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Culture Threatened by Nature

The Human Genome could show that problems in our behavior have a genetic basis

Renato Janine Ribeiro

Over the past two hundred years we have lived in a separation between nature and culture that, in a gross fashion, has defined the limitations of the biological sciences and the ?exact? sciences and the human ones. These frontiers were never pacific, moving to the flavor of interminable skirmishes ? but, in general terms, functional1 . The emergence of the idea ofBildung ¸ or formation, in the 18th century, was decisive for administering what today we call human sciences. They consider that man is not something made by nature but built ? to a large and undefined part ? by his surroundings, which are also human. From there, ideas such as education and culture were born.

Until that era we had nothing comparable to what we denominate as education. On the eve of the French Revolution three master ideas appeared that together would change the world. One is that of education, or that is to say, that the individual human is changeable, conforming to how he was raised during his formative years. Who improved the formula was Rousseau, inEmile .

Another is that ofhistory such as science ? the idea being that collective humanity changes according to the era: modern is different from ancient. Saint-Just could here say that “happiness is a new idea in Europe”, and cry out to the French to end the injustice of the monarchist regime. A third idea is that ofrevolution : that it is deliberately possible to change all of the organization of society itself. Up until that moment, this word indicated the movements of the stars, always on the same trajectory ? nevertheless, every one came back to the same place, nothing changed, only having upset stability for a short time.

However, with the French and American Revolutions, the termrevolution moved on to designate a radical change ? and for many a promising one. We could add in other ideas, all of them having in common that the human being would be sensitive to modification ? not to be given it once and for all. He is seen as a creature of his own creation, by means of specific work, linked to social family life, to the action of one on top of another (and reciprocative). It is within this framework that the anthropologists, but not only them, specialize in the idea that culture is the characteristic dimension of the human being.

How, when faced with this, did the natural sciences, older because they started in the 17th century, unchain themselves, understanding that man had become an exception to natural sciences? It is clear that the human being can be the object of biology ? but what would it consider in us, is not the same thing as with human sciences. However, the frontier is always going to be problematic.

If I fall ill, how am I going to treat myself? Obviously, if the disease affects my body, I?ll medicate myself. But we know that there are diseases with a psychological base. Will I be treated by a doctor or by a psychotherapist? This question, that must have passed through the minds in the personal lives of many of thePesquisa FAPESP readers, shows, on the micro sphere, the macro question about the frontiers between nature and culture.

Each time that a friend of mine, a psychoanalyst, has a physical problem, he jokes by saying: “I always thought that the psychoanalyst would get off lighter” he is taking up a position in favor of culture. When another friend, a neuroscientist, states that: “I would have liked to know about the brains of the famous Russian ballerinas at the beginning of the 20th century”, he is positioning himself on the side of nature.

What does this have to do with DNA? No recent scientific advance has perhaps had more of a highlight in the media than the unfolding of the discovery that now completes fifty years. Also the research into the Human Genome that by all indications led FAPESP to take up, as a boost in its public image, Brazilian studies into genomics. The qualitative leap that this represents to the sciences cannot be ignored. The mapping of the genome will allow us to detect and treat diseases before they show symptoms ? perhaps even in the fetus. We might even, who knows, put an end to myopia. This would not only substitute all of a part of medicine, which would come out of software (medicines) to enter into hardware (a preventative surgical intervention that reminds one of engineering), that could put in check all of the field of human sciences.

The big example of this is what is being discussed about homosexuality. Over the last few years, whether it is as aby-product of research into the genome, or as a consequence of others, but certainly inspired by an example from them, some scientists have said they have found the natural base for homosexuality. The question is controversial. Psychiatrists relate cases of identical twins, of which one is homosexual and the other not ? which contests the thesis of a natural foundation for homosexuality.

