Pinker’s Personal Genomics

13 01 2009

I wonder what gene is responsible for Steven Pinker’s unquestionable gift for written communication? While he doesn’t mention it specifically in his lengthy piece on personal genomics in the New York Times, he does an impressive job of deconstructing his genome as revealed to him by the likes of personal genomics companies, Counsyl and 23andme.

New York Times

Source: New York Times

Well worth a read. Although it does stretch to eight pages, so take some sandwiches and make a day of it. Or a lunchtime, at least.

One thing he mentions that I think deserves to be highlighted is the puzzle of genetic diversity: why aren’t humans all alike? Why hasn’t evolution stumbled upon the ‘ideal’ genome and spread that amongst all humans?

I think the answer to these questions could also reveal some deep insights into our startling moral diversity. Pinker touches on this notion:

The psychologists Lars Penke, Jaap Denissen and Geoffrey Miller argue that personality differences arise from this process of balancing selection. Selfish people prosper in a world of nice guys, until they become so common that they start to swindle one another, whereupon nice guys who cooperate get the upper hand, until there are enough of them for the swindlers to exploit, and so on. The same balancing act can favor rebels in a world of conformists and vice-versa, or doves in a world of hawks.

This is a nice synopsis for a theory I’m developing called Moral Diversity. It’s essentially the thesis that there is no one perfect moral system that will lend a strong enough selective advantage to out-compete other moral systems. As a result, we have evolved a diverse range of moral intuitions that yield an equally diverse range of moral responses, and together these enable us to respond to a wide range of environments.

However broad streams come to the surface: egalitarianism (i.e. liberals, communitarians, anti-authoritarians, counter-dominance etc) and authoritarianism (i.e. conservatives, loyal patriots, dominance etc). So it’s no accident we have liberals and conservatives in every (functioning) democracy around the world. And it’s also not surprising that both sides can’t even comprehend the other – it’s not only their interpretation of the facts over which they differ, but their very moral intuitions. And there very genes.

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