Monthly Archives: August 2012

Is Photorealistic Drawing Art?


Richard Estes, 1968, Photorealism

Richard Estes, 1968, Photorealism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Traditionally, drawing has been regarded as an imitative art. That is, artists create images based on real things. Naturally, this imitation can range from simply copying entire scenes to creating an original assembly from bits and pieces of real things. Descartes, in his clever painter analogy in his Meditations, makes note of this interesting nature of painting (which also applies to drawing). As he saw it, perhaps dreams are assembled like paintings from bits of real things. At the very least, he argues (before moving on to even greater skepticism), the colors used are real.

Moving away from metaphysics and epistemology back to aesthetics, it seems well established that imitating real things does not disqualify a drawing from being art. In fact, artists are often praised for their ability to accurately imitate reality. Interestingly, though this realism is often praised, there might be a point at which a drawing is too real to be considered art.

One argument for this is easy enough to make. When teaching my aesthetics class, I demonstrate my lack of drawing ability and ask them why my badly drawn capybara is not art. They point out the obvious—it does not look much a capybara because it is badly drawn. I then ask them if it would be art if I could draw better and they tend to agree. I then ask about just photocopying (or scanning and printing) the picture I used as the basis for my capybara drawing. They point out the obvious—that would not be art, just a copy.

Obviously, part of the reason the photocopy or scan would not be art is that it is just a mechanical reproduction (although I am sure that someone clever could argue that it is art and someone even more clever would find a way to sell it as art to people with more money than sense).

Things become considerably more interesting when a photorealistic image is created not by a technological means of duplication, but by hand. For example, Samuel Silva recreated the image of a red haired girl from a photo by Kristina Taraina as well as other photorealistic images. While Silva works with color Bic pens (seriously), Paul Cadden creates his photorealistic works by drawing and also with paints. He, however, uses the term “hyperrealism” rather than “photorealism.”

Clearly, the creation of such realism in imitation requires great technical skill. For example, Silva can create photorealistic colors using Bic pens and this demonstrates an impressive mastery of color. There is also the obvious technical skill required to imitate a photograph with such incredible accuracy.

However, it is clear that technical skill alone does not make the results art. After all, this technical skill can be exceeded by a decent color photocopier or a computer connected to a color scanner and printer.

It might be objected that the technical skill does make it art, despite the fact that a machine can do it better. To use an analogy, the fact that a scooter could beat a champion runner does not prove that the runner is not an athlete. Likewise, the fact that a machine can imitate better than Silva or Cadden does not mean that they are not artists. This leads to a second point about art and imitation.

The problem, it can be argued, is not that a machine can imitate better than Silva or Cadden. Rather, it is that there seems to be a point at which the exactitude of the imitation ceases to be a contribution to the artistry and rather begins to detract from it. While it seems unlikely that an exact tipping point can be specified, it does certainly seem that this is the case. Why this is so can be shown by returning to the reason why a mechanical copy is not art: there is nothing in the copy that is not in the original (laying aside duplication defects). As such, the more exact the copy of the original, the less room there is for whatever it is that makes a work art. As such, to argue that Silva or Cadden is an artist requires showing that they do more than merely copy. That is, they must add something aesthetically significant to their work that is not in the original.

One obvious avenue of approach is to draw an analogy to photography. By its very nature, an unaltered photograph merely captures an image of what is there (photons bouncing of surfaces and all that).  What the photographer adds is her perspective—that is, she selects what she will capture and thus what makes the work art is not that it duplicates reality (which it must by the laws of physics) but that the photographer has added that something extra (which, to steal from Locke’s Indian, I must say is “something I know not what”).

As such, someone who creates photorealistic images of photos could be adding that something extra in a way comparable to what photographers do when they create their art (assuming, safely enough, that a photograph can be art).

