Niche

wheat

My sister’s birthday is this month, and so I spent some time recently shopping for a gift. I had something fairly specific in mind… She loves elephants, and her birthstone is amethyst, and I wanted to send her a bracelet. I swiftly typed these three terms into my Etsy search bar, and with a few clicks, I found something perfectly purple and understated, to suit her elegant taste. I even had the option to add her initial… in loopy, understated script, of course.

We live in a customized world, my friends. If you can dream it, chances are that someone has a website for it. This applies to everything from birthday jewelry to dating, healthcare to education. We’ve become accustomed to being catered to. Accommodated. Nothing is one size fits all or standard issue, and every opinion can garner support. So, let us engage in a little cost/benefit analysis of this uniquely modern phenomenon.

Now it needs to be stated: we are but risen apes. Our basic needs do not vary among individuals. Physiological necessities will always come first. Nutrition, hydration, shelter, and the like. (This is not necessarily whole-wheat organic goat cheese and heirloom tomato pizza. We’re talking about straightforward caloric intake.) Once these requirements are fulfilled, we become concerned about safety and security; things like employment and property. However, as each successive level of need is guaranteed, essentials become ever more dependent upon individual preference. This is where the concept of customization shines. It helps us to realize some of our higher-level demands as conscious beings. An environment that is sensitive to individual needs is more conducive to the achievement of self-actualization and esteem, which encompasses things like creativity, sense of purpose, acceptance, and inner potential.

What does this mean? Well, access to options that suit our distinct personalities, connection with like-minded people may aid us in maximizing personal satisfaction and gratification. After all, there’s no better way to enhance a sense of belonging than interacting with others who think as you do. Finding exactly what you want, when you want it (thanks, Amazon one-day shipping) …material or otherwise… caters to those lofty top-of-the pyramid needs.

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And it’s not just (relative) frivolity. We are now embarking into an age of customized, patient-centric medicine. Where chemotherapy can be tailored for optimal efficacy given your genome and diagnosis. Where your health screenings are targeted to identify the issues that are most likely to affect you based on an array of variables.

But in this balmy ocean of dating sites for farmers and curated shopping experiences lurk the sharks. The costs. What do we exchange for all this focus on individuality? For one thing, we tend to behave as though all ideas have equal levels of validity. Credibility. And in this case, I’m not even referring to the views of the educated expert vs. the novice. Rather, what concerns me is the narrowing of focus amongst our authorities.

One of the hallmarks of good science is mutability. Fact is only fact as long as we haven’t come across contradictory information. In the light of new data, our theories change and adapt. What is the goal of scientific inquiry, if not to reflect the nature of our universe with the highest degree of accuracy we can muster?

But on some level, science has followed hand in hand with the customization of society. Experts in various fields have adopted very specific worldviews and utilized them as lenses through which to interpret information. For example, the “feminist anthropologist.” (Yes, this is a thing.) Risen apes, right? We all apply personal experience to observations, we all bring personality and past to the table when it comes to describing our surroundings. However, it is crucial that science remain somewhat compartmentalized, segregated from emotional and individual influence.

When an anthropologist unapologetically, and with abandon, views data through the lens of feminism or Feminist Theory, the field narrows. The capacity of the discipline to furnish humankind with truths about ourselves is diminished.  Potentially valid theories, relevant information, are excluded if they fail to fit within the parameters of a feminist point of view. Essentially, this is a form of extremism. Which, in any capacity, is generally detrimental. I would go so far as to say that this level of partisanship represents a departure from the lens analogy and is akin to an intellectual blindfold. This goes beyond passion and enters the realm of zealotry. It isn’t about taking a stand. Emotional extremes by their very nature fail in terms of rationality.

By way of example, let’s consider the human breast. This point was addressed in the podcast Breasts Unbound, available on Audible. There is some mystery surrounding the development of human female breast tissue, and the mechanism for its evolution remains a point of contention for anthropologists. It has been posited that as we began to ambulate in a more upright fashion, female anatomy changed to elicit sexual attraction in males. Essentially, that the appearance of breasts is reminiscent of the female posterior. As you can imagine, this theory is met with some resistance. Another faction maintains that ample fatty breast tissue is favorable for the feeding of infants with relatively flat human faces and could be further conducive to survival by acting as a storage reservoir for energy. In listening to the arguments for both possibilities, I was a bit baffled by the unbridled antagonism exhibited toward those in the opposing camp. Evolution isn’t simple. It isn’t driven in singularity by any one thing. Wouldn’t an integration of the two theories be in order? We’re not looking at a situation that involves mutual exclusivity.

Logic would dictate that experts in any field would endeavor to approach with the maximum amount of impartiality that can coexist with fallible humanity. I’m not sure when it became acceptable to flaunt bias. But the division of fields into what equates to opposing corners, eschewing the integration of ideas, seems like a nonstarter of an idea. The universe is a breathtakingly complex place, and as such, very little boils down to this or that. Typically, we find that reality is a composition of innumerable factors. Staunch refusal to accept alternate theories before rejection is irresponsible at best, and fairly negligent.

Historically speaking, this hasn’t gone well.  In my recent reading, (Dinner with Darwin, Johnathan Silvertown) I was reminded of the work of Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943), a Russian scientist who dedicated his life to ending mass famine in his homeland through botanical genetics. Vavilov spent years gathering a massive collection of cereal grain seed and developing strains that would survive the harsh northern climate in order to more effectively sustain the human population. He originally postulated that the greatest genetic diversity of a given plant species would be found around the site of origin. While this ultimately proved unsupportable by evidence, Vavilov’s dedication, his seed collection and breeding program, produced about a thousand new cultivars. However, with breathtaking tragedy, Vavilov met his end through starvation in a Russian prison, along with many of his colleagues. (1)

Which inevitably brings us to the concept of Lysenkoism. In short, Trofim Lysenko (1898–1976), darling of the Soviet government, staunchly rejected Mendelian genetics (and by association the work of Vavilov) in favor of acquired heritability… the Lamarckian idea that environment trumps genotype. He experimented with pre-treatment and sowing conditions of seeds, and claimed that he could alter plant performance through environmental exposure alone. Though entirely inaccurate, this idea was adopted by the Soviet leadership, and rejection of Mendelian genetics became policy. (2) As such, scientists such as Vavilov were accused of crimes against the state and punished with stunning severity.

The moral of this catastrophe, ladies and gents, is all wrapped up in the influence of government and public opinion on scientific endeavors, but also speaks to any steadfast rejection of theory or hypothesis, evidence be damned. The sheer idiocy of militant, institutionalized control over science was so remarkable that Lysenko got his own special -ism, forever to be remembered as an irrational oppressor.

While, lamentably, Lysenko episode does not represent the only historical example of Lysenkoism, it serves to illustrate the point. Regardless of intention, anything that restricts the field of vision during scientific inquiry simply obscures the truth.

I’m delighted that I was able to find a gift that is likely to please (you’re welcome, sis), and I’m grateful that my physician can recommend treatment tailored to my personal specifics. But perhaps it is time to examine the prudent limits of our customized world. We continue to dance on the shoulders of giants, and the music plays on… as long as we engage in active cooperation with our peers and colleagues, eyes open to the world.
(1) Silvertown, J. (2017). Dinner with Darwin: Food, drink, and evolution. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2750069/

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