The Biology of Behavior


Dr. Williams is professor of chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin and consultant to the Clayton Foundation’s Biochemical Institute. His latest book, The Environmental Prevention of Disease (Pitman Publishing), will appear in April. This article is reprinted by permission from Saturday Review, January 30, 1971. Copyright 1971, Saturday Review, Inc.

The prevalence of student rebellions throughout the world makes one wonder just how effectively modern education relates to real human problems. To approach the problems of generic man from a biological standpoint may be far too superficial in this scientific age with its tremendous advances in technology; yet, could not the general weakness of human science be the basis for the comment by Robert Frost: "Poets like Shakespeare knew more about psychiatry than any $25-an-hour man"? Biologically, each member of the human family possesses inborn differences based on his brain structure and on his vast mosaic of endocrine glands—in fact, on every aspect of his physical being. Each of us has a distinctive set of drives—for physical activity, for food, for sexual expression, for power. Each one has his own mind qualities: abilities, ways of thinking, and patterns of mental conditions. Each one has his own emotional setup and his leanings toward music and art in its various forms, including literature. All these leanings are subject to change and development, but there is certainly no mass movement toward uniformity. No one ever "recovers" from the fact that he was born an individual.

When a husband and wife disagree on the temperature of the soup or on the amount of bed coverings, or if their sleep patterns do not jibe, this is evidence of in-born differences in physiology. If one child loves to read or is interested in science and another has strong likings for sports or for art, this is probably due to inborn differences in makeup. If two people disagree about food or drink, they should not disregard the fact that taste and smell reactions often widely differ and are inherited. If we see a person wearing loud clothing without apparent taste, we need to remember, in line with the investigations of Pickford in England, that each individual has a color vision all his own; some may deviate markedly from the pack.

The inborn leanings of Mozart were evident by age three, and he began composing when he was four. Capablanca was already a good chess player—good enough to beat his father—when at age five he played his first game. For many centuries, Indian philosophers have recognized innate individuality, which they explain on the basis of experience in previous incarnations.

Inborn Individuality

Biology has always recognized inborn individuality. If this inborn distinctiveness had not always been the rule in biology, evolution could never have happened. It is a commonplace fact in biology that every living organism needs a heredity and a suitable environment. Unfortunately, in the minds of most intellectuals biological considerations have been pushed aside.

Professor Jerry Hirsch, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, has protested in Science that "the opinion makers of two generations have literally excommuni-cated heredity from the behavioral sciences." This neglect of the study of heredity has effectively produced a wide gap between biology and psychology. Biology deals with living things, and psychology is logically an important phase of biology.

Bernard Rimland, director of the Institute for Child Behavior Research in San Diego, in reviewing my book, You Are Extraordinary in American Psychologist, wrote: "Since between-group differences are commonly a small fraction of the enormous, important, and very interesting within-group (individual) difference, psychology’s focus on average values for heterogenous groups represents, as Williams indicates, a chronic case of throwing out the babies with the bath water. ‘Throwing out the babies’ is bad enough, but we psychologists have the dubious distinction of making this error not only repeatedly but on purpose."

Social solidarity exists and social problems are pressing, but we cannot hope to deal with these successfully by considering only generic man, that is, average values for heterogenous groups. We need a better understanding of men.

A Firm Foundation

The basic problem of generic man is how to achieve "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The writers of our Declaration of Independence were on solid ground, biologically speaking, when they took the position that each human being has inalienable rights and that no one has, by virtue of his imagined "royal blood," the right to rule over another. In their emphasis on mankind as individuals, Jefferson and his co-authors were closer to biological reality than are those of our time who divorce psychology from biology and center their attention on that statistical artifact, the average man.

Because each of us is distinctive, we lean in different directions in achieving life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Happiness may come to individual people in vastly different ways, and so the human problem of achieving life and the pursuit of happiness resolves itself, more than it is comfortable to admit, into a series of highly individual human problems. We need to take this consideration into account in attempting to build an advanced society.

In understanding the scope of human desires, it is worthwhile to consider briefly the problems that real—as opposed to theoretical—people face. These may be grouped under four headings:

1) Making a livelihood;

2) Maintaining health;

3) Getting along with others; and

4) Getting along with one’s self.

These four categories, singly or in combination, cover most of the familiar human problems—marriage and divorce, crime, disease, war, housing, air and water pollution, urban congestion, race relations, poverty, the population explosion, the all-pervading problem of education, and the building of an abundant life.

Making a Livelihood

The importance of approaching the problem of making a livelihood from the individual’s standpoint lies in the fact that in our complex society a multitude of ways exist—an estimated 23,000—in which people can make a living. People are not by any means interchangeable parts in society. While some might function well in any one of a large number of capacities, many others might be highly restricted in their capabilities and yet be extremely valuable members of society. The idea that it is all a matter of education and training cannot possibly be squared with the hard biological facts of inborn individuality. This perversion of education perpetuates the banishment of heredity—an ever present biological fact—from our thinking. Fitting together people and jobs is just as real and compelling as fitting shoes to people. People sometimes suffer from ill-fitting shoes; they suffer more often from ill-fitting jobs.

