Life in four letters Keys for understanding diversity, illness and happiness.
Carlos Lopez Otin is one of the most brilliant, prominent scientists in Spain today, not surprisingly touted for some time as future Nobel prizewinner. We hope he becomes one someday and thus continues along a similar path to that trodden by Asturian, Severo Ochoa, who won the prize in 1959, just one year before Otin was born. Otin is from Huesca by birth, but is an adopted Asturian. The fact that he has still not been awarded the Princess of Asturias Prize is simply scandalous. We hope that the managing foundation, exemplary in many ways, corrects this anomaly soon. The first I heard of Otin was in 1993, when our beloved and much-missed rector Santiago Gascon told the members of his team that the young man who had just gained the chair of biochemistry would go on to make a name for himself, just one more instance of Santiago, may he rest in peace, being absolutely right. So, we had the great good fortune that Otin became Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Oviedo, and we were even more fortunate that we could share his friendship. Not too long ago, Howard Gardner, the Harvard professor and Princess of Asturias prizewinner, author of the model of multiple intelligences, said that a bad person will never be a good professional, and I believe that he was right. Professor Otin is a good example of that, in addition to being a distinguished top-flight scientist, he is affable, open and unselfish. I don't know where he finds the time to attend to everyone and to answer all his emails; he says that he sleeps too, but I have my doubts about that. His bonhomie is legendary, in the best sense of the word.
You may be wondering why review a biochemistry book in a psychology journal. It's very simple, human behaviour, psychology, is an interactive field, rooted in biology, extending its branches into the socio-cultural context. To fully understand human behaviour we must use a three-pronged, bio-psycho-social approach. This book is a passionate overview which ranges from genes and bacteria, and the origins of life, to more human domains such as behaviour, emotions and the search for happiness. It is a joyful, harmonious dialogue between the human micro and macro scales. And Otin not only understands biochemistry, more than most, he has always been concerned about its implications on behaviour, about the butterfly effect, the connection between basic mechanisms of life and the complex behaviour of human beings. It was him, before any psychologist, who asked me what I thought of Sapolsky's book Behave, showing that he closely follows advances in the field of understanding and explaining behaviour. The book is key to understanding, as our maestro Mariano Yela used to like to say, that everything is related to everything, but not completely. Otin is utterly at home here, mastering basic mechanisms as well as anyone, and understanding their repercussions at other human levels, on behaviour and emotions, and vice versa. He traces the universal codes of life, common to bacteria and humans. This is the essence of the book, a gripping journey between the elemental and the general, a continuous dialogue between life, illness, death and happiness. Is there anything more genuinely human, and thus psychological? He expertly presents us with paradoxes and fuzzy edges of the mostly nonhuman human, reminding us that there are more bacterial cells than human cells in our bodies. We are the sum of all that, but we amount to more, which is why living beings are a kind of emergent magic, and the psyche, the thinking, the awareness of a meta-emergence that, starting from cerebral carbon and infinite connections, has freed itself from the material and rules in the world of the evanescent. It is not by chance that psychology has adopted the butterfly, or the greek psique, as its own symbol, and that Otin proposes the goal of the happyness: the harmonious union between two butterflies, those in the stomach, the emotions, and those in the brain, the cognition. In short, uniting reason and emotion.
Seasoned scientist that he is, Otin does not fall for simplistic reductionism and understands better than most the dialogue between different levels of understanding, deftly explaining the role of epigenetics and the meta-genome in the construction of human beings. I cannot resist quoting some of his words directly: our forbears have left us a valuable genomic compass which guides us after landing on the planet of the genes, but they are not responsible for how other great life languages such as the epigenome and the meta-genome shape our bodies, how we sculpt ourselves in our own way, "blow by blow, line by line", through the daily dialogue with our surrounding environment. The epigenetic language is akin to the grammar or spelling of the genome, and comes from reversible, dynamic changes in what we used to call the chemical decoration of DNA or from proteins called histones which fold our genetic material so that it can be properly packaged in our cells. The genome stores information, while the epigenome organises it, and in another parallel between science and the arts, we may imagine that these epigenetic changes work as accents, commas, umlauts or full stops, giving grammatical meaning to the genetic message and reflecting the genome's dialogue with the surrounding environment. Epigenetic changes are continuous; at any time in life there are millions. So, depending on diet, temperature, physical activity or the emotions we feel, these epigenetic changes occur as methylations of DNA or modifications in the histones that determine whether the information encoded in the genome is expressed or not, whether genes are active or inactive, whether they speak or are silent. In short, we are much more than the sum of our genes. And just when it seemed as though the epigenome could explain hitherto unknown aspects of the environment's influence on our lives, the meta-genome made an appearance and introduced another dimension of complexity in the equation of biological languages. The meta-genome is our true interior life, the combination of all of the genomes within us, not only the human, but the full, impressive collection of bacteria, viruses and parasites that live inside our bodies, each with their own genome. We are holobionts, the combination of a complex organism and all of its associated microorganisms; and, surprisingly for those who wrongly equate microbes with disease, the vast majority of microorganisms living in our bodies not only do not cause disease, but instead help the body to function properly (pp. 66-68).
