Beware the Binary

(Image by Gordon Johnson via Pixabay)

After years of doggedly alternating “he” and “she” or choosing mischievously contrarian pronouns (“If a welder joins the union, she can expect …”), the struggle is over. Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year and the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Decade are one and the same: the gender-neutral “they.” No longer must we presume that maleness is the default. No longer must we toggle between compartmentalized hypotheticals.

It is the latest move in what sometimes feels like a protracted domino game, with one binary pair of opposites collapsing after another.

First came either/or. For better results and less homicidal arguments, we were told to think “both/and.” Even improv classes told actors to respond to wild assertions by saying, “Yes, and …”

Then came the spectrums. Smart versus stupid? Howard Gardner’s seven intelligences gave us so many different ways to be intelligent that this cruel and false dichotomy crumbled. Children were not “autistic” or “normal”; many landed somewhere on “the spectrum,” and quite a few brilliant “normal” minds began to realize they were a little bit autistic themselves. People were not gay or straight, either; we all landed someplace on a continuum.

Euphemisms always padded those walls we built around identity. “Tomboys” and “sensitive, artistic” men occupied the middle of a spectrum long before we admitted there was one. A woman was not fat or thin, she was Rubenesque. Alas, we used the euphemisms for others, never for ourselves. How many women do you know who wail, at home in front of a mirror, “I’m Rubenesque!”

But it helped to joke, awkwardly at first, about men’s inner feminine side, and to realize that women had a share of testosterone and more ambition than had ever been credited. Now, v-e-r-y gradually, even the old discomfort of seeing someone whose gender you cannot immediately guess is dropping away. Soon all those swabbed genealogy tests will throw the thin, thin epithelial layer of melatonin-driven black-versus-white into question, too.

Fate versus free will is another false pairing that has plagued us. How often have we beaten ourselves up over something that was not entirely in our control or moped fatalistically about something that was? There is “no absolute distinction between being influenced and being free,” notes Terry Eagleton in On Evil. “A good many of the influences we undergo have to be interpreted in order to affect our behaviour; and interpretation is a creative affair. It is not so much the past that shapes us as the past as we (consciously or unconsciously) interpret it. And we can always come to decipher it differently.”

In other words, it is the stories we tell ourselves about what happens to us and who we are that shape what comes next. And some of those are stories told to us by parents or experience, and some we have filtered through certain lenses, and some could be rewritten in a heartbeat.

Now we are learning to think just as flexibly about mind and body, which are not a pair of vying influences but a seamless and inseparable whole. Years ago, I pestered researchers: “Is schizophrenia genetic? Is alcoholism?” When they started talking about genetic predispositions and “insults” from the environment, maybe a flu virus prenatally or a toxin in the air or a temperament and lifestyle that modified the predisposition … I began to see how rigid and impossible my question was.

What makes us who we are, nature or nurture? Yes. Nurture influences nature, and traits we learn can shape the raw genetic material in sharply different ways.

Dr. C. Robert Cloninger, professor emeritus in psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, began his career as a geneticist. There were four hard-wired traits of personality, he announced: novelty seeking, harm avoidance, reward dependence, and persistence (despite frustration or fatigue).

But over the years, Cloninger began to look at how those traits emerged and evolved in individual lives. “One day, a colleague brought in the temperament profile from my personality test of her husband, a very successful investment banker,” he tells me over coffee. “I had just finished a personality study of a violent murderer, and I did a doubletake: The two profiles were the same—except that one was extremely healthy and successful. I just put my head down: My God, I have made a huge mistake here. There must be other things I’m not measuring that make the difference. And that is when I began studying character.”

Cloninger identified three aspects of character—self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence—as the path to the good life. They could soften an aggressive set of genetic traits into leadership or encourage a cautious, sensitive set into creative genius. “Essentially, we discovered that we could deconstruct personality into parts that were strongly heritable, but any temperament style could be made to be healthy,” he explains.

It was a neat solution that immediately got complicated, because those three aspects of character that Cloninger “discovered”—by tracing their role all the way back to classical antiquity—are not simply taught to us by our elders. These traits, too, have a genetic foundation. And they act as regulator genes, modifying other traits.

In 2018, Cloninger and his research partner announced that they had identified 1,000 genes that explain every bit of personality we inherit. But how we use those inherited personality traits, he notes quickly, depends on how well we discipline our impulses, share and cooperate, feel part of something greater than ourselves, and quiet ourselves to listen to an inner voice, one that not imposed by religious authority but comes from deep within us.

Health often depends on those traits of self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence as well. Cloninger worries about 23andMe and all the other over-the-counter genetic tests: “They are finding a few genes that are related to diseases, but it turns out that the genetics themselves don’t determine whether you get the disease. Regulator genes are like orchestra directors: There is a difference in how our genes are expressed because these regulator genes organize which genes get expressed together.”

The traits that are activated when you are in a state of calm and love, not fear, influence how resilient you are and how well you heal. Those three character traits that make such a difference in how a life unfolds also wield a powerful influence over the body, especially a crucial physiological variable called heart-rate variability. When you are at ease, calm, grateful, balanced, and purposeful—because you are self-directed, cooperative, and self-transcendent—your heart’s rhythm will be synchronized in the healthiest way possible.

We are stitched together more intricately than we knew, and rarely is our fate as simple as either/or.

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!