Day 9

I expressed, in an earlier post my new found love of Timothy Morton.  In this writing I take one of his ideas (strange strangers) and place it over the article (also referenced in an earlier post) “There’s a Gene for That.”


Timothy Morton’s book “The Ecological Thought” introduces the concept of “strange strangers.”  For Morton, the strange strangers are the gaps found within the “mesh” (interconnectedness of all things) and they cannot be defined or labeled.  “The strange stranger, conversely, is something or someone whose existence we cannot anticipate.  Even when strange strangers showed up, even if they lived with us for a thousand years, we might never know them fully – and we would never know whether we had exhausted our getting-to-know process” (Morton 42).  These “strange strangers” are the uncanny and each time we try to pin them down other “strange strangers” appear.

This concept is difficult for me to grasp, so I have chosen to utilize this notion in my readers response, with the thought it will push me to try to understand the vast connotations this theory suggests.

An article, written by Pankaj Mehta, immediately came to mind while reading about “strange strangers.”  Mehta is discussing the problems of biological determinism, such as racism, sexism, classism and he suggests “there is a gene for just about every inequality and inequity in modern society.” [1]  Mehta goes on to claim,  “[a]rmed with large genomic datasets and an arsenal of statistical techniques, a small but vocal band of scientists are determined to hunt down the genetic basis of all we are and all we do.” He goes on to say “… the genetic determinist’s playbook in the genomics era is clear: Collect mass quantities of sequence data. Find an ill-defined trait (like political preference). Find a gene that is statistically overrepresented in the sub-population that “possesses” that trait. Declare victory. Ignore the fact that these genes don’t really explain the phenotypic variance of the trait. Instead, claim that if we only had more data the statistics would all work out. Further generalize these results to the level of societies and claim they explain the fundamental genetic basis of human behavior.”

These scientists are continually seeking “The” answer to biological difference/sameness.  The gaps, or unfamiliar, is what genetic scientist are trying to chase down and make familiar.  Genetic determinist research is in a stage of “getting to know” process that can only reveal more unfamiliarity.  Morton would insist “[e]ven if biology knew all the species on Earth, we would still encounter them as strange strangers, because of the inner logic of knowledge.  The more you know about something, the stranger it grows” (Morton 17).  The argument could be made once a species has been identified and the more you try to understand that one species, the less you will know or understand about the identified species.

Mehta states “[b]iological determinism seems plausible precisely because it gives the illusion that it is grounded in scientific observation.”  Morton would agree and take this thought even further by stating, “the trouble with pure semblance is that it’s like an illusion … Monstrousness and illusoriness go together” (Morton 74).

In essence, when scientist seek out the “strange stranger” they are categorizing and trying to contain these illusory ideas, creating greater harm to the “strange stranger” which, as suggested earlier, could very well be ourselves.

Categories are typically created for inclusion or exclusion and for Morton “[r]ather than a vision of inclusion, we need a vision of intimacy.  We need threshold, not spheres or concentric circles, for imagining where the strange stranger hangs out” (Morton 78).

Mehta points out the problems of biological determinism by illustrating the harms it can create by inequality and power due to our capitalist structures.  Morton would expound further and say that by narrowly focusing our interest of the “mesh” to biology alone, we have limited our view of interconnectedness.  “At its limit, it [the ecological thought] is a radical openness to everything.  The ecological thought is therefore full of shadows and twilights” (Morton 15).

Ultimately, there is nothing “natural” about anything.  Science will not find why boys may be “naturally” inclined for aggression.  Science will not find why girls may be “naturally” inclined to be submissive.  Nature is the strange stranger and the more we try to unveil her/his/its “nature” the more “unnatural” it will become.  Life (in all forms) is a messy jumbled monster enmeshed in interconnectedness that does not allow to be quantified.

[1] Mehta, Pankaj, “There’s a Gene for That”,



Filed under My thoughts, School

4 responses to “Day 9

  1. All too often, people ascribe motivations to whole groups of people they do not know. I find it ironic that the person who says that scientists are looking for one genetic cause for every trait has not himself taken the time to really get to know the “strange stranger” that is the scientist. Why do scientists study genes? Not so that someone can later manipulate those genes for political or aethetic reasons, as so many people accuse. No; almost all genetic studies are for purposes of betterment, but not some superficial version of “better.”

    Better as in, no longer suffering from cystic fibrosis. Better, as in the ability to predict that a woman will have breast-cancer–better, as in, one day, the ability to discover that a woman with certain genetic vulnerabilities to getting breast-cancer can avoid that fate not by cutting her breasts off preemptively, as some women do now, but by avoiding certain triggers in her environment that would affect the epigenetic decoding of some of her less-effective cancer-fighting genes.

    When scientists discover, they do so almost always to either fix something that truly is a problem, or because they’re simply, innocently curious, the way children are curious. There is an idea within science that we are not to moralize about what we do–that climate scientists must simply present politicians with the evidence for climate change and Global Weirding, but not state their adamant, insistent, terrified demand that the politicians legislate us away from the cliff.

    Get to know that scientist and you will find that they are not the awe-destroyers that this author seems to think; that we are buried in awe, overwhelmed by joy of discovery when we find a new thing we had not suspected. We are happy to discover a gene for some quirky little trait, not because we want to cut people into tiny little pieces of traits but because–who would have ever thought that the tendency to smile more on one side of the face more than the other is controlled by this one tiny, persnickety little combination of AGCT! Wow, what a silly little thing to control! It’s not a tiny piece of a person–it’s a funny little discovery along the path to something else, so we laugh, because we’re human.

    The author truly has not seen us as anything but strange.

  2. Marcy

    I’m not giving the book proper credit, apparently, as he doesn’t advocate the dismissal of science. Too the contrary, he is asking for a balance and respect for the “strange stranger.” His theories are difficult to understand. The best I could do, to give Morton credence, is suggest you buy the book. You won’t regret it!

  3. Marcy

    You point out errors in my critique … thank you! I see my errors in relating his theories!

  4. Cool–only want to be useful, not critical! And of course, I see things through my own filters. As an atheist and a climate-focused biologist, I have heard far too many things said of scientists that are essentially inhuman or dehuminizing; most recently, Oprah Winfrey telling Diana Nyad that she could not feel “wonder” because she’s an atheist. So there’s that component to my reaction that takes some part of what you wrote and makes more of it than what someone else might have seen.

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