He goes on to skilfully elaborate: The heated debate between geneticists and environmentalists regarding the keys to human behaviour makes little sense in the light of current scientific understanding. Today, we know that genes and the environment are two terms which both form part of the equation of life. The influence of the environment, both internal and external, begins in prenatal development, and extends to all stages thereafter without exception. Each bite of food we eat, each breath of air, each temperature change we experience, each dose of natural or artificial radiation we receive, each toxic agent we interact with and each chemical compound we produce in our metabolism, our learning, our thoughts and our emotions all have the potential to modify our genetic information. Depending on the type, frequency and intensity of these environmental influences, the genomic language may be so significantly affected that in the end there may be somatic mutations causing processes such as cancer and ageing. Nonetheless, the usual state of affairs is that environmental influences do not directly affect the information in our genome, but rather act indirectly via epigenetic and metagenomic changes (p. 139).
This approach is worlds away irom the simplistic statements about the relationships between genes and behaviour that we read all too often in some specialist, though obtuse, texts. In this regard, Otin reflects on the basis and components of emotions, about fear, linked to the STMN1 gene, and about happiness, going so far as to identify keys at various levels. He is prescient and subtle, talking about the relationship between our mostly-carbon intelligence and the mostly-silicon intelligence of computers, examining the interaction between the two, and the possible hybrids that will mark the transition of homo sapiens to post-humanism or transhumanism, towards what he calls Homo sapiens sentiens 2.0, the wise, feeling man. It reminds us of Zubiri and his sentient intelligence, and connects directly with the motto of the Spanish Academy of Psychology, cogito, sentio, ago: I think, I feel, I act. It is impossible to be more psychological. As ever, true knowledge has fuzzy edges and does not recognise borders between academic disciplines, it is transversal and holistic.
With feet firmly in the basic processes of living and thoughts towards the future sapiens sentiens 2.0, Otin proposes a novel five-dimension model to account for human beings' happiness, their raison d'etre: Imperfection, Repair, Observation, Introspection and Emotion (IROIE). Imperfection is a legacy of our evolution, accepting it and dealing with it is the first step to happiness, if we were perfect, we would still be microbes. Repair and recovery from damage, both biological and psychological, is the basis of achieving happiness, if you fall seven times, get up eight, as the Japanese proverb goes, without resilience, there is no paradise. Observing everything around us helps us to live in the moment, to centre ourselves, and to improve our subjective feeling of wellbeing. Introspection, thinking, meditating, enjoying solitude all bring us closer to wellbeing, it makes us happier to follow the path of our mystics like Saint Theresa and San Juan de la Cruz, of our poets, as Gil de Biedma showed us in his beautiful poem De Vita Beata (On the happy life): to live like a ruined nobleman, in the ruins of my intelligence. The fifth component is emotion. Being emotional, living intensely, with passion gets us closer to happiness. One must cultivate the two parts, reason and emotion, with equal care, an advantage that carbon has over silicon, for the moment at least.
Otin's proposed big five regarding happiness is an inspiration. It is the birth of a plausible hypothesis that awaits empirical testing. We can make out a good research program with some key questions to answer: How do we measure these dimensions? Will they be confirmed empirically? How are they related to each other? Do they make up a singe general happiness dimension? Is there a genetic or biochemical substrate that can be identified? How are they modulated by the epigenome or the meta-genome? It is a great opportunity to bring together in the study of happiness the two approaches Cronbach cried out for, the correlational and the experimental. I hope these words serve to encourage the Psychology and Biochemistry departments of our beloved University of Oviedo to join forces to engage with this line of research, which seems to be viable and fertile, and for which we have both the biochemical and behavioural specialists we need.
This book, therefore, is a must-read for all those who are interested in penetrating the hidden depths of the human being, completely in contrast with what Nietzsche thought, it is not all too human, but instead universal and tinged with the nonhuman. It is, in short, a great book, but there is one marginal detail that did intrigue me as I was reading, how can Otin prefer Diabelli's Beethoven variations to the Bach Goldberg variations? One day I will ask him, because the rest of the music and literature that comes up in the book is an example of his harmonious, multi-faceted vision of living beings in their herculean struggle against the inexorable disorder of the second law of thermodynamics, another form of the eternal battle between Eros and Thanatos. That's life, there is nothing comparable, and Otin wisely guides us through its origins and most authentic expressions. Read this book, you won't regret it.
Departament of Psychology University of Oviedo