‘It’s in the blood, it’s in the genes’. It’s interesting how ideas, centuries old, are believed by everybody; then they are shown to be false by science. Then nobody believes them and then science comes up again with a new discovery and people believe the old ideas again – but with a new background. This has happened in the study of the human mind. We used to think it was ‘in the blood,’ that there was noble blood and noble characteristics and courage and honesty and authority; the right to command was in the blood, and people who had low blood did not have these characteristics, and this gradually got extended. You’ve got families of painters – father and son and grandson were all painters, or they were all musicians, or they were all doctors and we said, “Ah well, of course, they’ve got painting in their blood, they’ve got music in their blood, they’ve got medicine in their blood”. That meant people with that blood from those families would find it especially easy to study medicine or painting or music or mathematics and, if they didn’t have that blood, it would be very difficult or impossible.
In some of the nineteenth century novels you would get the son or the daughter of a noble family and then they would go into very humble circumstances, and nobody expected much from them. Then there would be some crisis and they would show tremendous courage, daring, vision and intelligence and people would say, “Ah, it’s the blood!”. Of course, the idea had some opponents. People said, “Well, the so-called noble blood simply means that the children of those who fight are taught to fight. The children of doctors naturally learn, they see doctoring all around them when they are very small and naturally they imitate it, just as a carpenter tends to and his son tends to be a carpenter too”.
The blood theory held up fairly well until the Industrial Revolution. Until then the aristocrats who were rich, powerful, took the line that they were there because they belonged there. It was the right place for them because they had better blood than the others, but when the new inventions and discoveries of the Industrial Revolution came along, many of those inventors were not from high-class families at all. Some of them were very poor and they fought their way up, and so did the businessmen, the shop-keepers. Some of them became millionaires; so then it was not a question of blood, it was a question of ability, and the idea of the all-importance of so-called blood hereditary took a downward dive. Then at the end of the century Lombroso, a great Italian psychiatrist, formed the idea that criminals, especially, are born with certain characteristics – physical characteristics – which make them criminal. He thought he could identify them by measuring the skull, especially, and a popularised version of this led to phrenology, where it was assumed that the brain inside followed the outline of the skull outside, so that if you looked at the bumps and shape of the skull you could tell what the brain was like. Then by piling up cases you could predict what people were like just from the shape of the skull. For instance, if you had a broad, wide forehead you were intelligent. I suppose this corresponds in some ways to the old Japanese art of Ninso, where the face especially was looked at and he was supposed to be able to deduce all sorts of things about you and, incidentally, about your future from that.
I did notice too sometimes that the Japanese believers in the noble family and blood theory – well, it’s all over the world of course – had one or two unusual things. For instance, religious leaders in the West have often come from a very poor background – and that was expected because the early Christians were very poor and they were persecuted and were burnt alive and so on. In the same way, in Islam, Mohammed was not a rich man at all and the early converts to Christianity and Islam were the underprivileged; they were mostly slaves and women. So, they didn’t expect the religious leaders to be of noble birth, but in Japan apparently they seemed to like it. People like Dogen, Kukai and Kobo Daishi were of noble families. I learned, to my surprise, that Nichiren came from a family which was not at all distinguished. It was a low-level job that his father had, but his followers made some attempts to show that he was in fact of noble descent.
Now we are finding that the new science of genetics and gene manipulation, as it is called, is calling out visions which are very similar to those which were attached to the idea of noble blood or specially talented blood. For instance, supposedly popular now, they’re hoping to find the genes for mathematical ability. Of course, the popular conclusion is not drawn by scientists who know that there’s no single gene that has anything to do with mathematical ability by itself but, if there is such a thing as inherited mathematical ability, it will be the interaction of hundreds and thousands of genes. It will be quite impossible to isolate them or distinguish them. But popularly the hope is that it will be possible to create great mathematicians. However, a tiny little study of history shows how false this is. Einstein was a dull boy. He hardly spoke before he was three years old and then he was a failure at school and he did quite a lot of his education at home and educated himself in some respects, though he did go to university. He did go into mathematics, it’s true, he was under the great Minkowski, one of the greatest mathematicians of the time, who rated Einstein as very poor – “weak in mathematics and always lost in his foolish dreams”. Einstein never took a higher degree. He had his basic degree – he just scraped through, and then he went into the Patents Office and worked there. He was totally outside the stream of academic research into mathematics.
He had doctorates conferred on him and he became famous, but he never passed the exams beyond his first basic degree. His speculations and predictions about the photo-electric effect got him the Nobel Prize and then Relativity. Well, it doesn’t seem that that was a gene which was effective from his childhood. Something happened very much later on in life which converted those ‘foolish dreams’ into works of genius.
There is an amusing story about him. He was a talented amateur violinist and he knew the family of Yehudi Menuhin and sometimes when their paths happened to cross when Yehudi was making his world tours they used to meet together and they would play violin duets. Sometimes members of the family used to sit and listen and one of them reported that once they were playing one of these duets which had a rather tricky rhythm. Menuhin stopped and Albert Einstein too stopped and then Menuhin said, “Oh, let’s go back to the beginning again of this section”. So they went back to the beginning again and then went on and went wrong again and Menuhin stopped and he said, “Albert, can’t you count?”
I think often the idea that we are sort of determined in a way by outside factors, in the present case it’s genes. In the very early days it was our stars, but now it’s genes and this is used as an excuse, isn’t it? I suppose the astrologers would say, “Well, of course if the stars are against you, they will influence the genes and the blood and perhaps the shape of your skull, too, so they’ll all be against you”.
I remember reading one of the old Japanese texts which quite impressed me. It said, “Even if this is a very lucky day, if you don’t work sincerely things will not go so well, and even if this is a very unlucky day, if you work sincerely things will not go so badly”. That gave me a nice sense of independence – stars, blood, skull shapes, phrenology and now genes. It is not these things which control us. We can control ourselves.