depression".

  • I found it difficult to understand why millions...

  • were out of work homeless, starving...

  • while all the factories were sitting there.

  • The resources were unchanged.

  • It was then that I realized

  • that the rules of the economic game...

  • were inherently invalid.

  • Shortly after came World War II...

  • where various nations took turns...

  • systematically destroying each other.

  • I later calculated that all the destruction...

  • and wasted resources...

  • spent on that war...

  • could have easily provided for every...

  • human need on the planet.

  • Since that time I have watched humanity...

  • set the stage for its own extinction.

  • I have watched as the precious finite resources...

  • are perpetually wasted and destroyed...

  • in the name of profit and free-markets.

  • I have watched the social values of society be reduced...

  • into a base artificiality of materialism...

  • and mindless consumption.

  • And I have watched as the monetary powers...

  • control the political structure...

  • of supposedly free societies.

  • I'm 94 years old now.

  • And I'm afraid my disposition...

  • is the same as it was...

  • 75 years ago.

  • This shit's got to go.

  • So you're a scientist

  • and somewhere along the way, hammered into your head...

  • is the inevitable "nature versus nurture"...

  • and that's at least up there with Coke versus Pepsi...

  • or Greeks versus Trojans.

  • So, nature versus nurture: This, by now...

  • utterly over-simplifying view of...

  • where influences are...

  • influences how a cell deals with...

  • an energy crisis up to...

  • what makes us who we are on the most individualistic...

  • levels of personality.

  • And what you've got is this complete false dichotomy...

  • built around nature as deterministic...

  • at the very bottom of all the causality.

  • Life is DNA and the code of codes...

  • and the Holy Grail, and everything is driven by it...

  • At the other end is a much more...

  • social science perspective which is...

  • We are 'social organisms'...

  • and biology is for slime molds.

  • Humans are free of biology...

  • and obviously both views are nonsense.

  • What you see instead is that...

  • it is virtually impossible to understand...

  • how biology works...

  • outside of the context of environment.

  • One of the most crazy...

  • yet widespread and...

  • potentially dangerous notions is:

  • "Oh, that behavior is genetic".

  • Now what does that mean?

  • It means all sorts of subtle stuff if you...

  • know modern biology, but for most people...

  • out there, what it winds-up meaning is:

  • A deterministic view of life,

  • one rooted in biology and genetics,

  • genes equal things that cannot be changed,

  • genes equal things that are...

  • inevitable and you might as well not...

  • waste resources trying to fix,

  • might as well not put societal energies into trying...

  • to improve because it's inevitable and it's unchangeable...

  • and that is sheer nonsense.

  • It is widely though that conditions like...

  • ADHD are genetically programmed...

  • That conditions like schizophrenia are genetically programmed.

  • The truth is the opposite.

  • Nothing is genetically programmed.

  • There are very rare diseases...

  • a small handful...

  • extremely sparsely represented in the population...

  • that are truly genetically determined.

  • Most complex conditions...

  • might have a predisposition that has a genetic component...

  • but a predisposition is not the same as a predetermination.

  • The whole search for the source of diseases in the genome...

  • was doomed to failure before anybody even thought of it...

  • because most diseases are not genetically predetermined.

  • Heart disease, cancers, strokes...

  • rheumatoid conditions, autoimmune conditions in general...

  • mental health conditions, addictions...

  • none of them are genetically determined.

  • Breast cancer, for example, out of 100 women with breast cancer...

  • only seven will carry the breast cancer genes.

  • 93 do not...

  • and out of 100 women who do have the genes...

  • not all of them will get cancer.

  • Genes are not just things that make us behave...

  • in a particular way regardless of our environment.

  • Genes give us different ways of responding to our environment.

  • And, in fact, it looks as if some of the early...

  • childhood influences and the kind of child rearing...

  • affect gene expression...

  • actually turning on or off different genes...

  • to put you on a different developmental track...

  • which may suit the kind of world you've got to deal with.

  • So for example.

  • A study done in Montreal with suicide victims...

  • looked at autopsies of the brains of these people...

  • and it turned out that if a suicide victim...

  • these are usually young adults...

  • had been abused as a child, the abuse actually...

  • caused a genetic change in the brain...