The maintenance of health—both physical and mental—involves individual problems to such a degree that it is difficult to exaggerate their role. Ever since the days of Hippocrates it has been known in a vague way that "different sorts of people have different maladies," but we are only beginning to learn how to sort people on the basis of their inborn individual characteristics. When we have become expert in this area, vast progress will result, particularly in the prevention of metabolic and psychosomatic diseases, i.e., those not resulting from infection. As long as we dodge the biological fact of inborn individuality, we remain relatively impotent in the handling of diseases that arise from within individual constitutions.

The problem of getting along with others is a very broad one, in which individual problems are basic. If husbands and wives and members of the same family always get along well together, we would have some reason to be surprised when squabbles break out within business, religious, or political groups. If all these kinds of squabbles were nonexistent, we would have a basis for being surprised at the phenomenon of war.

Distinctive Qualities

While self-interest and differences in training are vital factors in these common conflicts, another factor should not be overlooked: the inborn individuality of the participants. There is a mass of evidence to support the thesis that every individual, by virtue of his or her unique brain structure and peripheral nervous system, is psy-chologically conditionable in a distinctive manner. Thus, a person’s unique nervous system picks up distinctive sets of impulses, and because his interpretive apparatus is also unique he learns different things and interprets the world in a distinctive manner. Even if two individuals were to have exactly the same learning opportunities, each would think differently and not quite like anyone else. This is the basis for the observation by Santayana: "Friendship is almost always the union of a part of one mind with another; people are friends in spots."

In spite of our attempts to do so, individual minds cannot be compared on a quantitative basis. The minds of Shakespeare and Einstein cannot be weighed one against the other; there were many facets to the minds of each. At birth the two minds were equally blank, but as they matured, each saw, perceived, and paid attention to different aspects of the world around it. Each was conditionable in a unique way.

Each Mind Unique

The recognition of the uniqueness of human minds is essential to human understanding. By developing expertness in this area, psychology will eventually become far more valuable. In an advanced society with a growing population and closer associations, it is obviously essential that we learn better how to get along with each other. When we are unaware of the innate differences that reside within each of us, it becomes very easy to think of one who disagrees with us as a "nitwit" or a "jerk," or perhaps as belonging to the "lunatic fringe." When we appreciate the existence of innate differences, we are far more likely to be understanding and charitable. Strife will not be automatically eliminated, but tensions can be decreased immeasurably.

Individual problems are at the root of the problem of crime. Many years ago, James Devon placed his finger on the crucial point. "There is only one principle in penology that is worth any consideration: It is to find out why a man does wrong and make it not worth his while." The question, "Why does a particular man commit crime?" is a cogent one; the question, "Why does man turn to crime?" is relatively nonsensical.

Since all human beings are individual by nature, they do not tick in a uniform way nor for the same reasons. Broadly speaking, however, many doubtless turn to crime because society has not provided other outlets for their energies. If we could find a suitable job for every individual, the problem of crime would largely vanish. The problem of crime is thoroughly permeated with individual problems; it cannot be blamed solely on social conditions, because as the studies of Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck have shown, highly respected citizens may come from areas where these conditions are the worst.

A Race of Individuals

Racial relations would ease tremendously if we faced squarely the biological facts of individuality. If we were all educated to know that all whites are not the same, that all Negroes do not fit in the same pattern, that all Latins are not identical, that all American Indians are individuals, and that all Jews do not fit a stereotype, it would help us to treat every member of the human race as an individual.

It is no denial of the existence of racial problems to assert that individual problems need to be stressed more than they are. For individual Negroes and individual whites, the pursuit of happiness is by no means a uniform pursuit. Doubtless, although there are whites and Negroes who would think they had reached utopia if they had a decent shelter and were assured three meals a day, this would not satisfy millions of others for whom striving and a sense of accomplishment are paramount. "The Negro problem" or "the white problem"—depending on one’s point of view—is shot through with a host of individual problems.

Learning to live with one’s self is certainly an individual problem, and will be greatly eased by recognition of inborn individuality. Much unhappiness and many suicides can be traced to misguided desire to be something other than one’s self. Each of us as an individual has the problem of finding his way through life as best he can. Knowing one’s self as a distinctive individual should be an important goal of education; it will help pave the road each of us travels in his pursuit of happiness.

Dangers of Oversimplification

Why have these facts of individuality not been generally accepted as a backdrop in every consideration of human problems? For one thing, many people, including scholars, like being grandiose and self-inflationary. To make sweeping pronouncements about "man" sounds more impressive than to express more limited concerns. Simplicity, too, has attractiveness; if life could be made to fit a simple formula, this might be regarded as a happy outcome.

One excuse for excommunicating inheritance from the behavioral sciences for two generations has been the fact that inheritance in mammals is recognized by careful students as being exceedingly complex and difficult to interpret. It is true that some few characteristics may be inherited through the operation of single genes or a few recognizable ones. But other characteristics—those that differ in quantity—are considered to be inherited in obscure and indefinable ways com-monly ascribed to multiple genes of indefinite number and character. These multiple-gene characteristics include, to quote the geneticists Snyder and David, "the more deep-seated characters of a race, such as form, yield, intelligence, speed, fertility, strength, development of parts, and so on." To say that a particular characteristic is inherited through the mediation of multiple genes is to admit that we are largely ignorant of how this inheritance comes about.

