Wednesday, January 14

In my genes

During an interview, the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker blanked out on the question: Why are you the way you are?

The interviewer gives as example the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who dedicated his first book to his father who brought him to see the dinosaurs at age 5. Surely, something of the same magnitude happened to Pinker that's why he became interested in the human mind?

He coughed something out about growing up in Quebec in the 70s when there were heated debates about the state of the province. But it was all hokey. He acknowledges what all writers of autobiography and memoir have long recognized: “None of us know what made us what we are, and when we have to say something, we make up a good story.”

But he also makes a case for genetics, that we are shaped by our genes in a way we can never directly know: “they affect the wiring and workings of the brain, and the brain is the seat of our drives, temperaments and patterns of thought. Each of us is dealt a unique hand of tastes and aptitudes, like curiosity, ambition, empathy, a thirst for novelty or for security, a comfort level with the social or the mechanical or the abstract. Some opportunities we come across click with our constitutions and set us along a path in life."

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