Stars, Genes, or the Will of G-d?

Note: Long discussion about touchy topics follows. It includes broad overviews and general examples, to which you can find millions of exceptions. Still interested?

So, Kate Paulk’s guest post at According to Hoyt on Tuesday kicked a few ideas loose. One of the short classes I teach is a history of the idea of predestination, starting with the Greek and Saxon ideas of Fate/Wyrd and coming to the present day. At the moment, we have people who would argue vehemently against the traditional Augustinian and Calvinist understandings of predestination, and then turn around and explain in great detail how genetics or culture are unbreakable indicators of destiny. Some amend that into genetics and culture, others separate economics from culture, but all of it boils down to: some force outside the individual determines his/her/its/zir/xir/whatever life outcome. To which I want to fold my arms and say:

OK, you are strongly opposed to the idea of predestination because no truly loving or good deity could be so cruel.

Them: Exactly.

Me: So instead you are saying that predestination in the form of DNA is perfectly fine and that no one can change their genetically determined fate.

Them: Yes. No! No, wait, that’s not what I said!

Me: Pick one.

Humans have been looking for “why me” ever since Og first got caught in a mastodon stampede or one of the Oggetts tumbled off a cliff while chasing butterflies, or Thag was hit by a falling coconut and never quite recovered. Fate (Fortuna) came to be a common response in some religions – the gods had determined that X would happen, and no matter what the individual did, he could not escape it. In Greek and Saxon understandings, the idea of one’s destiny was personified as three women spinning, measuring, and cutting threads, the Fates or the Wyrd Sisters or Norns. In fact, one of the arguments early Christian missionaries made to the Saxons and their cousins was that G-d was stronger than wyrd. Jesus had broken the power of wyrd and man was no longer locked into a pre-set course. The road to Ragnarök was not one-way, if you will.

Interestingly, some Christian thinkers returned to a bit of fate-thinking, although not without hedging and opposition. Augustine of Hippo is the first to articulate the argument known as predestination, that the Lord had selected some for salvation at the beginning of time (or around that point) and that nothing a person could do would change that. He was trying to help his congregation come to terms with why bad things happen (all at once in this case) to believers and yet the pagans seemed to be avoiding some of the problems. And what became of the souls of children who died before baptism or confirmation.

Augustine was arguing in part against a Celtic Christian named Pelagius over if the world was flawed but basically good, or if Adam’s Original Sin (disobedience) had corrupted all of creation beyond help. If “by Adam’s fall/sinned we all,” then the Most High was perfectly just and right in damning all the sons of Adam, and only G-d’s undeserved and unimaginable mercy saves anyone in this fallen and terrible world. From Augustine’s view, to say otherwise was to deny the saving and truly unimaginable power and love of G-d. The arguments are a lot more complex than that, but those are the basic general understandings.

Edited to add: Keep in mind, one important idea with theological predestination is that NO ONE knows who has been elected to salvation and who has not. Later Christians developed the idea that behavior and worldly success might be clues, but they might not. Only the deity knew who had been chosen, and mortals should not spend too much time fretting about “Is Bob in the golf foursome one of the Elect?” You are supposed to do the best you can in this world to live as if you are elect, because you might be. And if it proves that you are not, well, there was a reason known only to the Most High and it is for the best.

At the time (400 CE/AD) this was being written out, some of Augustine’s associates said “Whoa, easy there. We just got through fighting with the Greek philosophers and Gnostics about fate and the corruption of the world. Don’t give them any ammunition.” Christianity most certainly was not supposed to be fatalistic. And Augustine did not go all the way to double-predestination, which is where many people collided with the theology and bounced. If you follow the logic of single predestination, that the Most High has elected some to salvation from before Day 1, then the logical next step is that those not elected are condemned, or “reprobated” from before Day 1, and again, nothing the individual does, for good or ill, can undo that decision.  This is where most modern people start backing away quickly from predestination and deny that a nice deity could do such a thing.

So having a deity pointing and saying “you go to paradise, you go to hell, you get a nice life, you will die in poverty, and you will cry ‘wee wee wee’ all the way home” is a no-go for the enlightened moderns. Instead, in order to explain why if all men/women/whatever are not exactly the same, they turn to culture or genetics. And both of those are locked, fixed, unchanging, and determine the fate of a little black girl in the Bronx just as surely as the Augustine’s deity elected or reprobated people in Hippo in 410. Ignored is that the little girl in the Bronx might read a book that makes her say, “I want more” and inspire her to work very hard, to find a way to avoid the worst of the surrounding culture and to become a pediatric oncologist or an astronaut. Or she may be inspired by a neighbor and convert to Catholicism, join the Little Sisters of the Poor and find her life’s vocation in service to all in need. Even though her genetics destin her to be a WNBA star. Oops.

