Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

Reflections on 2010: humans as biological machines and “love” (whatever!)

For most people, the new year is a time to look forward and think about how they will change their behavior in the coming year.  I certainly have goals for my own future – but I tend far more towards reflection than anything else.  So here, instead, I’ll present something that I’ve learned in the past year.

It all started with a blog post, obviously.  In March, I wrote about invasive salamanders and, with a traditional view of invasive species replacing the human-defined idea of “nature,” I ended the post, rather naively, with the line, “How can we save our planet?”  I got in a comment argument with Matt Chew about conservation, nativeness, and evolution, and while I still believe much of what I argued, the line of thinking in that thread (including my own obtuseness) set off a chain reaction that altered the way I viewed the world.

From then on, much of the focus of my mind has centered around the place of humans in the natural world.  I started shifting my view from a standard anthropocentric view to one in which we are just animals, arguing with myself and friends about whether we really are special, if our consciousness really elevates us above nature, and the factors in society that makes us believe we are the pinnacle of evolution.

For a concrete example, I have since had many conversations with my philosopher queen bestie, Erinrose, about altruism and selfishness.  I argued that we are all inherently selfish – that we feel warm and fuzzy when we help someone else because a gene that makes us feel that way has been preserved.  And it would only be preserved if it helped individuals survive, passing the gene along the line.

But despite these arguments I make to myself, there is one kicker that always fails my logic: my little brother, Jonah.

Jonah has Fragile X syndrome, a genetic mutation that can cause autism.  Jonah himself is not autistic; my mom’s analogy is that he is the opposite of autistic.  While a common feature of autism is an inability to detect emotion or differentiate between faces, Jonah has the opposite problem.  The world around him is so overwhelming that he cannot help but cower in the presence of most types of stimulation.  When he is excited about something, such as when we were riding the trolley around Memphis yesterday, he makes a lot of non-lingual noise as if to block out some of the stimulation and excitement from his joy of the ride.  The overstimulation spreads to his limbs, flapping and flopping as if he cannot hold all the energy inside of him but has to do something with it.  Let’s just say he draws a lot of attention to himself because he is so overwhelmed with emotion.

Jonah on the Memphis trolley. That little grin is actually emitting "eeeeeeeeeee," with his mouth clenched in an attempt to hold it in

The night before the trip, my family sat down to watch some old home movies that my dad had transferred to DVD.  (Most of the memories had, unfortunately, been taped over by my middle school-aged brother and his friends recording their slumber parties.  THANKS A TON, JACOB!)  Part of the film we saw was of three-year old Jonah working with his speech therapist.  He could not pronounce vowels at this point, but, working as hard as he could, would spit out the first consonant of a word, causing the therapist to erupt in applause.  This was after his teachers at school told us that he would never talk.  Now you can’t shut him up.

When my mom found out about his diagnosis, she wept because, as a book-lover with a PhD in english literature, she could not bear the thought that he would never find joy in reading.  But on our trip, he could not stop reading.  We went on a hike in old growth forest in Mississippi.  While he usually is strictly the leader on hikes, he was lagging hundreds of feet behind us, nose buried in a book, unable to keep up because he was so absorbed.

Slowpoking around in the Mississippi woods

Here he is, evolutionarily some useless runt who cannot take care of himself, who takes up far more resources than a normal person, for whom we were told life would be non-verbal and institutionalized.  In nature red in tooth and claw, he would be dead, with the 3 of us other siblings competing successfully for his resources and not worth the parental investment of my darling progenitors.  But look at him now!  I think he’s even smarter than we suspect.  He makes friends wherever he goes.  Sure, he still can’t tell a joke for his life, but our human society has allowed for him to survive and grow despite his relative incompetence.

I care about him more than anyone or anything in the world.  If you know me, you know this to be pure fact.  When I was fuming in the backseat of my parents’ van yesterday because the airline had lost my luggage, I watched him engaging my family about the trip and I started crying just to behold him.  I would do absolutely anything for him.  The worst thing you could do to me is to take him from me.  (Oh lordy, I’m crying again.)