The rather obvious reply to this is that a person who is creating a photorealistic re-creation of a photograph does not seem to be adding that something extra. Cadden does, however, claim that he is not engaging in photorealism, but rather in what he calls hyperrealism. He says that

“Hyperreal paintings and sculptures are not strict interpretations of photographs, nor are they literal illustrations of a particular scene or subject. Instead, they utilise additional, often subtle, pictorial elements to create the illusion of a reality which in fact either does not exist or cannot be seen by the human eye” and he adds that “Furthermore, they may incorporate emotional, social, cultural and political thematic elements as an extension of the painted visual illusion; a distinct departure from the older and considerably more literal school of Photorealism.”

From a theoretical standpoint, Cadden is certainly on solid ground. After all, he makes an argument analogous to the one used above, namely that he adds that “aesthetic extra” that makes his work more than a technical achievement in manual duplication. There is, however, the question of whether that “aesthetic extra” is present in his works. Since he works from photographs, it seems easy enough to put the matter to an empirical test by comparing his works to the original and giving due consideration to the difference. As such, if his work differs in aesthetically significant ways from the original image, then it would be safe enough to consider it art and him an artist.

In any case, both Silva and Cadden are remarkably talented and do amazing work.

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The Selfish Gene in The Guardian

The Guardian has a little gem of a retrospective review of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (first published 1976). The reviewer, science journalist Tim Radford, mentions that his copy of the book is the first paperback edition of 1978. Well, we have something in common – mine is a 1983 reprint of the same edition, and I must have first read it almost thirty years ago. One day, I need to broach the thirtieth anniversary edition of 2006, which has a new introduction by the author, plus other new material.

When I was young, I was struck not just by the book’s content but also (perhaps even moreso) by its beautiful explanatory clarity. This was how to write for a popular audience. The Selfish Gene made me a lifelong fan of Dawkins, not only as a thinker and a scientist, though of course there’s that, but above all as a writer. I would struggle if asked to name other non-fiction writers whose prose I enjoy so much, or who are so successful in communicating difficult ideas. Perhaps I could compare Bertrand Russell, or, in our current generation, Steven Pinker, who has a similar knack for images that organise his complex messages and convey them vividly to the reader.

Thus I’m always surprised when Dawkins is criticised for the “selfish gene” trope itself, as if it involves some kind of scientific or philosophical faux pas – as if, in fact, he were ascribing psychological motivation to tiny chemical strands, or perhaps talking about genes that code for selfishness. He is doing neither of those things, and neither of them occurred to me when I first read the book all those years ago. It’s all clear enough unless you bring your own murkiness to the text.

Genes do not, of course, have emotions or desires; they do not have interests, in anything like the sense that we do. A selfish gene is not like a selfish person who acts to advance her own narrowly understood self-interest without compassion or respect for other people. Nor does Dawkins suggest such a thing; if you read the book in this way, you are bringing in issues that are remote from what is before your eyes. Rather, the “selfishness” of genes is a small tweak on a common idea in biology, whose practitioners apply the word to behaviours that have the effect of helping the individual organism, whether or not it possesses any psychological motivation. When we tweak this just slightly, the thought is that the effect of genes on the world, when you look closely at what’s going on, is to replicate those same genes, rather than to promote the physiological welfare of anything else. In a biologist’s sense of the words, genes really can be described quite readily as selfish, as opposed to altruistic. All of this is explained in the book’s first chapter.

But we don’t need to think of such terms in any technical way to get Dawkins’ point. That is, we needn’t begin with any training in biology to “get”, intuitively, the relevant idea of selfishness. It’s clear throughout that we can begin with an everyday understanding of “selfishness”, which we can then deploy as a metaphor. Though sequences of DNA are not the kinds of things that can possess desires, or any psychological makeup at all, they act as if they were sentient things devising strategies to replicate themselves in successive generations. The process by which life continues and evolves is well explained at the level of what is needed for genes to achieve this “selfish” goal.

So, I’m bemused by all the misunderstandings, and I don’t think they relate to any lack of clarity in the text itself. Perhaps they highlight the intrinsic difficulty of the concept – but how hard is it really? – or perhaps it is simply the anxieties that some readers bring with them. We all have a tendency to interpret via our anxieties, which can get in the way of what is in front of us.

Radford is similarly bemused:

A few years later I heard a distinguished, elderly science historian rather brusquely describe it as a prime example of a metaphor out of control.

