Philosopher Aristotle never thought in threes. From his law of contradiction, also labelled as the law of the excluded middle, to the binary logic of our modern computer programmes, our mindset focuses its compass and radar on pros and cons and vice versa. Mediaeval philosopher René Descartes, however, offered a small space for a third, right in the middle of the brain, the pineal gland, the source of melatonin — a hormone that regulates circadian rhythm [sleep cycle]. Descartes attested to the gland’s tiny, big value in opposition to the two major contenders in his system of thought — the thinking mind of the individual from within and the extended space outside.
The history of individualised diagnosis and treatment, as well as different concepts of the individual and their impact on medical practice and healthcare, likewise, emanates from the ancient Greeks to the present day. The concept of individuality spans the entire Western medical tradition, including alternative medicine. While some aspects of it have remained extraordinarily stable; others have evolved taking on new meanings in different social, intellectual and technological contexts. As biochemist Roger John Williams, who ‘baptised’ folic acid [vitamin B9] and discovered pantothenic acid [vitamin B5], suggested, "The existence in every human being of a vast array of attributes which are potentially measurable [whether by present methods or not], and often uncorrelated mathematically, makes quite tenable the hypothesis that practically every human being is a deviate in some respects." What does this connote? That all of us are subtly and marvellously different. Williams called the ‘spin-off’ of such individuality, or deviation, as illness or disease. New research evidences that there is certainly a reasonable possibility of individuality and also to measure the ‘vast collection of attributes’ and close the sphere between individual variation and disease. The splendid, though far-flung, objective today is to categorise vulnerability factors and prevent disease from occurring, while augmenting our current representation of pathology and treating symptoms more effectively.
Integrative and functional medicine too focuses on the interdependent relationship between biochemical individuality, metabolic balance, ecological interactions, and unique personal experience in the dynamics of health. According to the Institute for Functional Medicine, US, the definition of biochemical individuality is simple and profound, “Each individual has a unique physiological and biochemical composition, based on the interactions of his or her individual genetic make-up with lifestyle and environment — i.e., the continuous exposure to inputs, such as diet, experiences, nutrients, beliefs, toxins, medications etc. — that influence our genes. It is this combination of factors that accounts for the endless varieties of phenotypic responses seen every day by clinicians. The unique make-up of each individual also, likewise, requires personalised levels of nutrition and lifestyle adapted to that individual’s needs in order to achieve optimal health. The consequences of not meeting the specific needs of the individual are expressed, over time, as degenerative disease.”
The idea holds good for alternative and complementary medical practices, no less. ‘Holistic’ medical practitioners not only take into account the given individual’s constitutional or personality type — physical, emotional, and intellectual elements — they evaluate and analyse unique symptoms, or symptoms that are as distinctive for each individual as their fingerprint, or signature, and not just the given illness by its name alone.
The inference in our current context would, therefore, be obvious — if one acquiesces to the fact that such dynamics are not fully the result of genetic inheritance, what’s left could just as well be accounted for by environmental influences and vice versa. Agreed that ‘that’ something would violate our mode of thought, or the convenience of our habitual operations. It would also upset the applecart of people who link comfortable thinking with clarity of thought.
Interestingly, however, ‘that’ something has more to it than what meets our mind. For one thing, it cannot be confined within the precincts of nature or nurture. Take for example, the remarkable singularity of individuals and the disparities among billions of people — even between identical twins. This is uniqueness. You may also agree to any view, as being the reason behind that something — one that may be espoused by heredity, theology, economics, past lives, history, society etc., So far, so good. Yet, one cannot yet dispute the pre-eminent role played by the DNA, the corkscrew that carries the genetic code and plays a major part in the governance of our lives — physically, psychologically and also spiritually.
New research may not concur with such ‘obvious’ generalisations, thanks to its solid grounding in a specific, technologically-based approach. It’s a methodology which is also precisely differentiated in its methods and sophisticated in its questions. It inquires about differences, even among individuals who are genetically closely linked. Here’s one palpable quip: why do twins have different characters, or different fates?
Notwithstanding the ground swell of scientific opinion, neither genes nor environment can be unquestionably shown to determine eminence, or intellect, for instance, yet. As psychologist, and scholar, James Hillman writes, “The striking individuality of the eminent, who we suppose represent or partake in ‘creativity’ [however it be defined], is not attributed either to nature or nurture. Something else? An independent factor?” He elaborates, “To avoid parsing out the ‘something else’ and declaring for an independent factor, behavioural explanations blend nature and nurture.” According to Hillman, the two propose a mysterious weaving of black and white threads whose results is so subtly entwined that we are confronted with a gray screen of uncertainty — or, whether creativity is primarily genetic or environmental. The idea is not all-encompassing, because it offers less contentment to the imaginative mind.
New findings suggest that our genetic factor appears to get stronger during the middle years of childhood. The findings concern both creativity and traditionalism, or a tendency to follow rules and authority, and support high moral standards and rigid discipline. So, if creativity shows a modest genetic influence, ‘traditionalism,’ says Hillman, seems rather strongly indicated. This is surprising, even though the data are apolitical, as science must ‘pretend’ to be, if one is to agree with a timeless maxim — the individual identity of each human being is not only an article of religious faith, but also an axiom of the Western and the Eastern mind.
Human individuality, notes Hillman, is also a statistical quasi-certainty. There are a brace of theories that support the concept. One is ‘emergenesis,’ which accounts for genetic convergent phenomena and similarities and the other is ‘epistasis.’ Epistasis refers to the inhibitory effect of genes acting on one another in an amazing repertoire of combinations. In Hillman’s words, “Behavioural differences among individuals involve many genes, perhaps hundreds. Each of these genes can make its own small independent contributions to variability among individuals.”
Epistasis, in other words, is like genetic luck: an unpredictable ‘luck of the draw’ in philosopher Plato’s parlance. Now, we have a new name for it: ‘chaos theory,’ a major area in studies of heredity. Yet, reason would make us concede that we cannot think of our biographies only as time-bound, a progression along a line from birth to death. As philosopher Plotinus, a Platonian, put it, “The soul moves in circles.” Adds Hillman, “Our lives are not moving straight ahead; instead, hovering, wavering, returning, renewing, and repeating. The genes work in lags and spurts. The sense of being ‘in the zone,’ in touch, opened out, blasted, seeing and knowing, comes and goes utterly unpredictably and yet with stable patterns.”
So, we seem unique, yet not quite unique. To paraphrase Hillman, “I am different from everyone else and the same as everyone else; I am different from myself ten years ago and the same as myself ten years ago; my life is a stable chaos, chaotic and repetitive both, and I can never predict what tiny, trivial bit of input will result in a huge and significant output. I must always remain acutely sensitive to initial conditions, such as what or who came into the world with me and enters the world with me each day. On that I remain dependent.” Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung placed the idea in synchronous perspective: “In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted.” To paraphrase artist Pablo Picasso who too articulated, more or less, on identical lines, “I don’t develop; I am.”