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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Free Will

You may think that this post has something to do with the theological arguments surrounding free will, predestination or related matters. Let me set your mind at ease, I have a far more disconcerting topic for consideration. What if I were to suggest that our tastes, preferences and choices in everything from the food we eat, the people to whom we are attracted, and the political and moral viewpoints we adopt were dictated by our genetic arrangement? Sounds unbelievable doesn’t it? Never the less, that is precisely what one scientist proposes.

Speculating on the manner in which a particularly invasive parasitic disease, Toxoplasmosis, can affect personality, inducing in some cases depression, bipolar disorder or even schizophrenia, this researcher has made a singular leap of assumption. It is his contention that our personalities, likes and dislikes are genetically predisposed. We might think of this as an adjunct of the nature vs. nurture dichotomy underlying so many psychological and sociological debates.

Before you prepare to argue one or the other of these viewpoints, let me add that this new theory is just that, a hypothesis as yet unproven except by anecdotal evidence. On the face of it, the idea that our genes predispose us seems not only reasonable, but medically accepted fact. We inherit all manner of attributes and propensities from our genetic pool—most directly, our immediate ancestors, that is not a scientific leap of faith. But suggesting that our genes are equally responsible for our personalities—even our deepest desires and voting predilections takes us far beyond settled science.

Being neither a theologian, psychologist nor geneticist, I cannot take up this subject from an informed perspective, but I do have a few questions, as I suspect some readers may. First, I would like to invite those among you who are legal scholars to weigh in on the question of personal accountability. Are we likely to see a “my genes made me do it” defense making its way into our courts anytime soon? Are liberals and conservatives (the code words we use to describe members of a political worldview that differs from our own) descendants of entirely different gene pools? Are we likely to see claims of genetic superiority and inferiority arise? Is obsessive, compulsive disorder a disease, or an annoying habit? And finally, do we choose our mates for their looks, brains, or because we are suffering from some exotic infection?

Ok, I have had my fun with this but there is a serious point to my attempts at levity. If human life is nothing more than a glob of genetic material, and our self is nothing more than the happenstance of mendelian iteration how then do we explain the will? By that I mean, how do we account for humans behaving in such contradictory ways—ways which are at odds with everything we know about species survival? To what theory do we turn to explain self-sacrifice? Why do humans understand the concept of right and wrong-even and especially when we do not always do what is right? From what gene does compassion arise?

While I am intrigued by this attempt to understand the reasons for human kind’s often contradictory and not infrequently self-destructive behavior I am not on board with the genetic explanation—at least not until some of my questions, humorous and otherwise have legitimate answers. Until then I am on the side of free will. We get to choose how we will approach the world. We are responsible for our choices, and accountable to each other for our actions. We are imperfect, striving, and sadly inclined to look toward each other for answers rather than to our higher selves. In short, we are a product of our will for better or worse, that is our sufficiency.

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