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‘Main aisa kyon hoon’: Exploring the unique factor

Sudhirendar Sharma | Updated on July 21, 2021

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David J Linden investigates what makes us human and what makes us distinctly, immutably ourselves

* The American professor’s timely book puts to rest the tired and inaccurate nature versus nurture discourse

* Not all intricacies of human idiosyncrasy are coded in the genes, making humans more than the sum of all the genes they are born with

* Stinky armpit is heritable, but political beliefs aren’t gene dependent

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It is a question that has engaged mankind for a long time, and writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar merely encapsulated it in two lines when the protagonist in the film Lakshya asked — Main aisa kyun hoon, Main jaisa hoon main vaisa kyun hoon (Why am I like this, Why am I like I am). David J Linden, professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, attempts to answer this in his book Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality.

Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality / David J Linden / Basic Books, New York / Non-fiction / ₹ 2,131

 

Nature insists on individuality as a unique trait in order to harness the limitless potential of human ingenuity and endurance. But if randomness is an evolutionary reality, why should understanding the inevitability of human individuality be a matter of concern? But it matters; not only to know ourselves better, but to attain clarity on the concepts of gender, race and nation. Else, racist supremacists such as those in the US, and the Hindu nationalists in India, will continue to base policies of racial oppression on population genetics. It isn’t that racial categories don’t exist, but that such categories are not hereditary, and hence the need to refute racist, pseudoscientific arguments.

The American professor’s timely book puts to rest the tired and inaccurate nature versus nurture discourse. Combining recent research with credible experiments, Linden seeks to ascertain aspects of human individuality that lack genetic explanation. Not all intricacies of human idiosyncrasy are coded in the genes, making humans more than the sum of all the genes they are born with. Social experiences play a significant part — how one is raised, the diseases one has had, the foods eaten, and the anomalies encountered in the formative years, all contribute to shaping individuality.

The science around genetics may remain a little hard to follow, but the book offers great insights into a fascinating area of genetics and individuality. Stinky armpit is heritable, but political beliefs aren’t gene dependent. Curiously, your flavour of wine or cheese is not exactly the same as mine because the sense of smell and taste is driven by no less than 400 olfactory receptor genes which, while applying to all sensory systems, express differently in two random individuals. That is why, your green is not necessarily my green.

Exploring the world of dreams, memories and senses, Linden looks at everything that makes us distinctly ourselves: Height and weight, food preferences, personality styles, gender identity, racial bias, sexual orientation and intelligence. He finds that gene expression is exquisitely regulated, over both short and long term, to reflect in human individuality. Every experience worth whatever its weight plays a bigger role in making us who we are.

Written with authority and purpose, the narrative treads into an area over which scientific consensus is still at some distance. However, what Linden overtly achieves in conveying is that more than just genes, there are a wide range of influences that determine our individuality. And, it may eventually be an evolutionary necessity as individuality holds the key to our ability to live together. In this respect, there is no genetic evidence to suggest that racial group differences in genes are linked to any behavioural or cognitive trait. On the contrary, it is the very definition of non-scientific self-serving racial bigotry, asserts Linden.

Unique addresses questions about human individuality that can contribute to more informed discussion on a subject that often incites political passions. While racial discrimination is one of its crucial manifestations, the science of human individuality has also separated the political right from the left for over more than a century. Given this fraught backdrop, the book plays it straight in synthesising the current scientific consensus and provides the kind of clarity needed from popular science books, especially the one that investigate both what makes us human and what makes us distinctly, immutably ourselves.

Individual variations not only define us outwardly but inwardly too — the state of our mind and bodies. “Each of us operates from a different perception of the world and a different perception of ourselves,” says Linden. These individual variations get elaborated and magnified with time as we accumulate expectations and experiences. Ultimately, the author concludes: “Interacting forces of heredity, experience, plasticity, and development resonate to make us unique”. Well researched and compelling, Unique has the potential to change the way we think about why and how we are who we are. Linden tells the fascinating story of human individuality elegantly, and Unique should ideally provoke fruitful debate.

Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic

Published on July 21, 2021

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