That barb was not just misguided, but wildly unfair. Dawkins was always clever with metaphors, but his recurring imagery of a gene concerned only with its replication and survival is tightly controlled: in every chapter, we are reminded that it is a metaphor, an analogy, an “as if”, a useful way of thinking about how behaviours, strategies and responses might have emerged from the mix of ever-renewing chromosomes and the disorderly experience of life.

The book does, in fact, get to issues about sociality, and of altruism at the level of organisms, but that is in the second-last chapter. To be sure, Dawkins does suggest that you’d expect genes to code for organisms that are, in turn, selfish – this is because genes are most likely to be passed down by organisms that are programmed to do what is needed for their own survival, at least until they can reproduce. Nonetheless, he seeks to explain how altruism, in the biological sense, could arise. (Behaviour that benefits other organisms may, in some circumstances, be most effective at passing down the individual’s genetic code.) At the end Dawkins picks up an idea planted in the opening pages: how far human beings are capable of a pure disinterestedness that goes beyond biologically altruistic behaviour.

Thus, the relationships between the selfishness of genes, the biological selfishness of individual organisms, biological altruism, and what we call a true altruism, or unselfishness, are all made clear. Actual selfishness is never advocated, whatever some of Dawkins’ most obtuse detractors might think. Let me add, on this subject, that Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker is not actually about the art of making small chronometrical devices, and nor is his Climbing Mount Improbable a textbook in the skills of mountaineering.

All this, however, is more or less by the by. The Selfish Gene is a lovely explanation of a gene’s-eye view (though of course genes don’t have actual eyes) of life, its functional, bizarre, splendid (and sometimes horrible) intricacy, and how this has come about. The book is also a pleasure to read and a fine model for other writers. Radford, too, deserves praise: in a short space, he has done the book justice, seeing and appreciating it for what it is.

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Sex When Drunk – A Moral Dilemma

Here’s a very quick moral dilemma. I’d be interested to hear what people think about this situation.

Let’s assume that in the absence of previously established consent (as, for example, might exist between a married couple), it’s morally wrong to have sex with somebody if they’ve ingested some X  amount of alcohol (because it undermines their ability to give informed consent). For the purposes of this dilemma, it doesn’t matter what this amount is – just that there is some amount.

Okay, so this is the twist. Suppose somebody says this to you:

I want to want to have sex with you, but I never want sex unless I’m high or drunk. I can’t relax and I don’t enjoy it. But look, I’ll start drinking, and hopefully there will come a point where my inhibitions are sufficiently lowered and I’m relaxed enough so that we can go ahead. But realize I’m not consenting right now to have sex with you later, I’m simply telling you that I’m making the choice to drink in the hope that I will come to want sex later on. If that happens, I’ll let you know, but it might not.

This person then starts drinking, ingests some X + 1 amount of alcohol (i.e., past the point at which under normal circumstances you would consider it wrong to have sex with them), and then tells you they are ready to have sex with you.

We need to get clear about a few things before posing the (obvious) question.

First, this person is not approaching unconsciousness, they are able to reflect reasonably cogently on their desire to have sex with you, but it’s counterfactually true that in the absence of the alcohol, they would not have consented, and also that this would be true of some non-trivial percentage of other people who had drunk this much, even in the absence of the particular psychological dynamic that exists here. (I realize that this stipulation might conflict with the claim that it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this dilemma at what point alcohol undermines the ability to consent. If you think this happens when somebody approaches unconsciousness, then just assume it’s been stipulated that it occurs earlier than that.)

Second, this person would deny that they are psychologically vulnerable. They would be offended if anybody suggested that they were being taken advantage of just because they never want sex while sober. They know their own mind – they want to want to have sex.

Third, you have no particular reason to think they will come to regret any sexual encounter that takes place. They might, but they might not.

So the question is:

In this situation, would it be wrong to go ahead with the sexual encounter, and if so, why?

