Determinism and Responsibility.
In a very brief conversation with Nathaniel Comfort, an author on, among other things, genetics, I was inspired to write a bit about determinism and responsibility. The basic concept of genetic determinism as I understand it (spoiler alert: not well) is that the information coded in our genes is responsible for nearly everything about us. And because it’s coded at the cellular level, there’s not much we can do about it.
For example: my mother and my father both had blue eyes. I have blue eyes. There is nothing at all that I can do about this short of gouging my eyes out or buying colored contacts. I was born with blue eyes. I’ll die with blue eyes. And in between those events, I’ll live with blue eyes. Like it or not.
The problem is when people take this too far. Our bodies and our minds are remarkably plastic. We are designed to change in response to essentially every single stimulus we encounter in our lives. Our genes may determine how rapidly, significantly, or dramatically we change, but change we will. Our genes influence how we can change in addition to things that don’t.
I am an alcoholic. It seems uncontroversial at this point to say that there’s a significant genetic component to this. It runs on both sides of my family. My brain and my body behave differently in response to alcohol than do the brains and bodies of about 90-95% of humans. However, my genes do not govern how I choose to respond to my alcoholism. They can’t control my behavior. I may be an alcoholic. But I don’t have to drink.
Not drinking for more than seven years now has caused my brain and my body to change in significant, important ways. When I first stopped drinking, I had terrible cravings. I no longer do. I used to fantasize about drinking. I rarely do now. I used to suffer from major depression and engaged in self-harm. I no longer struggle with those. My blood pressure is lower. My cholesterol is normal. Stopping drinking has had incredible influence on the way my body and my brain function.
Similarly, I am genetically predisposed to obesity. It runs on both sides of my family. I was obese for more than a decade. And working not to be obese has been difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. But my genes – despite being hardwired for morbid obesity – do not have the final say in my body composition. I have the ability to affect it by how hard I work and how carefully I eat.
As a result of investing enormous amounts of time and effort, I am now only modestly overweight. But that’s what it takes for me. For me to be only modestly overweight, I need to run 20 miles a week, and walk 20 miles a week. I need to go to the gym. I need to eat less in the way of things I like to eat than I would like to eat. I need to spend more money on healthy foods that I would need to to eat less well.
In order to live my life the way I want to live my life, I need to put in enormous efforts that some other people don’t need to put in. People with a luckier draw at life’s genetic lottery don’t have to worry about addiction. They might have better metabolisms and not have to fret about diabetes and obesity. But that’s the hand I was dealt, and eventually, I learned to play it.
Genetic determinism is seductive. It would be easy and pleasant to simply say: “I don’t have the genes to be fit. I give up.” It would be easy and compelling to say, “I am an alcoholic. I drink until I die. It’s in my genes.”
But my body is plastic even if my genes are not. My body responds, as it is made to, to running and to sobriety and to proper nutrition. It may not respond as rapidly as others, or as completely, or as robustly. But it does respond. Slowly. Surely. Eventually. The more effort I put in, the more I get the result I desire. And my desire is the key.
If I want to have the life I envision for myself, a life of sobriety and fitness and reasonable comfort, then certain kinds of effort are non-optional. I have to run. I have to abstain from alcohol. I have to work. The fact that some other people seem to get these things without having to put in the effort I have to put in is immaterial to me. Sometimes it doesn’t feel fair that my friend Chicago Joe is 6’2″ and 160 lbs no matter what he eats or how little he exercises. That’s just the genetic draw he got. But it means nothing at all to my life.
My genetics make it harder to attain my goals. They make it impossible for me to indulge in some things. But they don’t control my life. Genetic determinism is seductive because it tempts me to see my challenges as entirely out of my control, and therefore I don’t have to put in any effort to overcome them. Well, sure. I can’t change my genes. But I sure as hell can change my fitness, and my alcohol intake. And I believe that that is true for most people.
Some things are immutable. But most things in life respond to effort and time. My genes require more effort from me than others’ do of them. So what. Comparing myself to other people – who are exerting their own efforts I might not see – is a useless game. I compare myself today to the self I want to be tomorrow. And then I do what I can do today to become that.