The Human Idea Map:

A follow-up of the Human Genome Map?


- Margaret Sleeboom, Ph.D.

IAS, Leiden University, Noonnensteeg 1-3-2311, VG, Leiden, The Netherlands


Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 13 (2003), 91-3.



This essay is a comment on the Human Idea Map, central theme of TRT8, and the proclaimed follow-up of the Human Genome Map.[1] One aim of making a Human Idea Map, according to initiator Darryl Macer, in the Proposal for an Integrative Mental Mapping Project [abbr. 'Proposal'] is to answer the question of the universality of ideas.[2] The aim will be realised by mapping all ideas (in the absolute sense of 'all and every idea'), which, according to the Proposal, are discrete (countable) units. This map, it is argued, would help us 'when we're faced with dilemmas like should we have common guidelines to regulate the use of new biotechnology or assisted reproductive technology using cloning'.[3]

I believe, however, that a focus on the countability of genes, ideas and neuronal states does not necessarily lead to a better understanding of human behaviour, and proceeds, in my view, from just one a-historical idea: behaviourism.[4] The notion of an idea as a mental conceptualisation cannot be measured by rational choice theory as presented in the Proposal, because it excludes other notions of what counts as an idea. Therefore, I disagree with the argument that because the number of possible choices for action is finite and the number of sensory states of animals is finite, the number of human ideas is finite.

Even if Mental Mapping were to be the solution to the world's problems, trying to explain some ideas by means of sources, which in fact may be just other ideas, is a tautology. In this case, it is a tautology symptomatic for a reductionist approach towards human expression and history. Disregards the question of whether or not it is possible to create a Human Idea Map, instead of creating a mental map of all ideas, it may be more useful to put together a Thesaurus of Human Folly. At entrance number one, in my view, we had better put human over-self-confidence.


The historical nature of ideas

One presupposition of Mental Mapping is that man can find and create common guidelines to solve bioethical dilemmas, that are direct and give shape to human history. However, whether or not we use a new technology does not mainly depend on the question of whether we have ideas in common, leave alone bioethical ones. To paraphrase Karl Marx, People make their own history, but not always in the way they meant to.[5] In other words, structural problems exist independently of our ethical stance: different human groupings may have different interests. The fact that bioethical choices are perceived as dilemmas cannot be understood without reference to the particular situations in which they occur. Thus, in principle, one could agree with the idea of developing, say, cloning technology, though in practice one could advise against it, owing to the realisation that the technology could be misused in particular situations.

In other words, technology, its use, and its purpose cannot be understood fully or adequately through the ideas they represent. Instead, they gain their meaning in ever changing historical contexts and vary according to who is observing. Thus, in one situation, the possession of biological weapons is met with the idea of making money based on profit maximisation and in others with that of military destruction based on moral indignation. Rather than regarding mapping ideas as the key to difficult questions of warfare, bioethical dilemmas, and animosity, religious clashes and political inequality, we need to understand how inequality in power relations have come about historically. For ideas have no neutral value outside history: they change along with the rest of the world, which we perceive through them.


The Enlightenment and the instrumentality of Mental Mapping

The Proposal's idea that a universal Idea Map could somehow be completed and used for solving bioethical problems to me seems to be an optimistic one, reminiscent of the pursuits of Don Quixote. Many thinkers have warned against the naivety of overrating human knowledge, as human impulse and accident cannot be ignored with impunity. However, resolving clashes of ideas by placing them into a gigantic Idea Bank would require the help of an immense dosage of scholastic fervour, and a belief in the mediation of God or a very cunning management corporation.

The belief in the omnipotence of human control has been criticised as a product of positivism and the Enlightenment. One of the ancient pillars of the positivist belief in the power of human knowledge is Plato's view of ideas. Plato regarded ideas as mental maps, as the shadows of a finite number of images. They were types, or archetypes. In short, ideas were depicted spatially as related types that varied according to the way you looked at them.[6] These types were eternal, constituting an a-historical taxonomy. Such a-historical taxonomies revived during the Renaissance. They were also part and parcel of developments in biology, such as the taxonomy developed by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus. His taxonomy, similarly, was flat: it was timeless. The philosophical current has been criticised over and over again in East, West and elsewhere for its neglect of temporal relations and for its universal pretences.

