May 3rd, 2020

The importance of understanding yourself

At this point, I am confident that I can definitively answer what is supposed to be one of the great questions of humanity: "Nature or nurture?" To be fair, this question has already been answered thousands of years ago, but people still ask it as if it were up for debate, so let's try to establish an answer. I must warn you in advance, however, that the answer will probably not be entirely satisfactory.

The reason why the answer will probably be disappointing is because the real question is what makes human beings the way they are, and that's a question which we still can't answer. "Nature or nurture" is a false dichotomy: People ask "Are human beings born the way they are, or do they become the way they are through experiences and influences they have while growing up?", and the answer is very clearly both: Human beings are the product of nature and nurture. However, if I had to pick one of these which is more important, I'd probably pick nature, because as I've observed before, human beings seem to have a "default" pattern of behavior built into them, and while they can deliberately deviate from this behavior, they tend to reliably return to it when they are not forcing themselves to behave a certain way.

To this, it must be added that the role of DNA in human nature has been overestimated since the role of DNA in genetics was discovered in the 20th century. There has been a widespread assumption that people's behavior is programmed into them through DNA, and that you can change a person's behavior if you change their DNA. This idea has always been somewhat questionable because people with similar DNA (such as siblings) often have wildly different personalities from each other, and in our age of cloning, this idea has been further disproven by cloned animals: Animals which are cloned from each other are still different in terms of both appearance and personality. For example, the cat who was named simply "CC" (which variously stood for either "Carbon Copy" or "Copy Cat") was the first cloned cat, but she ended up both looking and acting differently from other cats in her family despite having related DNA, because a cat's coat pattern and behavior are not only determined genetically, they are also formed during gestation.

Indeed, animals have personalities just as human beings do, and even within one litter of kittens or puppies, cats and dogs display marked differences between each other: Some are more aggressive while others are more gentle, some are more solitary while others are more social. The same is true in humans: Even in families where siblings are born to the same parents and grow up in the same household, very different patterns in terms of behavior, preferences, and lifestyles often emerge. This proves that neither DNA nor environment are definitive in how a human being turns out.

It's worth mentioning that even identical twins have different DNA from each other: Despite having the same parents and a very similar genotype, mutations in DNA can and do occur, and this happens naturally as a fetus is growing, which partly accounts for genetic variation in the world. This is why nature creates diverse and sometimes bizarre life forms, such as "hyperthermophiles", life forms which can survive at extremely high temperatures, including bacteria which thrive in temperatures well in excess of 100 degrees Celsius, such as "Strain 121" (Geogemma barossii), so named because it can reproduce in temperatures of 121 degrees Celsius, which is significant because that is the temperature in which medical equipment is sterilized. Although such life forms could theoretically be engineered in a genetics laboratory, they occur spontaneously in nature because of how quickly genetic mutations and variations occur in the natural process of biological reproduction. This is how Darwinian natural selection works: Nature produces a wide variety of mutants, and the ones which are not suited to their environment die out quickly. A similar concept is employed in the "neural network" mode of artificial intelligence, in which a computer learns by trying algorithmically exponential behavior trees and "learning" from which paths of behavior work the best.

So identical twins have nearly-identical genotypes (the actual DNA sequences which they develop with), but their DNA can still end up being significantly different from each other due to epigenetics, which is the process whereby genes form without making actual changes in the DNA sequence. This is why I say that the answer to the question "Nature or nurture?" is not entirely satisfactory: We know that human beings are formed through both nature and nurture, but the "nature" part of this dichotomy, the question of "who you are" fundamentally, is not something which we still fully understand; we do not know through what process living things develop into what they are, because DNA is not the whole story. To be sure, DNA is significant: Many types of physical and mental conditions have been shown to be hereditary, but there are also many which do not seem to be.