The cultural determinists assume that the culture one is born into is the culture you will live in forever and ever, world without end. Born middle class Protestant in South Dakota? You will go to a school with whites, go to church with whites, and become a wheat farmer or rancher, or work in the oil fields, like white food (literally) and listen to Lawrence Welk and contra dance music. If you are born into a Mexican family, you will eat Mexican food, like spicy stuff, probably drive a tricked-out car, be Catholic or Pentecostal (maybe), and listen to corridos and conjunto. And get in fights with knives. You can’t become a master sushi chef because that’s not your culture. You can’t become a great violinist, or classical pianist, because, well, Mexicans don’t do that. Those things are outside “Mexican culture.” And that culture is the same as it has always been since 1525, and is the same in all of Mexico.

As you can tell, that is a very easy argument to shoot down. Culture is chosen, as long as options are available, and you can accept part of a cultural package without keeping all of it. What about genetics? Your DNA is hard-wired, right, and once a baby is born, nothing will alter that coding? Your humble author was destined never to be a basketball player, a marathon runner, a fashion model, or a giraffe. That much is true.  But it is culture that makes being a marathon runner desirable (culture or a streak of insanity). There is nothing to say that I have to like Irish music even though I’m red-haired. There’s nothing to say that I have to make use of my memory for patterns which gives me an aptitude for learning languages. There are some heritable traits and unfortunate genetic combinations that do have strong effects on their bearers no matter how hard people work to mitigate or avoid them. We call those diseases and syndromes and work to find ways around or through them. There may be certain personality traits that have an inherited aspect, but environment probably has a lot more to do with the expression of that “gene” than does the presence of the gene. Or as one of my best friends says, “I choose to use my powers for good rather than evil.”

The “genetics as destiny” argument is a bit harder to counter, because SCIENCE!!!!! Or more often, because someone in psychology or sociology latches onto a small bit of neurology or genetics and runs with it, taking the basic fact into places that most hard science types won’t go. Thus the idea batted around last year in the media that an MRI can reveal sociopaths and allow “society” to deal with such people before they wreak havoc. Except the prof who came up with this discovered that he shows as a sociopath even though he’s pretty normal and well-adjusted. It may turn out that “the gene” for being a sociopath is not turned on in 90% of the carriers. It may be that what the MRI studies show is that people who express sociopathic behavior show a certain neural activity pattern that happens to be common with university hospital faculty.

Another argument floating around is that genetics can be shaped, over time, by culture until the two become locked and maladjusted (in the example I’ve seen used most often). The idea is that certain cultures inadvertently select for certain genetic traits (ability to carry and deliver children easily, rapid threat-response, a predisposition to certain types of aggression), because the people with those traits do better inside that culture. After G generations, the population within that culture becomes far more likely to show/carry the genes that support those behaviors and exclude others, until culture+genetics=destiny for most people in that group. Anyone who tries to do otherwise will face a more difficult time because of the traits they carry, but it can be done.

I’ll admit, I have days when I lean toward this argument. When certain cultural groups have practiced the same behavior for a thousand years, I can see where inadvertent selection might lead toward predisposition. Not as a law, but as the easier default for many people. And I look at how people from certain economic and cultural groups are conditioned from birth to, say, ignore clocks and punctuality, and how they do not succeed well in career tracks that require strict adherence to time tables and punctuality (unless they work hard and choose to do so despite cultural pressure otherwise), and I think “Yeah, I can sort of see that if I tilt my head and squint.” Except the same was true for every population when industrialization began back in the 1700s and into the 1800s. Getting New England farm kids to show up on time to work in the textile mills was a source of great frustration for several generations of managers and factory owners.

So what does determine a person’s fate? Culture, genetics, economics, their parents’ decisions about child rearing and preferred family style, education, peer groups, access to books, encouragement or discouragement by role models, faith tradition or lack there of, pure bad luck (run over by car and paralyzed as a grade schooler; Yellowstone volcano erupts during bus ride to Denver, stranding them in Laramie). Yes.

But it is a combination. We do not know nearly enough about many of those to say, “If you are born into a poor family in Detroit, don’t bother trying to work hard or improve your life.” Or to say, “because your MRI shows __________, we are going to give you drugs and conditioning because otherwise you will [terrible thing, or just thing not desired by the Experts}.”

There is no predestination in the World. In Eternity? That may be a different story.


