Who am I? Most of us ask the question at critical stages or during periods of major upheaval in our lives, as in puberty. Or when we are passed over for a promotion. Or after the loss of a job. The question always refers to the individual, even though the answer has two dimensions: me as a person, and me as part of a group. Without doubt, in our quest for answers we are seeking something that makes us unique and different from the “other”. By implication, we also assume a certain component of constancy or “sameness” in who we are, otherwise we would remain uncertain about our nature.
Unfortunately, according to philosophers and social scientists, it is difficult to determine “sameness” in the person. This is demonstrated in the Ship of Theseus thought experiment. Greek hero Theseus sailed home to Athens and his ship was put on permanent public display. However, the timbers eventually began to rot and over the years, carpenters replaced the planks one by one. At what point did the ship cease to be the original? When all the old parts were replaced, how could it have been the same ship? Surely it was only a replica? We know that the constituent cells of our bodies are similarly continually dying and being replaced. Therefore, what makes us the same person as we move through time?
Some, including great names like Descartes, Locke, Hume, Erikson and others, tried to overcome the conundrum by suggesting that “sameness” resides in memory, thinking, consciousness, or “sense” of self. The problem here is—how to account for persistence when we sleep, or if we happen to be in a coma, or if we have the misfortune of getting Alzheimer’s Disease?
Many social scientists began to conclude that it was fruitless to continue the discussion and surrendered to the view that we cannot be definite about who we are as persons. Rather than assuming there is any persistence let’s acknowledge that it cannot be pinned down. In these cases, self-perception becomes dependent on who you think you are; it can, indeed, change according to your views of yourself; so, it may be in a state of constant flux. The word then split along countless fissures of meaning, resulting in contemporary confusion.
Science comes to the rescue
Since 1987, hundreds of forensic cases have been decided with the assistance of genetic fingerprinting. Confidence about its application is based on the observation that our individual DNA sequences are unique. Even so-called identical twins are not really identical. Besides, a DNA fingerprint is the same for every cell, tissue, and organ of our body, with a few exceptions (like gametes and brain neurons). Our basic DNA blueprint is present in our first cell (the zygote) and remains the same at every step of life until the death of the organism. In other words, DNA reveals what is meant by “sameness” in who we are, were and will be. We are one and the same person at every moment of our lives.
DNA makes all former discussions on the topic—even those of the great philosophers—redundant. The implications become even more remarkable when DNA is extended to collective identity. A species is generally defined, in biological terms, by a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. Ability to reproduce with our own is the essential unchanging constant that distinguishes us as human.
And human genetics don’t correlate well with the normal divisions of humanity like race, ethnicity, culture or nation. So-called “races”, ethnicities and cultures blur into each other when examined from the perspective of DNA. Nations are, by and large, artificial segments of territory on the globe’s landmass and contain few, if any, collective genetic traits that distinguish people within their borders from those outside. Genetics, which underpins the biology of our species, is the new classifier. It is the unique factor that explains “sameness” in the group at all times or in all circumstances. Communal identity is, therefore, fully satisfied at the species level and only at that level.
Personal and collective identities can now be defined as: The “sameness” of the person or group at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person or group is itself and not something else.
The objective solution to the ancient conundrum of “sameness” despite all changes in the person and community is an enormous paradigm shift. The concept standardises the meaning of “identity” across all disciplines, provides it with linguistic precision, is robust and much superior to the chaos that currently constitutes the “identity debate”. Its mere revelation should induce widespread support—if not acceptance—at least amongst experts in the humanities and social sciences. Surprisingly, this is not the case. Why?
The most salient objection appears to be fear that use of genetics in defining identity implies a case is being made that human behaviour is controlled by an individual’s genes at the expense of the role of the environment, learning or free will. This is a spurious concern. The objective definitions of identity are derived from a clarification of the meaning of “sameness” in terms of human genetics and do not necessarily support any other biological inferences. They in no way support genetic determinism or reductionism. They do not deal with these topics.
Perhaps there are other reasons too. The main obstacle to the acceptance of the objective definitions may not be one of logic, but reluctance, on the part of the academic world, to undertake the uncomfortable shift in direction that is urgently required. Perhaps there is a feeling that the whole process has gone too far to execute the radical reforms that are required to solve the crisis of meaning in “identity”. A collective attitude of this sort would be absurd. In the interest of enhancing human knowledge, the academic world must continually and critically review its methods and approaches to ensure that the highest professional standards are applied at all times, irrespective of the challenges that have to be confronted and overcome.
By Raymond M. Keogh, Director of Our Own Identity, is a retired scientist who specialised in tropical hardwood silviculture for over thirty years. He recently completed a book on the new definition of identity
A longer version of this article is available here.
Featured image credit: EDSITEment (Public domain)