The Knowledge in Our DNA

DNA is a vast library to tap in the quest for knowledge and wisdom. Human DNA contains the results of millions of experiments over millions of years on how to thrive – or at least how to survive. The results can help us understand our nature, our society, and what has worked in the past.

Encoded in DNA is the knowledge to create complex life from a single cell. It is astounding that our DNA contains the instructions to grow a physical human being and provide it with the basic capabilities to live successfully in a complex world with other humans.

DNA codes for human behavior and abilities. We accept that genes contribute significantly to physical attributes – skin color, height, eye color, sex, etc. But, just as important, DNA provides the basic instructions for our psychological nature – our personality, emotions, preferences, desires, and aptitudes. Extensive research supports the theory that our basic psychological nature is hard wired.

How innate nature is expressed in behavior depends upon environmental clues and context. Biology is not destiny. Our lives are the interaction between our nature and the outside world. For example, we don’t have to be taught to feel anger. It just happens. But it happens only under certain circumstances. Further, we can choose to control our anger or not. It is a complex interaction but there is little doubt that the nature we are born with is powerful.

Evolutionary biology and psychology provide plausible, even convincing, explanations for why humans have the nature we have, why that nature can vary among individuals, and why our nature is often expressed the way it is. The many facets of our nature exist because they contributed to reproductive success. People with them had more reproductive success than those without. Millions of genetic experiments were conducted. We are the result. There are important lessons here for living today.

The theory that human nature is basically biological and a result of evolution is compelling to me with a rapidly growing body of confirming research. It also has the advantage of being consistent with common sense. All we must do is look around to see the evidence. Anyone who has had children, or a puppy for that matter, knows they arrive with their own nature long before you have an opportunity to create or change it.

How is this knowledge helpful? Coming to grips with human nature is essential to developing a philosophy for living. It is important to know what you are working with. Assumptions about human nature affect life choices and guiding principles. Consider a philosophy of living which assumes humans come into the world as blank slates where their nature is created entirely by environment, upbringing, and rational thought. Contrast that with a philosophy which assumes basic human is innate, coded in DNA, and the result of evolution. What we would do to thrive differs markedly under each assumption.

We want to know more than simply we have a biological nature. It is useful to understand why we have that nature, how it functions, and what benefits it provides. Our nature is neither good nor bad. It is just what worked in the past. We must decide now whether it will work for us in today’s world and in what situations. There is no assurance that what worked in the past will work now. But we would be foolish to simply discard the many lessons learned from our evolution over millions of years. We need to understand our nature so we can and manage it.

For example, it is likely aggression and violence, key parts of our nature, are not as useful now as they were historically. Aggression and violence may have been necessary to protect our family and tribe against others in a resource scarce, hostile environment. But many now live in a resource rich, urban environment with the benefit of laws. Our aggressive tendencies may be counterproductive. They may need to be carefully controlled and reserved for special circumstances.

For another example, humans are a cooperative species. Empathy and a desire to cooperate with others is part of our nature. That may be even more valuable today where humans are so interconnected and dependent on each other. Perhaps we need to develop and enhance our cooperative tendencies.

There is much insight to be had by better understanding our biological nature and its functioning. That understanding and knowledge can help us determine what to do about our nature – what to control, what to ignore, and what to nurture.

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