Trying to understand what makes you unique is something that many of us struggle with, including several scientists and philosophers as far back as ancient Greece. 19th-century scientist, Francis Galton, coined the catchy phrase, ‘nature versus nurture’ and this has been at the centre of the vast majority of research in this area since then. However, more recently, a third variable has come into play, chance.
Scientifically Researching What Makes You Unique
Intelligence, introversion, resilience and self-control are just a few examples of what makes you unique and these have all been studied. After decades of research involving thousands of participants, there is a broad consensus that it is your genes that do most of the hard work, accounting for around 50% of the differences between individuals, which does vary slightly between traits. The impact of upbringing, however, is responsible for much less, with studies showing that it accounts for anywhere from 17% to 0%! This excludes intelligence, which is approximately 25% during childhood, dwindling to nothing in adulthood, possibly due to the results of pushy parenting fading. Another caveat is in cases of childhood abuse, which appears to have large and lasting effects.
From this, it is easy to see that what makes you unique must be more than just nature and nurture, when between 33%-50% of the story is unaccounted for. This is where chance comes in.
Why Has The Role Of Chance Been Ignored?
With 33%-50% of what makes you unique being unaccounted for, why has this not been at the centre of research?
One simple answer is that when researchers look at nature versus nurture, they subsume everything that is not genetic under the heading of environment. Another darker reason may be the dangers of eugenics. If researchers show that our behaviour is primarily determined by genetics, they can use this to argue that society’s ills are based on our genes and use this to marginalise specific groups of people.
It could also be the case that chance has been ignored as a factor as these moments may be too small and trivial to be either measurable or memorable. For example, think of two identical twins, who have been raised as similarly as possible, sitting in a classroom with a teacher who is reading them poetry. One looks out of the window and gets distracted by a dog walking past, the other does not see the dog. From here the one twin that was listening develops a lifelong love of poetry.
How Does The Role Of Chance Work?
As well as seemingly minor random occurrences, like the one described above, the role of chance in what makes you unique could start much earlier.
Embryonic brain cells multiply and migrate to new locations or specialise as different cells based on the information given by our genetic code. However, there is a degree of vagueness in the ‘instructions’ of these codes. This means that the brains of two identical twins in the womb can develop differently, despite having the exact same genes and being in the same environment. Dr Mitchell, a neurogeneticist at Trinity College Dublin, likens this to baking, you may follow the same recipe, use the same ingredients, and keep everything the same, but ‘you can’t bake the same cake twice’. With approximately 86 billion brain cells connected by 1000 trillion synapses, it’s not surprising that there may be little variations here and there!
Research Into The Role Of Chance
Without a scientific investigation into how chance is a big part of what makes you unique, it is just a nice idea. So, let’s have a look at some of the research that has been conducted:
De Bivort, Associate Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, examined fruit flies which were genetically identical and raised in as similar environments as possible. Previous research has shown us that these bugs have an innate bias in which way they turn when walking. His study showed that despite the role of nature and nurture being accounted for, the flies would differ in their left or right-turning preference. Something that must have been down to chance in their development! It may seem a stretch to apply what we learn from flies to people, however, ‘things you find at the molecular level tend to be present in humans at the molecular level’ – de Bivort.
Another way to look at the role of chance is at the level of individual brain cells. If we look at flies’ right and left hemispheres as they develop, we can see asymmetry occurring, despite the same genetic code and the same environment. Unfortunately, we are currently unable to imagine brain-wiring diagrams of larger creatures, but we can see the effects behaviourally, in things like levels of aggression.
A real-life example comes from Texas, where a woman paid $25,000 to have her beloved cat cloned, however, she found that whilst the cat was identical, it did not have the same personality.
There are hopes for more insight coming from studies of ‘mini-brains’. These are tiny balls of neural tissue that are grown in a lab and replicate the foetal brain structure. These could then be sliced up to produce wiring diagrams. This would give us the perfect look into how chance may be a big part of what makes you unique as they would be genetically and environmentally identical. However, this research isn’t something we will see for some time.
Summing Up What Makes You Unique
Overall, research seems to suggest that the role of chance is an important part of what makes you unique. However, it is so deeply rooted in our culture that parenting has a profound impact on the people we become, that the role of chance may continue to be dismissed.
Dr Mitchell sums up that, ‘we have been so locked into genes versus environment being the only source of variation, when, in fact, these idiosyncratic trajectories are what make us unique and unrepeatable. There’s something sort of life-affirming about that’.
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