Friday, August 23rd, 2002

Intellectual fashions and prejudices

Filed under: genes and the body — alison @ 19:09

Many of us will have noticed that the fashion in understanding people has passed from the “conditioning” that was already being contested in my college days to “inborn temperament” / genes / “that’s just the way I am.” This is a great relief to my mother, as it lets her off the hook for my deviations and weirdnesses and she is free to just sit back and enjoy the show without feeling guilty.

In the current context of gene-mapping we are fascinated by correlations between the physical and psychological, such as finger length and sexual orientation. If it’s in your bones, it can’t be in your upbringing.

I was jolted out of my complacency yesterday when I read the following article on headlined “Jealous types have different-sized feet” and read the researcher’s conclusion that asymmetrical people being unattractive, are possessive. Oh. You mean that physical asymmetry and romantic jealousy don’t have a single biological cause? That people’s feelings might actually have a meaning?

Musing over the implications of my mindless trendiness I started reading an article on the neurological antecedents of the ability to read [ dead link] with my usual pointless fascination with the workings of the human machine. And was brought up halfway with the thought: these researchers are studying aphasics who can’t read because they have had brain damage of some kind, probably mostly strokes. These are people who used to be able to read, who are surrounded by people who read.

But many people worldwide can’t read. 53% of African women and 33% of African men; 63% of South Asian women and 37% of South Asian men. [ dead link] They haven’t all had strokes. In the real world we live in, almost all of us have neurologically what it takes to read. What we don’t have are the social and political conditions. Put poignantly by a South African journalist: “It is a fact that a woman born in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped, than learning how to read.”

This isn’t anything that mapping the human genome is going to help us with.

So I’m happy to read about those peculiarly obsessed people measuring people’s ears and mapping differences in their size against scores on jealousy tools, and their very human interpretation of their results. The pendulum has started to swing back, and it seems like it’s about time.

[originally transmitted by e-mail August 23, 2002]

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