Darwin's evolution inserted time into this equation. Social Darwinist, however, inserted a new kind of time into human history: a notion of time that linked primitive societies to complex societies vertically.[7] A serious accusation, that still holds today, was directed at the attempts by social Darwinists to project their taxonomies onto human society, which has led to both ideologies of the eugenics and universalistic ideologies of behaviour.[8] Both have enormous potential for human conflict: the former regard some categories of humans as better equipped and, therefore, superior to others; the latter tend to relate human equality to one ideal-type to which the rest of humanity is expected to conform. In times of conflict, an Idea Bank containing predefined and ordered ideas of race, physical health and behaviour norms (i.e. mental health) may be a powerful instrument when mobilised by authoritarian regimes.

Of course, many conflicts are only triggered by the clashes of ideas, not caused by the ideas themselves (for no idea exists independently!). Thus wars usually occur as the unintended consequences of actions and non-actions. In turn, these are part and parcel of complex processes, which are irreducible to cerebral neurology.


The survival value of ideas

The belief that a better understanding of the thinking of others has survival value in evolution (p. 203) is another notion borrowed from biology. In this case, it is used in support of a blind form of idealism that ignores the complexity of power relations between people. For in what situations and for whom does the understanding of others lead to survival? In wartime by knowing ones enemy? Or by knowing ones partner in love? Often it has been said that understanding the behaviour of others is the forte of women: can we say that it has contributed to their survival value? How do we historically show that the understanding of others has led to an increase in survival value?

I do not proclaim the uselessness of ideas, but object against the notion that ideas could ever be thought or understood outside their (historical) context, and that they could be ascribed some generalised function. The notion of 'ideas as having survival value' seems to be tautological. Whatever we mean by 'understanding others', as long as we don't know what it means, which seems to be the case, we can hardly claim know what is survival value. Furthermore, it is well-known that in the evolution of species criteria can be applied for fitness in a certain environment with hindsight only. This is why the nature of evolutionary laws is tautological.  In the case of humans we cannot even apply criteria with hindsight as the relationship between humans and their environment changes extremely fast. This is partly a result of the human ability to reflect upon its own behaviour. Nevertheless, some peoples seem to 'survive' very well exactly because they concentrate on understanding just a few ideas, without reflecting upon those of others, and do not bother, for instance, to learn a foreign language. Of course, the ways in which we apply ideas is crucial, and depends on the quality of the environment and timing rather than on their numbers alone.


The concept of Idea

The concept of idea in the Proposal is given various meanings and features:[9] constituting a part of memory; a linguistic expression; rational thought; rational planning; part of a mental map; a countable unit; and, choices of response. Nevertheless, in the arguments in favour of idea mapping only the last two definitions are worked out. In other words, ideas are equated to choices of response and subsequently regarded as countable units. The proof for their countability, according to the Proposal, is that surveys held in different countries yield similar views when survey respondents are asked their opinion about technology (p. 205-6).

This argument ignores, however, the fallacy of equating survey questions (choices) and their statistical analysis with an exhaustive storehouse of ideas. For the opinion-polls themselves limit the number of possible answers, as do most questionnaires. They limit choice, and therefore are conservative in principle. The closed and limiting character of surveys is expressed by:

       the ways in which questions are posed;

       the way the possible answers are arranged;

       the relationship between questionnaire and respondent; and,

       the particular point in space and time at which the survey is held.

Thus, if after a bomb threat a passenger at Heathrow Airport is asked, 'What do you think about a possible war between Iraq and the West?' the answer of the respondent is likely to be influenced by the following factors:

       what is meant by 'West' and 'war';

       the choice of answers given to the respondent;

       the fact that survey questions can hardly be questioned;

       the hierarchic relationship between the person conducting the survey and the respondent; and,

       the fact that the question is asked at Heathrow (after a bomb threat) so that answers may tend to reflect the vulnerability of the respondent.