This fact makes zero sense biologically.  Sure, he has half of my genes so I have an investment in his survival.  But, let’s face it – he’s unlikely to ever pass those genes on.  Nonetheless, I would give up 100% of my own genetic heritage to allow his 50% to dead end.

Surely this feeling – this “love” or whatever – has evolved to cause me to protect those close to me who, in turn, help me survive, whether they be family, friends, or potential caretakers of my potential children.  Maybe I feel so strongly because, while he is my brother, I also feel like he is my son in many ways.  I’m eight years older than  him, but emotionally and developmentally the gap is much wider.  So maybe I have double the chemical reactions going off when I look at him, part fraternal and part maternal.  Or maybe it’s just a mistake in the biological machinery that my knowledge and logic cannot penetrate.

Whatever the reason, he is the stymie in my thinking.  He is the puzzle piece that doesn’t fit into my newly-acquired worldview of people as inherently selfish machines.  We probably all have such a piece in our lives, something that escapes purely biological explanation or logic.

So this new year, think back on the people in your life that you care for, defying biological explanation.  At this point in my thinking, this is what makes us human.

And when Jonah will inevitably force the entire party to raise a toast to the new year as they gaze upon him with pure love, he’ll be toasting a bit to you.

Happy New Year.


PS: Don’t cry, Mom!!

UPDATE:  She cried.

"Waters never quit"

Written by Hanner

December 31, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Posted in My life, Reflection

9 Responses

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  1. Wonderful post, Hanner. Feliz año.


    January 1, 2011 at 12:07 am

    • You, Nicky, are the lucky recipient of a drunk 3am new years comment!!! DING DING DING it’s quite an honor. (see below)

      SEE YA

      Hannah Waters

      January 1, 2011 at 2:54 pm

  2. To you as well, my dearest.

    I hope to my deepest to see you again this year – a resolution , even. It means that much to me.



    January 1, 2011 at 3:02 am

  3. […] Reflections on 2010: humans as biological machines and “love” (whatever!) […]

  4. When he is excited about something, such as when we were riding the trolley around Memphis yesterday, he makes a lot of non-lingual noise as if to block out some of the stimulation and excitement from his joy of the ride. The overstimulation spreads to his limbs, flapping and flopping as if he cannot hold all the energy inside of him but has to do something with it.

    My actually-autistic younger brother does the exact same thing. Autistic kids are also very susceptible to overstimulation, usually due to social situations with lots of people. This was a touching post, thank you.


    January 1, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    • Thanks for reading! I’m glad to see your face back on the webz – we’ve missed ya!

      Hannah Waters

      January 2, 2011 at 11:43 am

  5. A wonderful blog post, Hannah. I really wish you and your family all the best in 2011!

    I have been thinking and reading a lot about the question that you raise (from Wallace, to Gould to Sagan). We have inherited much from our ancestors. Sure – this includes selfishness, but this is just one aspect of human nature. We have not only evolved the capacity to wage war, but also to love those people dear to us. Our evolved mind and consciousness make us aware of these instincts and allow us to reflect upon them. Our mind also allows us to transcend these ‘natural’ instincts – yet we remain bound by them. Maybe it is this conflict that makes us human.

    What I’m getting at is that love might be explainable in functional and evolutionary terms, but our minds have also transformed it into something tangible and important. The love you feel for your brother is real, after all. Your brother is so much more than an evolutionary dead end. If the interaction between our mind and instincts make it possible to love one another, I think this is all the more beautiful. And human.


    January 2, 2011 at 11:09 am

    • Lovely words from you, Lucas. It feels so sappy – omg humanity knows what LOoooOOoove gushy love is. I horrify even myself sometimes! (Just kidding)

      Best to you and your family as well!

      Hannah Waters

      January 2, 2011 at 11:56 am

  6. […] Reflections on 2010: humans as biological machines and “love” (whatever!) – A touching post by Hannah on how her love for her brother with Fragile X syndrome has affected how we as humans fit into her worldview. It was particularly poignant for me because her post mirrors a lot of my experiences growing up with an autistic brother. Even if you don’t have a special needs person in your life, it is a great read. […]

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