Monday, November 30, 2009

Richard Powers, Generosity (2009)

Two years ago, I read a wonderfully conceived novel by Richard Powers entitled The Echo Maker. Introducing his readers to some of the marvels of neuroscience and our current understanding of the human brain as revealed by what we learn from brain injuries, Powers weaves science and storytelling in a thoughtful way. My only criticism of the novel was that it was about 30 or 40 pages too long, which is not a criticism of lengthy novels but a reflection of Powers' style to discuss non-fiction science through fictional dialogue: as fascinating as the material may be, it is not always the stuff of real conversation. Powers has been criticized for perhaps writing too much, and not leaving enough to the reader to figure out what is going on. When his next novel came along, however, I jumped at the chance to read more from the creative mind of Richard Powers.

In Generosity - An Enhancement, Powers visits the mind-body problem of feelings --- in this case the feeling of euphoria --- and whether there is a genetic basis for happiness or bliss that the medical research community might be able to exploit and transform our humanness. To tell this story, Powers calls upon a literary tool that he employed in the The Echo Maker -- a scientist who is capable of talking to the public through popular media. In The Echo Maker, it was Dr. Gerald Weber, a character modeled after neurologist Oliver Sacks who writes popular books based on his own medical experiences, including the book Awakenings that later earned an Academy Award as a film. In Generosity, Powers brings us Dr. Thomas Kurton, who comfortably appears on popular science television programs to explain his latest research --- cynically, to stimulate the next round of venture capital that is needed to fund his continuing research program that has yet to develop anything practical --- and who comfortably appears on a Chicago-based Oprah-like talk show touting the potential of genomics to enhance our life. There are other parallels between the two novels as well: there is a "patient," who is worth our studying, and there are people who are genuinely concerned for the welfare of the "patient." These characters paint the humanist landscape that is cast beside the scientific data and medical mysteries looking to be explained and solved.

While both Generosity and The Echo Maker touch on topics that have been addressed in previous posts about the brain, the hot topic here is the idea that there might be a gene controlling complex behavior. Framing the issue, Powers fictionalizes about a Nobel laureate who writes in "a much reproduced Guardian op-ed: 'We must once and for all outgrow our obsolete ideas about heredity. Genes don't code for traits. They synthesize proteins. And single proteins can do incredibly different things, depending on where and when they're produced . . .We have no gambling gene, no intelligence gene, no gene for language or walking upright.'" Later, Powers explains, "A single gene defect can knock out a complex behavior. But that does not mean complex behaviors derive from a single gene. One bad allele can cause depression. But a few good ones don't necessarily cause bliss." It is the nature vs nurture debate, and Powers concludes that the scientific consensus, "if any, is vague. Most talking heads ...concede that people's bedrock emotional skills vary as greatly as their skills in math. For proof, witness the chaos of this public argument [about whether there is a gene for bliss]."

And that brings me to another recent effort in the popular media to pronounce the role of genes in programming human behavior: the suggestion in a recent New York Times article by Nicholas Wade that there is a "god gene" that has programmed humans to believe in a god. Wade describes "a propensity to learn the religion of one’s community [that] became so firmly implanted in the human neural circuitry" as though it is a fixed biological component of human DNA. Wade is not alone in this suggestion, even on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. At the heart of this discussion is whether evolution operates on genes as advanced by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, or whether it operates alternatively or equally upon an entire organism, or on groups such as kin or whole communities as advanced by the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson. Wade, to his credit, acknowledges this debate, but never seriously muzzles the popular impression that there may actually be a "god gene." Nor does Wade acknowledge more penetrating research, such as Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, which supports another explanation based on the human mind's adaptive embrace of animism and projection and that religion as commonly experienced across all human societies "is about the existence and causal powers of non-observable entities and agencies," what one commenter has called a "collection of fantasies about spirits." Not all of these spirits is capable of being called a "god."

About this most recent promotion of a genetic source for specific human behavior, Richard Powers could only say, "Witness the chaos of this public argument." As one letter to the editor that responded to Wade's polemic intoned:

"Many questions came to mind as I read “The Evolution of the God Gene.” What does it actually mean to postulate a god gene for religious belief? How does it work? What is the relationship between the organic gene and the human experience? Do we need one gene for a theist and another for an atheist, an agnostic or a polytheist?

"It is quite possible to accept evolution without resorting to an organic narrative to account for every specific human experience. Must there be a specific gene for playing poker or dancing the rumba? And if we believe in elves and witches, are corresponding genes required?"

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