Identical Twins?

Recently, some light has been thrown on this problem by experiments carried out in our laboratories. These experiments involved armadillos, which are unusual mammals in that they commonly produce litters of four monozygous ("identical") quadruplets that are necessarily all males or all females.

By making measurements and studying sixteen sets of these animals at birth, it became evident that although they develop from identical genes, they are not iden-tical at all. Organ weights may differ by as much as twofold, the free amino acids in the brain may vary fivefold, and certain hormone levels may vary as much as seven-, sixteen-, or even thirty-twofold. These findings clearly suggest that inheritance comes not by genes alone but by cytoplasmic factors that help govern the size of organs (including endocrine glands) and the cellular makeup of the central nervous system. "Identical" twins are not identical except with respect to the genes in the nucleus of the egg cell from which they developed.

One of the most interesting suggestions arising out of this study is the probability that individual brain structures, which have been known to have "enormous" differences since the investigations of Lashley more than twenty years ago, are made distinctive by the same mechanisms that make for differences in organ weights. The size, number, and distributions of neurons in normal brains vary greatly; this is biologically in line with the uniqueness of human minds. The further elucidation of this type of inheritance should help to focus more attention on heredity.

If this line of thought is valid it makes even more ridiculous the invitation issued by the Ford Foundation to the biological sciences to stay out of the precinct of human behavior. The expression "behavioral science" came into being many years ago as a result of the formulation of the Ford Foundation-supported programs. Biochemistry and genetics, for example, were kept apart from the "scientific activities designed to increase knowledge of factors which influence or determine human conduct."

What can be done to bridge the gap between psychology and biology? More importantly, how can we develop expertise in dealing with the human problems that plague us but at present go unsolved?

Differential Psychology

A broad, long-range, and practical strategy for learning how to deal more effectively with human problems is to explore, problem by problem, the inborn human characteristics that are pertinent to each one. Differential psychology, for example, needs to be intensified and greatly expanded; this can probably be done most effectively in connection with a series of problem-centered explorations.

Some of the specific problem-areas that require study from the standpoint of how inborn characteristics come into play are: delinquency and crime, alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployability, accident proneness, cancer, heart disease, arthritic disease, mental disease, and broadest of all, education. Each of these problems could be vastly better understood as the result of interdisciplinary study of the influences of inborn characteristics. Such study would include differential psychology when applicable, combined with extensive and intensive biochemical and physiological examinations, for example, of blood, saliva, urine, and biopsy materials. To expedite these investigations, automated equipment and computer techniques would be used extensively to help interpret the complex data.

It is not likely that these explorations will find that some individuals are born criminals, others alcoholics, etc. Once we recognize the unique leanings that are a part of each of us, we will see how, by adjusting the environment, these leanings can be turned toward ends that are socially constructive. Every inherited factor can be influenced by an appropriate adjustment of the environment. All this should not be made to sound too easy; it may be more difficult than going to the moon, but it will be far more worthwhile.

One of these specific problems—alcoholism—has been of special interest to me. After about twenty-five years of study, I am convinced that inborn biochemical characteristics are basic to this disease, but that expert application of knowledge about cellular nutrition (which is not far off) will make it scientifically possible to prevent the disease completely and to correct the condition if the application of corrective measures is not too long delayed.

Inborn inherited characteristics have a direct bearing on the current revolt against the Establishment. If biology had not been banished from behavioral science, and if students and other intellectuals were well aware of the biological roots of their existence, it would be taken for granted that conformity is not a rule of life.

Recognizing Our Differences Can Lead to Harmony

If all that we human beings inherit is our humanity, then we all should be reaching for the same uniform goal: becoming a thoroughly representative and respectable specimen of Homo sapiens. There is rebellion against this idea. Revolters want to do "their thing." The revolt takes on many forms because many unique individuals are involved.

If nonconformity had a better status in the eyes of the Establishment (and it would have if our thinking were more biologically oriented), exhibitionism would be diminished and the desire of each individual to live his own life could be fostered in a natural way.

Human beings are not carbon copies of one another. Students and others who are in revolt have found this out. Perhaps without fully recognizing it, they are pleading for a recognition of inborn individuality. This is essentially a legitimate plea, but it can take the form of disastrous anarchy. A peaceful means of helping resolve the ideological mess we are in is to recognize heredity by having a happy marriage of biology and behavioral science.

* * *

Postscript: Agreement to Disagree

A "UNITED STATES" was only possible if men could agree to disagree about a great many things.

What was expedient for them is, however, an essential of liberty. Theoretically, it might be desirable for all men to agree on everything, though I doubt it. Practically, such agreement would only be possible if all individual wills were crushed and subjected to a single will. The effort to do this is always in the direction of the well traveled road to despotism. The alternatives are agreement to disagree or despotism. - CLARENCE B. CARSON, The American Tradition


April 1971

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