Back in the United States, my crossword-loving friend was onto a new game, and she sent a link so I could have a go. The game was Wordle, and I played then and there, becoming immediately hooked. Then my friend’s twin sister started playing, and suddenly we three had a new thing going, and we tuned in every day to share our scores and comment on the day’s word, making a game out of talking in code to avoid revealing anything to whoever hadn’t played yet. We sometimes spiced our comments with hidden hints. We three hadn’t had such constant contact since the early days of the pandemic, when we’d taken turns sending two-minute videos on some activity, often the highlight of our day: making soup, gardening, walking the dogs, providing an elaborate Easter breakfast for the kids sent home from college. That interaction was also long distance, with the sisters both in Colorado and me here in Spain. Cooking, walking dogs, cutting firewood? A drawing project, an article read aloud? Could that really be the stuff of our adventures? As girls we’d played hide-and-seek on horseback, returning scratched from the scrub oak. We went swimming in the stock pond, emerging muddy and with leaves in our hair. More fun and laughter than I have on a daily basis these days, even with Wordle. Ah, the past and its adventures!
But those days of youth really don’t look so different from our present lives. Instead of Wordle, it was Knowledge Bowl tests, and instead of meeting on our phones, we met in my bedroom and sat on the avocado-colored carpet. Sometimes we hung out by the railroad bridge or on the lawn in front of the public library, where we played cards. We snuggled into the corner of their living room, behind the wood stove. What we were doing was not adventure; adventure lay ahead of us. I’m two years older than these friends, and so I was the first to get a driver’s license, get a boyfriend, and to go off to college. Two years was a lot. I was in the lead, blazing the trail that, gazing back from the present, looks like one of a million weedy tracks. And what were they doing? Scurrying to keep up? Choking on my dust? Watching me wipe out and learning from my mistakes?
According to new genetic psychology, none of the above. Their paths, though interwoven with mine, were completely independent. Like the old genetic determinism, this new field suggests personal outcomes are inherent rather than achieved through diligence, but with a difference. With genetic determinism, the reasoning seemed to be that if it wasn’t environment, it had to be genetic. This was true for populations or, as shown by twins studies, for individuals. Now, however, researchers don’t have to arrive at genetic causes by ruling out environment, but can study the genome directly, where they have found markers that correlate with nearly everything you might note about a person’s life. Markers for such life outcomes as education or incarceration as well as for character traits like shyness or recklessness. For reproducing. For everything. A marker for intelligence, for divorce, for blinking your eyes before answering a particularly perplexing question. This is astonishing indeed for people who think they are in charge of their own lives, and in the ranks of behaviorists, a hullabaloo has arisen, and experts have taken sides as to the eventual importance of this research. These experts do seem to agree, however, that despite all the recent work and advances, it’s very soon to say if the new data will establish that we are less products of environments than of our genes, settling the nurture or nature question, or whether it won’t, and the correlations will instead prove to be only that: correlations.
What I wonder about, though, are not those seemingly chance experiences that we once called fate, but their effects. So while a marker might correlate to getting mugged, what of the lesson you take from the experience? Is that nature or nurture?
In “El Rey,” by the Mexican songwriter José Alfredo Jiménez, the singer gets his principal lessons from a stone in his path that taught him to roll along and from a muleteer who showed him that arriving first doesn’t matter, as long as you arrive. With these two lessons, he manages his life as he pleases. He’s a cocky fellow. “I’m the king!” he crows. Money is usually the great enabler, but not for el Rey. “With money or without,” he brags, “I do as I want.” Will people one day feel the need to say the same of genetic markers, and that with or without, they are who they choose to be? In “My Way,” another tribute to individualism, the singer also insists that he is alone and independent, no matter the blows of fate. That’s the question: Are we our own people? Do we do things our way? Are we kings or are we slaves to our destinies? Do markers accompany our choices or cause them?
To do things your way or act as you want, you must first have that way or that want. I don’t find that so easy. Perhaps instead of the marker for quickly perceiving one’s own desires I have instead the one for stumbling through life, learning by trial and error, one guess after another as to one’s wants, with constant revision. In Wordle, you get six tries to guess the word. Perhaps what is true of the game is true for life: a limited number of tries to get the answer. But perhaps, rather than how many tries one gets to know oneself, the interesting question is how many tries humanity gets to understand the world. And how many have been used, and what the consequences are of not getting it right. In Wordle, you get to start all over the next day. That’s the adventure. An optimist might say the same of the world, and a selfish optimist might insist that the best thing about the world is that we’re doing it our way. Markers be damned. But where’s the satisfaction in being king of your own dump, or of acting freely if it brings about such a state of the world? If, instead, it’s in the markers, then at least there’s no one to blame. And, because it’s our way, certainly not ourselves.
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