In My Flesh I See God: A Neurobiological Perspective on Being Human

Article excerpt

IS THE SEARCH FOR A CARING SOCIETY NAIVE AND MERELY UTOPIAN? THE ideological structures of contemporary Western society make this a complicated question to answer. The present economic crisis may have moved us in part past a devotion to "looking out for number one." It has not, however, strengthened our trust in empathy and mutuality as part of "human nature." We still tend to think of competition and aggression as innately human. America's dominant ideology still presents society as primarily a constraining force that assures "fairness" and "safety" in the unavoidable aggressive competition that is human social, politicai, and economic life.

Traditional Jewish thinking also sometimes imagines an "evil impulse" as necessary for the growth of society. This "impulse" (a code word for erotic narcissism) guarantees human reproduction and the development of economic and political institutions. However, it is also suggested that this very same impulse can and should be used for good. To understand this seeming paradox, we must remember that "eros" is the generative force that joins and unites people. Even in an explicitly competitive society, success in business, politics, and reproduction depends on effectively bringing people together. What is worth noting is that this very same impulse would work equally effectively in a society that defines itself as caring and mutually supportive.

The Jewish esoteric tradition- interpreting Job's "in my flesh I shall see God"suggests that we might look to the biological structures and processes of the human body for insight. Why not then turn to contemporary neurobiology? To be sure, neurobiological perspectives cannot claim primacy when tackling the fundamental anthropological question "What is human nature?" They can only add their piece to a mosaic to which numerous other disciplines also contribute, perhaps most prominently among them, philosophy. Nonetheless, although unwelcome, biology indeed pervades, sometimes quite unconsciously, the varied anthropological views found in contemporary culture. We need only think of the German, and for that matter American, reception of Charles Darwin's ideas that revolutionized flunking between 1880 and 1930: for example, Richard Weikart's .From Darwin to Hitler !Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, andRatism in Germany. Such fundamental anthropological convictions showed a tendency to become implicit- and thus predominantly unconscious- certainties in Western late capitalist ideology.

Selfish Genes or Communicative, Cooperative Genes?

MODERN SOCIOBIOLOGY SPURRED A FUNDAMENTAL REVIVAL OF THE CONVICTION THAT humanity is driven in its innermost by primary aggression. Akey representative of this trend is the book The Selfish Gene by the British zoologist Richard Dawkins. The book was very influential all over the world. The question then became : if our genes are already "selfish," then aren't all other human tendencies epiphenomena at best? This thinking is not merely pernicious-since these untenable and pseudoscientific sociobiological dogmas have actually become widespread conviction- but also dystopian.- This is ideology in the worst sense, that is, thought used only as a justification of the current dominant global economic system.

What do we really learn from current neurobiological research? During recent years the insight that genes are not "selfish," but rather are communicators and cooperators, has become ever clearer- in great part due to the complete sequencing of numerous genomes. Genes constantly change their activities in reaction to signals from the environment. What's more, signals that arrive during sensitive phases of an organism's development can leave a sort of biological "fingerprint" by exerting a long-lasting effect on the responsiveness of a gene, a phenomenon called "epigenetics." The fact that genes always depend on cooperative interactions with numerous other molecules to become activated, read, or duplicated is reason enough to call genes communicators. …

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