Reflection: Man does not live by bread alone



I just finished reading a fascinating book that is making quite some waves: “Winning the Genetic Lottery.” While the book is primarily about genetic influences on intelligence and non-cognitive skills, it does acknowledge the significant effect on early childhood experience. Specifically, on page 97, the author describes an experiment conducted in Romania that demonstrated how infants transferred from an orphanage into foster care obtained higher IQs. She makes reference to Attachment theory which says that primate babies need close contact with another person, typically the mother, to develop well physically and cognitively. In German, there is a word for such a person: Bezugsperson.


While this specific experiment was new to me, I knew about attachment when I wrote my novel, based on much older findings that also showed that children without care fail to thrive. On Mitis, the Sisterhood tries to breed the next generation towards ever higher intelligence, and their selective schools ascertain that the brightest are identified and promoted. But you may also recall the inhumane ways they use to bring up their babies: They are raised by robots, without any human bezugsperson. That raises the question: Do the Sisters select for intelligence, or rather for robustness against lack of attachment?

Let’s consider Regina and Aurora, both of whom made it through the selection procedures: Regina is puzzled about the finding that some children develop normally at first and then derail. But she can’t get close to solving the mystery because the context of human attachment is too foreign to her. You may agree that there is a strangeness around Regina: One could call it a lack of compassion and a lack of being in touch with her own, suffocated needs for human closeness. Later in the book, her inability to connect emotionally with her staff almost costs her life. But it is that same strangeness that allowed her to survive the complete lack of a bezugsperson in her upbringing. I would think she has that in common with most of her peers in Mitis’ elites.

The situation with Aurora is different: The careful reader may remember that she was one of the last babies with a human nanny. In addition, both of her mothers were in contact with her, which was out of the ordinary in her Spartan culture. Aurora believes she was selected due to her intelligence and learning abilities. But I think that is only a partial picture; it was also the warmth and human connection provided by her nanny and her mothers that allowed her to thrive. Without that, she wouldn’t have made it through the selection process for she lacks the gene (or genetic defect) needed to go through a loveless childhood unscathed. We now understand why Aurora’s character is untypical for a Sister, with a deep ability to love, self-explore, and be compassionate.


There are some lessons here that are also explained in the “genetic lottery” book: (1) If we select people for something, we may not know what we’re really selecting for. (2) What genes matter and turn out to be adaptive depends on the environment.



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