The Limits of Potential

I recently went to a Social Workers professional development which included a workshop about Complex Trauma. That is a fascinating subject and I will write about it one day. However the part that intrigued me was where the facilitator talked about the changes to brain development interference from trauma that can be measured. Some of this can be corrected for by neuro-plasticity, and some of this can’t.  This got me thinking about the limits of our biology and the ageless nature verses nurture debate.

Each one of us is born with a certain level of genetic potential. Consider the seed you plant that becomes a tree. All of the instructions are there in that seed. The amount of water you give it, the soil you plant it in, and the amount of pruning animals give it, the diseases it withstands and so on will define how well that seed grows into a tree. No matter what these factors are though, a gum tree will not begin to grow oranges. The seed is defined by its nature but the path to its potential is defined by its nurture.

Short of future medical DNA changes, there is an upper limit to how long we humans can live for, how many times our cells will divide accurately enough to repair damage, how strong our bones can be, our muscles, the speed and depth of our intelligence and reaction speed and so on. Impacting on this genetic potential is our lifestyle, our epigenetics, and our environment. Each one of these detracts somewhat to where we could be in an optimal life. Some of the things we chose to do repair some of these detractions and gain us some of our lost potential.

We can choose lifestyles that allow us to live as close to our potential as possible. Each deviation from this lessens us. Yet who is to say that this deviation gives us a worse life? Good and bad are very subjective terms. To give a nice false dichotomy, I could be choosing between a path that leads to a long but lonely life, or a shorter, more fulfilling life. For example, I may choose to donate a kidney to my child, knowing that I have less time on Earth, but more time with her.

Have I met my potential by doing this sacrifice? The initial error lies in assuming that genetic potential is a linear limit, rather than realising that in order to reach one genetic potential, I may have to sacrifice others. I will not reach my physical peak speed without wearing out the cartilage in my joints which adversely affects my comfort in my older years, or I may only reach my peak of intellectual knowledge in programming by sacrificing my social life and so on.

My choices are what lead to which potentials I maximise, knowing that I can never truly reach any of them, but I can get closer so long as I am also willing to sacrifice. Yet what if I don’t want to sacrifice any potential? This “I want it all” options seems good, except that this leads one to be a very mediocre personage, who never really strives in any direction and lives a very neutral, plain life.

Some of the things affecting my life are biological differences brought upon me by the epi-genetics [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics] interpreting my DNA. This can be additional interpretters added to my body by recent lifestyle changes (it takes about 6 months for your body to realise that you are now exercising and adjust for it [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130703101344.htm]) or intergenerational epi-genetic adjustments, such as being born in years of famine [http://io9.com/how-an-1836-famine-altered-the-genes-of-children-born-d-1200001177]. Even though I might have a DNA trait for long life, it may be adversely affected by another factor that blocks the expression for that long life gene.

Environmental factors also impede our potential. Sometimes it’s the families we are born into, the amount of emotional/social/economic resources available as we grow, the marriages we enter or leave and so forth. Each of these can detract from our potential, but equally they can also inspire us to reach our potential.

Some try to say that nature is all – if you have the genetics to live a long life and withstand poisons, then that is what you get, while if your genetics destine you to early heart failure and asthma, then that is it too. Some try to say that nurture is all – the environment affects you the most, the love you get from your parents, the wealth of your family, the choices you make. This is a false dichotomy, it is not one or the other. It is both. Your nature defines your potential – you cannot reach beyond it. Your potential is not one dimensional, it is the maximum reach you can achieve from a set location (birth) in any direction, but you cannot grow in all directions at once. Your nurture does not define you either, else people would never leave their home environment. Instead that defines the opportunities you can choose to take, the challenges to overcome and so on. It helps you find the direction that you travel while exploring your nature.