We can hardly hope, therefore, that surveys could ever provide us with an 'objective' understanding of even one idea about just one subject in only one point of space and time.  The idea in all of its detail, leave alone the understanding of all ideas in different languages, species, spaces and times will remain out of the scholastic reach of the taxonomist creating the ultimate idea map.


Genes as the biological unit and ideas as the neuronal unit of society?

The notion that a link can be made between genes and a human phenotype (p. 203), such as speech, tells us something about a statistic correlation, not about a causal relationship. The suggestion that genes for speech may have 'enabled the social emergence of modern human communities' indicates that genes could have causal power (p. 203, 206), and that they can be isolated as a causal source. Here the Proposal draws a parallel between genes and ideas, implying that the causal power of genes (sic!) may be equated with that of ideas.

Unfortunately, popular images of the gene as clear and distinct causal agent, constituting the basis of all aspects of organismic life have become embedded in society. Similarly, the image of a genetic programme has become hard to dislodge from popular thought about genomics. Nevertheless, these notions derive from the professional world of science, in which they once upon a time had their use in a specific and limited context. For, largely, as a consequence of the recombinant DNA revolution scientists have acquired the technical capability to target and alter specific sequences of nucleotides that earlier could only be seen as vehicles for effecting specific kinds of change. These resulted in a new production of particular proteins, and genetic engineering has become a reality. The efficacy of such interventions is what persuaded many molecular biologists of the causal power of genes.[10] If causal is understood in the immediate or practical sense of the term there is no problem. But cause in such sense makes no claim either on generality or on long-term consequences.

The focus on the power of genes is also used as a tool for persuasion. It has rhetorical power, invoked not only in securing funding and promoting research agendas but also in marketing products. And the closer the ties between market and researcher, the greater the research scientist's investment becomes in the rhetorical power of a languages that works so well. Ascribing causal powers to genes shapes popular opinion and creates false images of how societies develop. Therefore, they are also counter-productive to effective discussions of public policy even where the issues are real and urgent. Using similar rhetoric for idea mapping aims to place more importance on the subject than could be attached to it otherwise. But just as at the end of the 20th century, the shortcomings of the image of the gene as self-replicating molecule of DNA has become easier to discern, the same is bound to happen to those of Mental Mapping. And just as the term gene may have become a hindrance to the understanding of the intercellular processes, not before long the term idea in the sense of 'neuronal expression' will be shown to be a hindrance to understanding cross-cultural processes.


Genetic reductionism, neuronal reductionism and ideas

The argument for genetic selection is based on the notion that a gene is more fit in evolution if it leaves more copies in the next generation. As the ideas referred to in the Proposal are subject to natural selection and linked to neurones, I assume that the same principle of natural selection is applicable to the 'ideas' accumulated as part of the Mental Map.  But this principle confuses cause and effect, and it reifies the statistical material on which the estimation of idea survival will have to be based: It confuses random changes with selective changes. For instance, though there are more people in Japan named Suzuki than there are Macer, we would not want to give the name Suzuki any causal powers, or ascribe Darwinian fitness to a name.[11] And different families leave different numbers of offspring for reasons that are at random with respect to a particular gene. Similarly, sometimes, unselected ideas may be selected for survival, because they happen to be hosted by a person or a nation that is selected as unit of survival. To assign fitness to ideas that increase or decrease in numbers by chance is a tautology, just as is ascribing fitness to the tigers on Noah's ark.

In biology, fact description of evolution is not at issue, but difficulties arise if we move from evolution as narrative to evolution as universal history. The difficulties are related to which unit of analysis we should adopt when we try to understand society: a whole population (what are the criteria for in- and exclusion); the individual (how do we isolate the individual from the group [and which group]; or, the smallest (neuro-)biological unit. I argue here that trying to attribute survival value to ideas and neurones is literally and figuratively meaningless. For how can we isolate ideas and neurones, and still attribute meaningful and causal agency to them? Once you kill the idea by decontexualising it, you can hardly ascribe viable meaning to it, let alone agency.

