Are Your Genes To Blame?

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Though the effects of genes may be easy to overestimate, they are also easy to underestimate. Many failed utopias of the 20th century dreamed of nurturing a "new man" free of selfishness, family ties and individual differences. Some psychotherapists promise what they cannot deliver, such as transforming a shy person into a bold one or a sad sack into a barrel of monkeys.

None of this means that social and personal improvement are a waste of time. Even if each of us is born with a range of temperament and talent, we can try to reach the best point in that range. And even if we have a nature, part of that nature is an open-ended ingenuity that can think up possible solutions to our problems. Using our genes as an excuse for fatalism is unwise. But so is pretending that they don't matter at all.

Pinker's latest book is The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

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