Why Metamagician and the Hellfire Club was never an “atheist blog”

Over on my personal blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, I’ve made a statement that’s been forming in my mind for a long time now. Readers can draw their own conclusions about the timing, though part of it is simply that Metamagician and the Hellfire Club is winding down to an extent, as I find myself doing most of my “serious” blogging here at Talking Philosophy. I was reaching the end of another month, and another months’ statistics, and this seemed like a good time to say something about the history and character of the blog. Another reason is that I was asked yesterday to take part in a survey on closely related issues.

Do have a look if you’re interested. I explain why I never considered Metamagician and the Hellfire Club to be an “atheist blog”, and never decorated it with any appropriate images for that purpose.

As I explain, that is not, at least in my mind, inconsistent with a degree of atheist activism that I’ve been invoved in (with more to come…). But the blog always had more dimensions to it than that, and actual atheists tend to have more to them than atheism. At least, I hope so!

Pro-Life Associative Thinking

The Republican convention is coming up in the US, and the party is about to confirm a hardline platform that includes an extreme position on abortion (though, as pointed out by various members of the party, it is not new). The platform calls for a “right to life” amendment and makes no mention of exceptions for cases of rape or incest, a position that many voters didn’t think much about until Todd Akin’s recent comment suggesting such a need would be unnecessary. It turns out that although about half the country identifies as pro-life, over 80% support exceptions in cases of rape or incest.

The position of Todd Akin (and VP Candidate Paul Ryan) that exceptions like this are wrong is more rationally consistent, however. If abortion is literally murder, then pre-approving exceptions is surprising, and it does seem a case of punishing the child for the sins of the father. Of course, if abortion were murder, then the deaths of fetuses would deserve death certificates, which implies they’d have birth certificate, which obviously a fetus does not have – so would we then start requiring conception certificates? This notion of “pro-life” is specifically an idea of beginning citizenship before most people even tell their friends they are expecting (well, in this form of thinking, they aren’t so much “expecting” as already parents). If the claim “abortion is murder” is taken seriously, it leads to a rather severe position.

Akin’s comment was offensive on its own terms, as it showed a lack of scientific understanding and implied that a woman impregnated by rape must not really have been raped after all. But it also seemed to suggest that a woman’s body knows better than a woman’s mind which pregnancies to keep, and even that it’s okay if the body wants to abort some of them, just not if her mind chooses to do so. Beyond that it showed a complete ignorance of women’s history, as it is extremely likely that rape has been a popular method of fatherhood in many times and places. A woman with no rights does not have the right to say no. She is at the mercy of men around her who may take an interest in her wishes and respect them, but who ultimately make the choices.

But all of this is specific to his attempt to avoid the actual question of whether there ought to be an exception for rape. If only there weren’t this problem of rape, Akin’s excuse seems to say, abortion could be argued as a case of fetal life without taking note of the vessel in which the fetus develops. But the case of rape – no matter if it is uncommon – reminds us how big a deal a pregnancy is for the woman herself. If it is unfair to burden someone with an unwanted pregnancy due to rape, is it fair to ask them to accept it when it is unwanted due to birth control malfunction? If the environment and options available are exactly the same and the only difference is whether the woman was sexually interested, the consistency begins to look weak again.

Considering the widespread rejection of Akin’s comment and the broad agreement that exceptions in the case of rape should be allowed, we can determine that many pro-lifers are more interested in a general social preference than the technical details. As we saw with Palin, they might claim to “choose life” without recognizing that in choosing they are not endorsing the position as it is written. To hope women don’t have abortions – to prefer to see a movie ending with a baby rather than a procedure – is different from desiring to outlaw something or change the status of citizenship.

There is a powerful element of self-expression in voting, even though the ballots are secret. Much like those who vote for third parties, some single-issue voters aren’t necessarily hoping to cause the outcome they are voting for to be realized. Instead, their intent is making a statement that the whole country can hear. Yet, some of the proponents do wish to implement those legal changes. While they merely preach their opinion, those who take the platforms to be serious, on both sides of the issue, are concerned for real consequences.

How Much is Other People?

