A Kabbalist, a Geneticist, and the Meaning of Life
So you thought that generosity came from good will and caring for other people? Think again. New genetic research shows that it may just be a matter of genes. From Kabbalah’s viewpoint, however, this is hardly news. That’s why we were sure that a meeting between Geneticist Prof. Ebstein and Kabbalist Dr. Laitman would be extremely fascinating.
Michael Laitman Ph.D.
Kabbalist, Professor in Ontology and the Theory of Knowledge, Ph.D. in philosophy and MS.c. in Medical Cybernetics. President and founder of the Bnei Baruch Kabbalah Education & Research Institute. Has authored over thirty books on authentic Kabbalah.
Richard P. Ebstein Ph.D.
Director of the Scheinfeld Center of Human Genetics for the Social Sciences, Hebrew University and Head of the Research Laboratory, Herzog Memorial Hospital, Jerusalem, Israel. Has published over 200 articles and discovered the “novelty-seeking” gene.
The research journal, Genes, Brain and Behavior, recently published results of a study at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, showing that people with a specific set of genes were 50% more likely to be generous with their money.
The leading scientist on this research team, Prof. Richard P. Ebstein, met with Kabbalist Dr. Michael Laitman to discuss the new findings and their implications. During their fascinating conversation, Dr. Ebstein explained that our genes are partially responsible for all our behavior. Why partially? Because whatever isn’t determined by our genes is determined by social influence. However, all this came as no surprise to Kabbalist Dr. Laitman.
Prof. Ebstein: We started checking specific genes to see if they influence altruism, and we used a rather a simple game to do it: a person is given an envelope with some money. He can either take all the money or give any part of it to another person, without knowing anything about that person and whether he needs it—he can be a millionaire or penniless.
When I gave this paradigm to some people, they said: “Come on, what kind of sucker would give away any part of the money? Anyone would take all the money and go home. What’s the motivation to give the money away?”
But it turns out that only 20% of the people took all the money, and almost a third of the people gave half of it to someone else, without knowing if that someone really needed it.
Dr. Laitman: So what was their motivation to do it?
Prof. Ebstein: This is not clear to us. The economists say it is altruism.
Dr. Laitman: Well, at this point Kabbalah disagrees. Kabbalah says that we are all made of an egoistic substance, and that the “altruists” are, in fact, egoists as well. They only have a different motivation, since there is no action without motivation.
If I give something to someone, I must have the “fuel” or energy, the motive power to do so. In order to perform an action, I have to “justify” it—my body or my “self” has to know that it will profit from the action. I can profit by taking something or by giving something. Either way, inwardly, it is of course an action of receiving; however it may seem altruistic on the outside.
Prof. Ebstein: Some might say that even if a person gives money to someone, he receives some kind of reward, at least in his brain, and this is the motivation for doing it. So the person would not have done it without being given this reward. In terms of brain sciences, the reward is a chemical substance that is released. So in that regard, you are right, there is no altruism without receiving some reward, otherwise the person wouldn’t be motivated.
Dr. Laitman: So there is some kind of mechanism inside a person that releases a substance that brings him pleasure, and hence he is able to give, right?
Prof. Ebstein: Yes.
Dr. Laitman: And within each person it happens to a different extent—in some people more, and in others less—but it is predetermined within a person, so there are no “egoists” or “altruists” here, but everything is determined according to one’s natural development. It is how one was born.
Prof. Ebstein: Right, but the genes don’t determine 100% of the action. Most people today agree that social influence also plays a role.
Dr. Laitman: How?
Prof. Ebstein: Well, it’s much easier to characterize genes than to understand the influence of society and how exactly a person was influenced since birth. But researchers do examine this subject.
For instance, today we know a gene exists that supports violence, which can partially explain why a person would have a criminal record or be a felon. Researchers found that this gene’s effect depends on whether one was exposed to violence as a child. In other words, the gene can make you violent only if you experienced violence as a child. But without the social influence, the gene remains neutral.
Dr. Laitman: So something else has to allow this inclination to come out and be actualized….
Prof. Ebstein: Yes, a combination of our education, parents, school and society determines our actions. But the genes are also very significant: they are about 50% responsible for the things we do. This is what we call “hardwired” into us.
Dr. Laitman: Let me ask you a question: considering everything that is happening in the world today and everything we have discussed, does this give us any hope of improving man, making him more altruistic in order to benefit human society? Perhaps we can use the external influences to arouse altruistic genes to emerge and become more active?