Anyhow, the Human Genome has scintillated the expectation that a range of problems that we usually attribute to culture or education, that is the human formation of the human being, could have genetic bases ? and thus they could be identified and, who knows, solved. That is the reason that that we can change the dividing line between nature and culture. The skirmishing on the frontiers will continue but their drawing will be another. It frightens me that today this is not the main discussion point in human sciences.

If the group of proposals brought together under the Human Genome Project is confirmed, the role of humans will diminish. The disciplines most affected will probably be those most linked to the idea of culture, anthropology and psychoanalysis. For this very reason, they must be better informed and discuss DNA. Evidently, if the expectations of the project are fulfilled, we must be the first to accept their results. One must not start fighting against them in the name of whatever esprit de corps in this area. But we need to discuss what this means.

It is for this reason that we must explicitly lay out the arguments that make many of us skeptical in relation to the promises involved with the Human Genome. In the first place, the publication of their results in February 2001 was an anti-climax. It had been expected that the deciphering of the genome would have resolved a series of mysteries concerning the human being; it can be seen that a lot of research is still missing. For this reason, although the scientific media had not properly carried out criticisms of those expectations, it discretely reduced the importance given to them. Three years ago the Human Genome appeared as an enormous promise, a watershed; today it is a little less.

But it will bring results, which I trust will permit overcoming many diseases and human insufficiencies. Personally, I am an enthusiast of these prospects. However, I must expose what is the major argument for the skepticism of humans: there is an enormous tendency of the human being to want to consider himself something, an object. To accept that we are naturally indeterminate, that we will be shaped by education and culture, and from these arise relevant and irrefutable differences in genes is very difficult. It means accepting that there is something very feeble in the human condition.

Part at least of the precariousness or indetermination some will callliberty . However, not even liberty is as valued as is imagined. It implies responsibility. And faced with this it is common to desire something that solves our problems independently from ourselves. There are many reports from psychotherapists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts about people who want “to cure” their psychic problems with medicine.

Also incontestable are the sick people who take exam after exam without finding any physical reason for their maladies, leading the doctor himself to recommend therapy. It seems that one is searching for comfort in the condition of something. If I were an object, that is to say, if I werenature , my ills are independent from my will. Indeed, what is under discussion is not what causes them but how to solve them: if I could get rid of them through medicine or surgery, I wouldn?t need to take any in depth responsibility for them. I would treat myself as an object.

Nevertheless, the posture of human sciences and psychoanalysis is different. Much of human experience comes exactly from how we set ourselves up as subjects. This role is weighty. For this reason, when it enters into a crisis ? when my liberty to choose love or politics or professionally results in suffering ?, I can alleviate myself, looking for a solution that substitutes my role of the subject for that of the object. An anti-depressive can have this singular function. When I take a Prozac or a Lexotan, I renounce the position of subject of my psychic life and convert it into an object of natural order.

We all know, even more so in a society that is stressed and hysteric like ours, how it is difficult to sustain the responsibility and the liberty of our personal life. Therein lies the desire for passivity, the renouncing of liberty. Now these questions have been amply discussed through human sciences. Or that is to say, with all respect to thetruths that the Human Genome Project brought to light, we have in human sciences elements to work out what is themyth behind it.

What does this mean then? We in the humanities need to prepare ourselves for a change in the frontiers. But also, we have a lot to say to our colleagues who are deciphering the genetic code. We could show them how much there is of myth in the public image of their project. We could discuss how this myth is considered by a public who paradoxically wish to get rid of their liberty to a market that for this very reason sells well, to companies that profit from this, the public governments that prefer thisapproach , much more full of doubts, rather than human sciences. I believe that this dialogue, respected between the two parties, would be very bountiful. And, if Brazil bets on this, it will do something that is practically not done in the rest of the world.

Renato Janine is a professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy at the University of São Paulo and author, among other books, of A Sociedade contra o Social – o Alto Custo da Vida Pública no Brasil [Society against the Social – The High Cost of Public Life in Brazil]

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