A text logo for Ohio State University

A text logo for Ohio State University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his famous quote about standing on the shoulders of giants, Sir Isaac Newton credited at least some of his success to efforts of others. While most of us will not see as far as Newton, we also stand upon the shoulders of others. After all, we are born into societies and have access to centuries of human accomplishments such as language, technology and society itself. As such, the success of any individual is but an addition to an already vast structure of human achievement (and failure) and is built upon well-established foundations. For example, the language I am using to write this was developed long before my time. The computer I am using to write this was made possible by past achievements in theory and technology. As such, any success I glean from this work involves a debt to all those folks who made it possible for me to sit in front of a screen and type out words in English.

Of course, the contributors to our successes (and failures) do not just include people who are long dead. Obviously enough, a person’s very existence and survival depends on other people who are (or recently were) alive. Much of a person’s education also depends on others and there are many other debts (for good or for ill) owed to others. Naturally, I am making a distinction between the state (which is just people) and other people in this context. For this essay, the other people would be people who are not acting in their capacity as state officials or agents.

For example, I would not be able to write this if it were not for the education I received from my parents and the teachers at Lewis Stairs Elementary school. I would not be a philosopher without the education provided by the professors at Marietta College and The Ohio State University.

Naturally, some of the failures I have experienced can also be attributed in part to others who have impeded me (intentionally or not).

As such, it seems clear that some of a person’s success (and failures) is due to the contributions of other people. The interesting question is thus not “do people owe others for their success (or failure)”, but “to what extent do people owe others for their success (or failure)?”

It seems easy to show that at least some of a person’s success is due to her own efforts. After all, if a person’s success had to depend entirely on the contributions of others, then an infinite regress would seem to arise, thus making success impossible. As such, it seems reasonable to infer that people can contribute to their own success (unless, of course, all success and failure is ultimately attributed to God, the un-helped success).

As might be suspected, the degree to which other people contribute to an individual’s success (or failure) will vary a great deal. For example, a businessman who was born to wealthy family in the United States, was provided with the best education money can buy, and was then helped out throughout life by family connections must clearly share must of his success with other people. As another example, a great poet who was born into poverty, was abandoned as a young child, and taught herself poetry from scavenged books would owe far less of her success to others. Interestingly, the wealthy businessman might be more inclined than the poet to claim that his success was mostly of his own doing.

One area in which the division of success (and failure) is of special interest to me is in education. Obviously enough, teachers have a role to play in the success or failure of a student. It seems equally obvious that the student also has a rather important role to play in this regard. As I have mentioned before, students often tend to blame teachers for their failures (“she failed me”) and accept credit for their successes (“I earned an A”). While this is natural, sorting out the contributions of each is a matter of some importance, especially these days. After all, there is a growing tendency in the United States (and probably elsewhere) to place the majority of the accountability on the shoulders of educators. One practical reason for this is, of course, that teachers can be fired or replaced while public schools tend to be stuck with their students, thus making the changing of teachers an easier approach to the problem. This does not, however, show how the responsibility is truly divided between teacher and student.

My own experience at the college level has been that the exceptionally good and the exceptionally bad students would tend to learn about the same regardless of the teachers. After all, the very good students take a very active role in their education (and thus will compensate for bad teachers) and the very bad students generally do not pay attention on the rare occasions they actually make it to class (and hence largely negate the impact of teaching). As such, an educator probably cannot take a great deal of credit (or blame) for the success (or failure) of these students. There can, of course, be exceptions.

Not surprisingly, it would seem that the most impact is upon the majority of the students—those who are not exceptionally good or bad as students. Of course, even then there is a question of how much the teacher is accountable for their success or failure. Also not surprisingly, education policy (especially such things as firing and merit) is being made without much understanding of how the responsibility for success and failure should be divided. This is, of course, but one example of why the division of responsibility between people matters.

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So you want to be a moral error theorist

Inspired by the conversation with Russell in his thread on error theory, I’ve written a sordid little dialogue on the subject, and put it in the form of a Prezi presentation. I hope you like it, or at least don’t hate it completely.

What is this thing called enhancement?

