Mapping the human enome


The human genome project started in 1990 and continues today (I guess with ever decreasing marginal return) towards the exhaustive mapping of the core physical cells which make us. Definitions vary on when the project will be ‘complete’ but as Ray Kurzweil points out, we are accelerating towards whichever version of completeness you chose, as the technology to sequence the genome improves. This is a finite task.

This is of course very impressive.

But it will tell us absolutely nothing about why I used to hate my 13+ geography teacher, why Lindsay Lohan chose to throw away a promising acting career, what drove Tony Hancock to take his own life or how to sell a new type of toilet paper to anyone.


What we would need for that is an equivalent map of motivation?

I’m talking about a kind of super-matrix of Maslow needs, helping us to start to understand how the decisions we take are actually part of a broader model of interconnected behaviours and reasons we behave and think in certain ways – whether those motivations are primal, like the physiological elements of the hierarchy of needs, or more sophisticated like much discussed concept of ‘self actualisation’.

Such a model would certainly be useful in looking at tactics we use to address behaviours and behavioural problems, whether serious issues in development or less-serious issues (23 year olds are simply not buying enough cranberry juice), so why hasn’t it been done, or does it simply exist and I’ve been unable to find it? (Wikipedia lists the emotions here:, there is something interesting in this:

What sort of cook book would we be writing here? Will we – like chemists – come up with a long list of basic emotions from which all others will be cooked, or will we – like physicists – find a key emotion or two which sits as the basis of the entire system, and from which everything can be made?

I think we’re looking here at a system we can reduce to few components, maybe even one, the fear of death. From this fear we can start to derive many of the decisions  that fill our daily lives. Death drives us to build a physical and mental security and to want to be part of wider, social groups. Death makes us want to reproduce, to extend our legacy beyond our actual lifetimes.

How about belief systems in major external factors, like religion and patriotism. Surely such otherwise peculiar behaviours start to make sense when we can see how they relate to a complex map of beliefs based on more fundemental conditioning we have undergone.

So I propose a first draft of a tree of decision making which is as follows (and many many apologies for doing it in smart art). image

The one thing that strikes me absolutely immediately is that so many of the immediate motivations relate so directly to areas provided for my religion. In Connected, Nicholas Christakis argues that belief in a higher-power can support the desire to be part of a network, it also – often – supports the need to think beyond one’s death and many many aspect of family life and social cohesion. Put more broadly, the need to understand moral codes, seems to link directly to the model I have outlined.

The areas shown here seem to be amongst the most primal. Where we can relate the behaviour we are trying to foster to these motivations, we will be far more likely to drive adherence. Magazine editors have long known that money, sex and chocolate sell. Apple have unleashed the powerful allure of group status and immediate clique membership.

Perhaps I’ll not get to the bookshelf of densely packed information shown at the top (in the Wellcome Collection’s physical readout of the human genome) but I’m going to keep exploring this concept, trying to find motivations which just don’t fit. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the idea.

2 thoughts on “Mapping the human enome”

  1. It’s 4.45am and I’m buried in snow. You brought me here (indirectly) and yes, I fear for my life. Joking aside, will your ‘decision tree’ is already making sense, I have a couple of observations. Inadvertently you are suggesting that all our behaviors are either wholly conscious- and depressingly negative in terminus- or wholly subconscious, following a reactionary ‘sub plot’. With my rejection of the first notion, I’d suggest that (personally) the separation between my subconscious ‘schema’ and the ‘programs’ then run on it, my behaviors, is (or seems) extreme. I hope I embrace life for the sake of life, not for the avoidance of death. And self accualisation? Is this simply a methodolgy for coming to terms with my own mortality and accepting me relatively insignificant part in a rather morbid ‘grand scheme of things’. Perhaps igorance is bless.

    I’m not discounting your model. I’m simply saying I’m not happy with it.

  2. There’s a fantastic hidden assumption here Matt which I think I think I make all the time.

    As we all know, there is the ideal that because things happen in close sequence doesn’t mean that one caused the other: so NOT ‘before it therefore because of it’, or ‘correlation isn’t causation’.

    Similarly, it’s easy to assume that because A was the cause of B, that A and B are of the same type, or have the same standing. But that’s not necessarily true. A bullet caused Lennon to die. A pregnancy caused him to live.

    So – say the scientists – we can show that ‘near death’ experiences are caused by a chemical unbalance in the brain so they’re not ‘real’. But aren’t all experiences caused by chemical brain activity. Why does having a physical ’cause’ mean that an event can’t be spiritual, significant etc. Similarly, medicines that cure illnesses through belief (placebos) are less scientific than those that have a chemical effect. Why?

    So what makes us feel joy or sadness? God? Chemistry? Reptilian brain function? Fear of death? our genomes? Does it matter? Are those sensations any less sensed?

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