13 thoughts on “Stars, Genes, or the Will of G-d?

  1. IIRC there were some “Hyper” Calvinists who decided that “If you’re predestinated to be saved, you’ll come to us. No need for us to witness to you”.

    IE They were saying to the non-believer “we’re not going to bother you as if you’re going to be saved, you’ll come to us”. 😦

    Sadly, there’s room for “swelled heads” in both the “Predestination Crowd” and the “No Predestination Crowd”.

    • Yes. Interestingly, I’ve talked to some very Augustinian missionaries who believe passionately in spreading the word because no one ever knows. They may be the tool G-d uses to awaken a pagan to his sins and lead him to acknowledge his debt to the Most High and so on. There’s also an argument I’ve read about the benefits of bringing everyone into Christianity for the sake of society, no matter if they are elect or reprobated.

      Yup. No one has a monopoly on being cock-sure about their beliefs.

  2. Before finishing reading this, I would like to point out that I would have no problem believing that most university hospital faculty are sociopaths

  3. Suppose schools which accept funding from the Federal Department of Education are necessarily dominated by rentseeking and child abuse. Then they might not properly count as education, and children’s participation in them might not be economic for the children.

    Schools can be used as a means of destroying a society, or an aspect of a society. Reservation schools destroyed the Plains Indians as independent military forces because they had the opportunity cost of warrior training.

    1. We do know that there are people with power in Big Education who want to destroy Western Civilization. 2. The same malinvestment and poor policy decisions might instead be motivated by magical thinking. 3. I am concerned about what the effects are on the future.

    • How much of the current mainvestment is based on the assumption of immutable character and the interchangability of all [category] people and how much is based on Marx’s assumption that people can be perfected and molded to fit the needs of the State (or “society” or “the community” or whatever the phrase of choice is)? And what happens when they collide, besides a lot of money tossed down the proverbial kazai?

      The Indian Schools were a deliberate attempt to change Indian cultures to better fit what the US and Canada felt were better for society and for the individual, and all involved knew it. The Comanche even stopped teaching most of their traditions because of a general (not unanimous) agreement that the next generation had to cope with a new environment and they did not need the old ways. The Comanche had done something similar 180 years before, when they left the Great Basin and became horse nomads. They certainly did not believe in being locked into a path by deity, birth, or society.

      • We’ve known for some time that there are people with the social capital to make homeschooling much more effective than public schooling. We also know of other situations, and fairness and dire imaginings have helped justify public schooling for those cases.

        The school district -teacher’s union -Democratic Party – Federal Department of Education -school district feedback loop has potentially compromised the integrity of oversight. Current instability, changes in public education, and the foreseeable future raise the possibility that shutting down public education may become better for all students. I probably wouldn’t have said that a month ago.

        Conservatism says that one should be very cautious about one’s conclusions when proposing such a sweeping change. Certainly, I haven’t overlooked the political utility, and I have been desperately searching for solutions that could be implemented with the soap, ballot and jury boxes. These are reasons to suspect my judgement.

  4. “No one has a monopoly on being cock-sure about their beliefs.” That is the key phrase… BUT, having said that, there are always ‘true believers’ that will never believe they aren’t the chosen ones… I remember a little church over in Shreveport that claimed if you weren’t a member of THAT church you were going to hell… sigh

    • And I got to spend a while with people who had to constantly consider the possibility of the sudden arrival of members of a certain not-Baptist Church at major public events. (Sandi Patty concert? Really?)

  5. “No one has a monopoly on being cock-sure about their beliefs.”

    That is definitely true, but in my experience atheists have at least a ten to one majority on it, over all other religions. And I’ve never understood why an atheist would feel the need to prosyletize so vigorously; I mean it isn’t like they believe they are saving anyone’s soul by convincing them that there is no higher power, or soul, for that matter.

    • That’s because we conflate a number of distinct entities into atheism. Last time I spoke of a minimum of four.

      Each of the three shouty varieties I identified has shouting tied to their intregral drive.

      The insecure are trying to control what people say around them to drown out the voices in their own head. (These are the ones that Christians seem most likely to assume are the whole of atheism.)

      The socialism-as-Christian-heresy types, who are branded as atheist, scientific, and not-a-religion, believe they can create the New Jerusalem on earth with human and mortal methods. Their evaluations tend to tell them that their New Jerusalem is close, and only requires a small amount more of extreme effort.

      The map-is-the-territory word magic types aren’t necessarily trying for thought control. They do think that if they get the rest of us participating in their rituals, their spells will work, and deliver the results they want.

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