In their introductory piece, “Well-Being and Enhancement”, to their edited collection Enhancing Human Capacities, Julian Savulescu, Ruud ter Meulen, and Guy Kahane attempt to define “enhancement” or “human enhancement”, settling on a conception related to well-being. Thus, they reject the idea that there is distinction between enhancement, on one hand, and therapy, healthcare, or medical treatment. All of the latter fall within enhancement.

The definition that they use, on page 7 of the book, is “Any change in the biology or psychology of a person which increases the chances of leading a good life in the relevant set of circumstances.” I hope it’s obvious that this is very broad: it could, for example, cover not only the entirety of good (whatever exactly that means) medical practice, but also much in the way of nutrition, sports training, academic study, moral teaching, and on and on. Perhaps this is, in fact, the ordinary meaning of “enhancement”, as applied to human capacities, as the authors suggest, but by itself it doesn’t tell us what the fuss is all about. There appears to be an idea abroad that some particular set of real or imagined interventions is especially morally problematic, and that the term “enhancement” tracks these. Why – where does that idea come from?

I doubt that we can, in fact, find a plausible set of interventions that: 1. is especially morally problematic AND 2. is well-labeled as “enhancement”, to the exclusion of the label being applied to other interventions (“ordinary” medicine, education, training, controlled nutrition, etc.). Accordingly, there is something going on that I agree with in the thinking of Savulescu and the others. They would have the same doubt. Still, their definition leaves it rather puzzling that there seems to be this widespread fear of something we can call “enhancement”, and which is distinguishable from other interventions. Perhaps later essays in the book will clarify this (perhaps needless to say, I have some ideas of my own).

An obvious problem that arises is what counts as “well-being” or “a good life” (for Savulescu and his colleagues these are tightly connected – a good life and a life of well-being seem to be the same thing). These terms have been contested over many hundreds of years – indeed one ancient conception of ethics is the search for an answer to the question, “What is the good life?” Furthermore, the debates appear intractable.

Savulescu and his colleagues are well aware of this problem, and they acknowledge that theories or conceptions of the good, or well-being, include hedonistic, desire-fulfilment, and objective list theories (page 10). There are doubtless others, such as the theory that well-being is rightness with God. Depending on which of these theories we adopt, we might classify a particular intervention as enhancing or detrimental.

Savulescu and colleagues would respond, first, that some interventions are enhancing (and some are detrimental) on any plausible conception of a good life. In practice, therefore, we can identify a very wide range of interventions as either enhancing or detrimental without much controversy. We might still think that certain enhancing interventions are morally wrong, all things considered, e.g. if they give the person who has been enhanced an unfair advantage over others. However, on this approach, the typical case will not be one where we have difficulty deciding whether the intervention was enhancing for the individual concerned.

This is attractive insofar as it allows us to distinguish between the question of whether an intervention is good for the person immediately affected and the question of whether or not the intervention was a morally good act, all things considered. That is, I think, a distinction that we want to be able to make. I suspect, however, that it is going to difficult to reach agreement in a wide range of cases, especially if we allow (and what’s the case against it?) people to make their own judgments and criticisms based on the full range of possible understandings of the good life, including understandings that involve some kind of otherworldly dimension to human life, as is typical of religious ideas of the good life.

Savulescu and his colleagues are political liberals, and they think that the state should defer to individuals’ conceptions of their own good, or well-being. Generally speaking, I agree. But it looks like there might be limits to this, and in any event decisions are often made by parents about children. It’s not so obvious that the state can be neutral, or anything like it, when these sorts of decisions are involved.

I’m sure that I’ll hear more about these problems as I come to later essays in the volume. Meanwhile, these are some of the problems I see looming.

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Enhancing Human Capacities

I am broaching – and over the next week or two will be reading – a huge collection of essays edited by Julian Savulescu, Ruud ter Meulen, and Guy Kahane: Enhancing Human Capacities (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

One of the books I’m working on is Humanity Enhanced, under contract to MIT Press, so I’m updating my reading in the field … and this volume edited by Savulescu, ter Meulen, and Kahane is now one of the must-reads in the literature.

I expect to be commenting on various chapters quite frequently as I work my way through and digest the arguments.