Prof. Ebstein: In truth, my personal opinion is that genetics cannot help here, even though I am a geneticist myself. I believe that the most effective way to change a person’s behavior is through education and society.
Dr. Laitman: Kabbalah says that we have to uncover the general process that humanity is going through: that man’s ego steadily grows from one generation to the next, and is now reaching dimensions which pose a real danger to humankind. Like how we lately feel our terrible influence on the environment.
If this process becomes evident to us, then society will start getting this message through the media, and this will influence each and every one of us personally. Because, naturally, what society accepts as a standard is also accepted by an individual. We only need to explain the causality of things and their purpose—why Nature is arranged the way it is, and where it is taking us.
At this point, Kabbalah Today’s reporter Oren Levi, who was listening all along, decided to interject and ask a few questions.
Oren Levi: I am sitting here listening to your fascinating conversation, and I just have to ask a few questions. Prof. Ebstein, you said that genes determine man’s behavior, so if genes determine our behavior, is there any room left for choice?
Prof. Ebstein: I was once asked in a BBC Radio interview whether the “gene alibi” is accepted in the court of law. The answer is negative, they don’t accept it. But if you ask me personally if, say, a person born with “bad genes” had an alcoholic father and had a history of violence in his family, then stabbed someone to death in a bar incident at age twenty-five—was he guilty?
In a way, from what I understand from genetics, sociology and anthropology, I would have to say that this man did not have much of a choice. Maybe at the last moment he could have decided not to draw the knife and kill someone, but think of his entire world—it was going in a bad direction, all the cards were against him, the die was cast pretty early in his life. Yet on the other hand, society cannot forgive him.
Oren Levi: Earlier you mentioned that what a person does is 50% influenced by his genes. What about the other 50%?
Prof. Ebstein: That comes from society, the education one receives from his parents or his school.
Oren Levi: Okay, so if this adds up to 100%—50% genes and 50% society—then where am “I”? What do we have left of the person himself?
Prof. Ebstein: That is the question.
Oren Levi: And what does Dr. Laitman say about this, from the perspective of Kabbalah?
Dr. Laitman: What can I say—there is no free choice. The point of free choice is not to be found here. The wisdom of Kabbalah says that there is no free choice in our world, we are not free here. We as individuals choose nothing we are born with, including our environment, our family, our school or anything else in life. And when we become grown, say at the age twenty, we have nothing of our own—everything was instilled in us. So this isn’t really “me,” as we have no “I” yet.
And when we start conducting our lives according to the media and society that influence us, we never express our “I.” We may not even sense that we have the potential to rise above this kind of existence.
Kabbalah explains that a person feels the “I” through an inner urge to reveal Godliness—to transcend one’s human nature and discover the spiritual world and the Upper Force. There we find free choice. But in our world, there is certainly no free choice.
Oren Levi: So is Kabbalah saying that modern human beings haven’t yet reached the last stop of our evolution or development?
Dr. Laitman: I believe that Prof. Ebstein and I both agree that we still need to develop more. The human level is not at its peak, we do not yet see all the good that can emerge from it.
According to Kabbalah, man has to achieve the level of the Upper Force, to include all the Higher Forces of Nature within himself. This means that man has to attain and understand all of reality. We are talking about man’s actual development—not just what man understands, thinks, and researches—but how man himself develops.
I hope we will see a time when scientists will independently understand that without inner change, they will not be able to penetrate deeper into matter and research the force that operates behind matter and the very laws within matter. They will have to identify them somehow, and it’s impossible to do so using our egoistic minds and matter. We will have to become similar to Nature instead of opposite to it. Eventually we will have to acknowledge that Nature is altruistic, and hence created life.
We can learn about this from our own cells and the way they act in the body. If they didn’t work in perfect harmony, the body wouldn’t exist. Each and every cell takes care of the whole body’s wellbeing. And all of Nature works that way. We are the only part of Nature that creates an imbalance, and we will have to recognize this and correct ourselves. This is what Kabbalah is about.
Let’s hope that through science, actually, we will discover that we have no possibility of attaining the real laws of Nature unless we change ourselves accordingly.
Prof. Ebstein: I agree with you. However, I don’t think that science is going in that direction. I think that there is some kind of pride among scientists; some think that they can understand the universe better with their own minds and tools.
Dr. Laitman: Well, let’s hope that we’ll find the way out of the turbulence that the modern world has gotten itself into, and that both from the side of genetics, and from the side of Kabbalah, everything will connect into one Divine Science.