Claims that neurones (or genes) are the real object and the beneficiary of evolution are not open to corroboration or falsification: if humans and organisms are merely the temporary and mortal vehicles of immortal DNA, neurones or ideas, why then should we (objects of evolution) even bother about creating a mental map? What seems a creative idea at the level of a wise individual or flourishing society is really the manipulation by a neurone/idea whose sole intention is to multiply for survival. Just as genetic reductionism leads to absurdities, neuronal reductionism can only lead to the mystification of human societies.


The socio-political mediation of ideas

It seems to be clear that defining a unit of research is no easy matter, and part and parcel of the process of problem-solving. Developing a mental mapping project to 'explore similarities between cultures and communities not just at the level of the individual, but as members responding inside biological communities' (p. 205-6) is not new a new effort. Psychologists, biologists, anthropologists and sociologists have had similar aims for centuries. It is not so, as claimed in the Proposal, that science has not paid enough attention to the evolution of 'ideas'. On the contrary, the history of anthropology, psychology and sociology make clear that the evolution and systems paradigms of ideas in the social sciences of the 19th and 20th centuries played an important role contributing politically hued, ethnocentric theories applied in colonial and post-colonial policies. Evolution theory, systems theory, chaos theory and cybernetics: they all have been adapted by 'scientists' and applied onto political and social movements. But in each case, exactly because they had become part of social movements, the scientific paradigms concerned turned into ideologies severely limiting their use as tools for understanding ideas other than those within the acceptable range of their political aims.

The same may be true for the adoption of the paradigm of rational-choice theory as put forward as the most adequate tool for the mental mapping of ideas (p. 205-6). By defining the number of ideas, action and subsequent responses as limited (though variable) and subsequently limiting personal history, genetics, culture, family and upbringing as the main sources of ideas (p. 203-4), it only appears as if ideas are countable. The presumed countability of ideas is based on the notion that personal history, genetics, culture, family and upbringing exist extraneous to this world: as abstractions that do not count because they somehow exist outside of our realm of experienced reality, outside of history, and outside of relations of power. But, just as in the attempts of the social sciences to apply scientific models onto society, the conceptual tools we use for defining society are culturally and socially mediated. Even though similar physiological and mental tools are available to most humans, different humans define and use them in various ways in different cultures, positions, times and circumstances. And the only way to understand these differences without becoming conceited is by realising that our own tools of understanding others are only of limited and of heuristic value.


[1] Cf. Nature, Volume 420, issue no. 6912, 14 November 2002. p.i, 121.

[2] See, EJAIB 12 (2002): 203-6.

[3] Ibid.: 6.

[4] Behaviourism, which originated with John B. Watson around 1913 (See, John B. Watson, Behaviourism, New York: Norton) was carried on by such well-known psychologist such as B.F. Skinner, and proceeds from the objective analysis of observable behaviour. In his controversial  Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Knopf, 1971), Skinner argues for a programme of psychological engineering in society and against the meaningfulness of such ideas as freedom and dignity.

[5] Die Menschen machen ihre eigene Geschichte, aber sie machen sie nicht aus freien Stuecken, nicht unter selbstgewaehlten, sonder unter unmittelbar vorgefundenen, gegebenen und ueberlieferten Umstaenden (Karl Marx , 1869, 'Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte'. In K. Marx & F. Engels: Ausgewaehlte Schriften in zwei Baenden, Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1974. Band I: 222-317.

[6] Plato (1987) The Republic, London: Penguin Books. Pp: 200-07.

[7] Cf., one of the French fathers of the sociology: A. Comte (1967)Systeme de politique positive, ou traite de sociologie, herdr. Zeller, Osnabrueck; and one of the many students of evolution in society: L. Levy-Bruhl (1951 [1910] Les fonctions mentales dans les societes inferieures, PUF, Paris.

[8] Cf. Peter Wade, (2002) Race, nature and Culture, London, Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press; T. Morris-Suzuki (1998) Re-inventing Japan. Time, space, nation. Armonk, New York, London: M.E. Sharpe.

[9] See, EJAIB 12 (2002): 203-6.

[10] Evelyn Fox Keller (2000) The Century of the Gene, Harvard: Harvard University Press. P. 141.

[11] The idea for this example is borrowed from Richard Lewontin (2001) It Ain't Necessarily So. The dream of the human genome and other illusions, New York: New York Review Books. Chapter 9.

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