Most of the book arises from presentations at workshops organised in Europe a few years ago under the ENHANCE project (full title, Enhancing Human Capacities: Ethics, Regulation and European Policy). This seems to have led to an exciting, comprehensive … and daunting … collection.

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How Much is Genes?

This image shows the coding region in a segmen...

This image shows the coding region in a segment of eukaryotic DNA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous essay, I addressed the matter of the state’s contribution to an individual’s success (and failure). Naturally, no discussion of success would be complete without a discussion of genetics.

While the role of genetics in human behavior is a rather complicated matter, it does seem eminently reasonable to accept that genetics play at least some role in success (and failure). Interestingly, these genes might not all be human—there are some interesting new findings regarding the role of the bacteria that live in us (which outnumber the cells in the human body 10 to 1).

Thanks to years spent in athletics, I have had access to an informal laboratory in which I could observe various factors at play when it comes to success. As might be imagined, genetics probably plays a rather significant role in athletic success (and failure). Being a runner, I will limit myself to running, but the same points can be applied to other aspects of life as well.

One rather obvious role of genetics is body type. As people who run or at least watch competitive running know, the top runners tend to have a rather specific body type. While much of this results from training, there are factors that are genetic. After all, no amount of running will give a person longer legs. There are also the factors that one cannot see, such as the efficiency of the cells when it comes to handling the energy requirements of competitive running. While these factors can be influenced by training, natural ability (which is probably largely based in genetics) does have a significant impact and this is supported by my own years of competitive running.

Having run in high school and college, I was able to observe runners who were in the same training programs, had similar backgrounds and lived in similar conditions. However, performance obviously varied quite a bit even among people who followed the exact same training. In my own case, I was fairly lucky—while I lacked the easy high school success of “natural athletes”, I found that training really paid off for me. In contrast, some other runners worked as hard (or harder) than me, yet did not meet with the same level of success. Of course, there were also runners who trained as hard as I did (or less) who did much better. After graduation, I was no longer on a team, but still trained with other runners. Obviously, some people I trained with and ran with step-for-step were better than me and some were worse. I also found out the obvious—no matter how hard or smart I trained, I would never be able to make the Olympics (although I did run against some of the best American marathoners in Ohio back in 1992).  It makes sense to attribute some of this failure to genetics—my body simply cannot match what the Olympic marathoners can do, despite all that training. Of course, it also makes sense to attribute some of my success to genetics—while I do not have Olympian genes, I have brought home plenty of trophies. Plus, as we old runners say, running is itself a victory.

Naturally, these results were impacted by many variables, but the fact that genes influence performance seems to be well-established. The more interesting question is, then, “how much do genes influence success (and failure)?”

Not surprisingly, people often turn to the study of twins to attempt to sort out what is genetic and what is not. After all, twins are supposed to be genetically identical and hence any differences between them would be non-genetic in nature. Interestingly, it has turned out that twins are not actually identical, thus entailing that some differences might be genetic. There has also been some recent interesting work regarding the bacteria that inhabit the human body and their influence on such factors as health. Oddly enough, it might be the case that some of a person’s success is due to his bacteria.

While the physiological aspects of running and other activities at which one might fail or succeed seem to be strongly influenced by genetics, there is obviously a rather open question as to how much genetics impacts what might be called the mental aspects of success and failure. Going back to running, training and competition have very significant mental elements. For example, there is the matter of having the will to train as needed. As any runner will tell you, real training hurts. Of course, racing hurts more—a big part of being a competitive runner is having what Hobbes called the will to hurt. Only in this case it is the will to hurt yourself rather than others.

As might be imagined, if the “mental” aspects are as influenced by genetics as the physical aspects, then much of a person’s success or failure rests in these genes. For example, if the ability to finish a race despite a broken leg is not a matter of the will of the athlete, but a matter of the structure of his brain that resulted from the genes that constructed it, then he did not succeed. Likewise, if a runner is “broken” in the final sprint by a tougher runner because of the genetics of their nervous systems, then he has not failed.

Shockingly enough, the essay ends as it began, with the question unanswered. After all, we do not know how much the genes influence our success (and failures). But, I got to write about running and that is a success.

My Amazon author page.

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