Neuroscience clues to who you aren’t

THE problem of the self – what it is that makes you you – has exercised philosophers and theologians for millennia.

Today it is also a hotly contested scientific question, and the science is confirming what the Buddha, Scottish philosopher David Hume and many other thinkers maintained: that there is no concrete identity at the core of our being, and that our sense of self is an illusion spun from narratives we construct about our lives.

Bruce Hood’s The Self Illusion is a thoroughly researched and skillfully organised account of the developments in psychology and neuroscience that are helping to substantiate this unsettling vision of selfhood. He casts a long line, exploring subjects such as free will, the unconscious, the role of (false) memories in building identity, as well as myriad social psychology experiments showing how people behave differently according to the situation they are in. His aim is to illustrate the interchangeability of our multiple selves, and why much of our cognition seems to have evolved to protect the illusion that we are who we think we are.

Hood is well placed to tackle all this: he is an experimental psychologist and expert on child development. He does overstretch himself in a chapter on how the web will change us forever, however, making sensationalist statements that he does not back up. For instance, he is wide-eyed about how the web allows us to “communicate rich information with practically anyone on the planet instantaneously”. Surely more significant is the way we use it to reinforce or distort our identities before those who are already our friends. But don’t let that put you, or any of your selves, off reading this book.

Book Information
The Self Illusion
by Bruce Hood
Constable & Robinson/Oxford University Press
£12.99/$29.95

American DNA holds some surprising secrets

Debora MacKenzie, consultant

51D2tQrFyqL._SS500_.jpgIn DNA USA, Bryan Sykes probes the melting pot of US genetics

I AM a Canadian, descended mainly from Highland Scots. Despite this bog-standard ancestry, I am irrationally fascinated by clues about where my “people” came from. I am not alone: Europeans and Africans are forever laughing at North American visitors in search of their “roots”. Well, laugh no longer. After reading this gracefully written book, I know that North American roots are well worth investigating.

Bryan Sykes is a geneticist at the University of Oxford and founder of Oxford Ancestors, a company that traces ancestry. He has also written five books about DNA and humanity. DNA USA covers what DNA tells us about the “melting pot” of the US – and how Americans feel about it.

He starts with a deft exposition of the science, and what DNA says about Native Americans and the main immigrant progenitors in Africa and Europe. MacDonald, the only name that outnumbered mine in our phone book back home, turns out to be Viking.

The second part, mainly about Sykes’s US travels in search of DNA, is lighter on science. He sums up his findings, not only from the Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA that, respectively, reveal paternal and maternal descent, but by categorising genes as typically Asian, European or African.

Many Americans might not be as surprised as Sykes was at the African Americans with Native American DNA or European Y chromosomes, and certainly not by the exclusively European lineage of patrician New Englanders. But he also found Hispanics with Jewish Y chromosomes (grandfathers fleeing the Inquisition), white southerners with African DNA, and tribal leaders with almost no Native American DNA who barred people with plenty from the tribe.

Sykes’s list is not as complete as the book title suggests. When he refers to “Asian” DNA, he means “Native American” (because it originated in Asia and most resembles modern Asian DNA). Chinese Americans and other more recent Asian arrivals are largely missing from the story.

He notes that research has been hampered by Native Americans’ hostility towards genetic investigations into their roots, and finds this is partly because findings conflict with native creation myths. Of course, theirs are not the only creation myths at odds with science in the US – and more about these sensitivities might have been interesting.

 

read more over: here

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