As I've observed in previous writings, mothers often know the personality of their children before those children are born. Mothers who had several children often observed that one particular child was more active than the others, kicking in the womb noticeably more than the others did, and these babies who are more "active" or "aggressive" in the womb often remain that way in marked contrast to their siblings throughout their lives. Once people are born, this pattern of behavior continues. This is why I say that nature is more important than nurture, why biological makeup is more important than environment: We still don't know why or how people develop the way they do, but it's clear that by the time they are born, they have already developed a personality which has been imprinted on them during gestation, and after they come out, this pattern of behavior cannot be changed anymore. It can be influenced, but it cannot be changed. People who have "addictive personalities" in which they readily become addicted to alcohol or drugs can force themselves to abstain from their addictions through the use of conscious self-control, but if these people do not deliberately force themselves to avoid their addictions, they will readily lapse back into addictive behavior, and this behavior is a lifelong thing, imprinted on the person's biology; it can be overcome through willpower, but it cannot be eliminated from the body.

All of this illustrates the importance of understanding yourself. Children growing up in school are natural copycats, trying to imitate the patterns of behavior they see in other people, because this is how human society develops: A society forms out of a group of people who live, behave, and speak the way society expects them to live, behave, and speak. But most people have habits, preferences, desires, tastes, or ideas which are not "typical" and which do not fit into society's standard of what a person "should" be like. Sometimes these personality traits are very obvious even in childhood: Some children exhibit a special affinity for a particular type of music, activity, or subject which is not "typical" for children of their age or culture, and when this happens, those children often grow up into adults who retain that interest throughout their entire lives.

But many times, personality traits remain hidden, even to ourselves, and we do not know how we will react in certain situations or circumstances. Often people say things like "I would never X", and then find themselves doing X in exceptional circumstances. A lot of human activity is devoted to making life stable and predictable, and while it is all very well and good to try to make life this way, it does mean that people sometimes do not recognize how they would behave in different life circumstances. Even very patient people have a point at which they lose their temper, and if they have never been put under tremendous amounts of pressure in their lives, they may not understand how they react to high-pressure situations; many people are calm and friendly under normal circumstances but lose their temper quickly if they are stressed or confused. Many people find themselves doing things they could never have imagined themselves doing as soon as their life circumstances change. People are more flexible than they tend to think they are; under certain circumstances, most people are willing to do almost anything. And yet for all that flexibility, when constraints are removed, they still tend to revert back and settle into their "built-in" lifestyle and pattern of behavior.

This is why children, ideally, should go through a wide variety of experiences when they grow up: The task of knowing oneself is not a simple one, and if your life experiences have been limited, you tend to believe things about yourself which are not true, because you've never been in circumstances that would cause you to behave differently. Only by putting yourself outside of your comfort zone, forcing yourself into situations that clash with your usual or "normal" life, can you learn how you would react spontaneously and unpredictably, and discover aspects of your personality which you would otherwise never have discovered.

To take myself as an example, I've always had a strong affinity for computers, and as a child, I tended to think of myself as a "scientist", because there is a popular "art vs. science" divide that people arbitrarily separate themselves into. It was only later in life, when I had already become an adult, that I came to understand that art is important to me as well, but not so much "art" in the usual sense of visual art, but something more abstract, something more like the appreciation of subtlety, balance, timing, and empathy which are the emotional heart of art. To be sure, visual art is important to me as well, but it's not a special passion of mine; philosophy, literature, and something which might simply be described as the ability to understand human nature (words like "psychology" or "empathy" come close, perhaps) are closer to things that I am especially passionate about, but I certainly did not recognize this in myself as a child. As a kid, I just thought of myself as a computer kid, and I thought that was all I'd ever be. Then too, when I was younger, I always thought that I was a loner, introverted, socially awkward, not good at being around other people. It was only much later in life that I came to understand that good company is actually very important to me, but it has to be with people who share my interests and values; I don't get along with most people, and it's so rare to meet people who are similar to be in terms of personality, tastes, lifestyle, and values that I did not even realize, at first, that human company might be important to me, but once I'd met someone who was able to understand me on some level, I realized that it's important to me to be with people who understand me, and whom I can also understand. That was something surprising to me; I'd never realized that about myself before, because I'd never had any life experiences which led me to that understanding.

Don't assume anything about anyone, including yourself. Assumptions have a way of turning out to be wrong. Don't think that anything is set in stone; it isn't. Don't think that something can never happen; it can. Don't think that you would never do something; you would. Don't think that you understand yourself; you don't.