  • that was absent in the brains of people who had not been abused.

  • That's an epigenetic effect.

  • Epigenetic means on top of, so that...

  • the epigenetic influence is what happens...

  • environmentally to either activate or deactivate certain genes.

  • In New Zealand, there was a study...

  • that was done in a town called Dunedin...

  • in which a few thousand individuals...

  • were studied from birth into their 20s.

  • What they found was that they could identify...

  • a genetic mutation, an abnormal gene...

  • which did have some relation to...

  • the predisposition to commit violence...

  • but only if the individual had also...

  • been subjected to severe child abuse.

  • In other words, children with this abnormal gene would...

  • be no more likely to be violent than anybody else...

  • and, in fact, they actually had a lower rate of violence...

  • than people with normal genes...

  • as long as they weren't abused as children.

  • Great additional example of the ways...

  • in which genes are not "be all-end all".

  • A fancy technique where you can...

  • take a specific out of a mouse...

  • and that mouse and its descendants will not have that gene.

  • You have "knocked out" that gene.

  • So there's this one gene that encodes...

  • for a protein that has something to do...

  • with learning and memory and with this fabulous demonstration...

  • you "knock out" that gene and you...

  • have a mouse that doesn't learn as well.

  • "Oh! A genetic basis for intelligence"!

  • What was much less appreciated in that landmark study...

  • that got picked up by the media left and right...

  • is take those genetically impaired mice...

  • and raise them in a much more enriched

  • stimulating environment than your normal mice in a lab cage...

  • and they completely overcame that deficit.

  • So, when one says in a contemporary sense that...

  • "oh, this behavior is genetic"...

  • to the extent that that's even a valid sort of phrase to use...

  • what you're saying is: There is a...

  • genetic contribution to how this...

  • organism responds to environment,

  • genes may influence the...

  • readiness with which an organism will...

  • deal with a certain environmental challenge.

  • You know, that's not the version most people have in their minds...

  • and not to be too 'soap-boxing'...

  • but run with the old...

  • version of "It's genetic"!

  • And it's not that far from the history of eugenics...

  • and things of that sort.

  • It's a widespread misconception...

  • and it's a potentially fairly dangerous one.

  • One reason that the...

  • biological explanation for violence...

  • one reason that hypothesis is...

  • potentially dangerous, it's not just misleading...

  • it can really do harm...

  • is because if you believe that...

  • you could very easily say:

  • "Well, there's nothing we can do...

  • to change the predisposition...

  • people have to becoming violent,

  • all we can do is punish them - lock them up

  • or execute them...

  • but we don't need to worry about changing the...

  • social environment or the social preconditions...

  • that may lead people to become violent because...

  • that's irrelevant".

  • The genetic argument allows us the luxury of ignoring...

  • past and present historical and social factors...

  • and in the words of Louis Menand...

  • who wrote in the New Yorker...

  • Very astutely, he said:

  • "It's all in the genes... an explanation for the way things are...

  • that does not threaten the way things are.

  • Why should someone feel unhappy

  • or engage in antisocial behavior

  • when that person is living in the

  • freest and most prosperous nation on Earth?

  • It can't be the system.

  • There must be a flaw in the wiring somewhere".

  • Which is a good way of putting it.

  • So, the genetic argument is simply a cop-out

  • which allows us to ignore

  • the social and economic and political factors...

  • that, in fact, underlie...

  • many troublesome behaviors.

  • Addictions are usually

  • considered to be a drug-related issue...

  • but looking at it more broadly...

  • I define addiction as any behavior...

  • that is associated with craving...

  • with temporary relief...

  • and with long-term negative consequences...

  • along with an impairment of control over it so that the person...

  • wishes to give it up or promises to do so...

  • but can't follow through...

  • and when you understand that, you see that...

  • there are many more addictions...

  • than simply those related to drugs.

  • There's workaholism; addiction to shopping;

  • To the Internet, to video games...

  • There's the addiction to power. People that have power but they...

  • want more and more, nothing is ever enough for them.

  • Acquisition, corporations that must own more and more.

  • The addiction to oil...

  • or at least to the wealth and to the products made...

  • accessible to us by oil.

  • Look at the negative consequences on the environment.