From the shackles of feudalism to the corruption of the Catholic Church during the 16th century, human history can be seen as a succession of rebellions against unnecessary and repressive systems that benefit those in power at the expense of the ordinary individual. At Yale, where many students aspire to positions of political power and gravitas, it is apparent that there is some value in predicting what this next coup will be, if for no other reason than ending up on the sunny side up of history.
As we watch the current geopolitical crises around the world unfold, from dusty street corners in Najaf to palaces in Tehran, it makes sense to think of the common denominator in all these conflicts that invariably escapes popular attention. Without a doubt, a global conspiracy is afoot, and — until humanity breaks free — enduring progress without some sort of cataclysmic failure is impossible.
That said, the group of conspirators is extremely small, numbering only four. They are immortal, ubiquitous and decidedly non-Jewish. They are nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA.
It may seem like a revolutionary concept in political science, but humans are primates, and an enormous body of evidence suggests they have been produced by natural selection and, therefore, have built-in psychological mechanisms designed to maximize gene transmission to future generations. Without a doubt, this is the primary purpose of human life. Most of us aspire to have happy families and, without consciously realizing it, are slaves to adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine.
On an impersonal level, this fact animates global instability as well; humans are genetically predisposed to propagate their genes at any cost: We will kill, believe ridiculous things and fight wars because these behaviors had reproductive benefits for our forebears in the Pleistocene.
Until we recognize that this idea — which has been so instrumental in elucidating the behavior of all other organisms — is applicable to humans and constitutes our greatest obstacle to progress, we will be stuck in a perpetual cycle of slavery to deoxyribonucleic acid’s propensity to replicate.
Unfortunately, our current leaders seem to think that we were put on earth to suffer, descend into decrepitude and die for the glory of some wonderful deity, who — according to a recent study of prayer and patient outcomes at Duke University — appears not to intervene in human affairs. This is a pity, because we could use the help. Homo sapiens, as you know, is engaged in an interminable scramble for wealth and the concomitant social status, and, sadly, it is a zero-sum game. Studies of wealth and human happiness have shown that net worth is not the relevant factor: What matters is how well we are doing relative to our peers. Unless we are at the top of our respective social pyramids, or are blessed with a mutation that leads us to secrete large quantities of happiness-inducing neurotransmitters, we will be sad.
In the last analysis, we are left with two choices: capitulate to the urges of our selfish genes and try to get to the top, or fight back against the DNA that leads us and to the overwhelmingly average misery that besets the world as we know it.
When I was a boy at St. Mary’s Academy, the nuns sponsored a program put on by the police department called DARE: Drug Awareness and Resistance Education. Of course it never worked, because drugs that release dopamine — one of the primary pleasure-regulating neurotransmitters — into the nucleus accumbens are fun. But this does not necessarily invalidate another kind of DARE: Deoxyribonucleic Acid Resistance Education, which could inform students of the biological facts and impulses associated with their existence, and hopefully help them to realize that all feelings proceed from the hypothalamic-limbic system and are engineered to facilitate reproduction. At least this information takes some of the pain out of living.
More importantly, however, such a program could be used to emphasize some of the positive aspects of human nature. Neuroscientists recently discovered that when humans cooperate, pleasure pathways in the brain are activated. Altruistic acts like community service can probably do something similar, and the potential of this phenomenon to promote common welfare and individual happiness has not yet been exploited.
In the end, DNA is the ultimate conspirator and destructive force in life, but it is also the reason we are alive. Just the same, we have the capacity to recognize this fact and intervene in coming generations — whether through pharmacological or genetic interventions — to accomplish the noble goal that animates so many Yalies: making the world a more habitable place.
Matthew Gillum is a first-year graduate student in molecular and cellular physiology. His column appears on alternate Fridays.