Individuals and Their Differences


Free and Unequal: The Biological Basis of Individual Liberty, by Roger J. Williams, Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1979, 361 pp., $9.50/$3.50

Are newborn babies essentially uniform products? Dr. Williams admits that this, his initial question, may seem a rhetorical one. Yet in a careful foray into what was a virgin frontier in 1953 when this book was first published, he sets out to present the case against an automatic response in the affirmative.

"My central purpose in writing this book," he says, "has been to stimulate the search for truth, along lines which to me seem compelling.…I dare to hope that on the basis of careful examination, the uniformity idea with all of its connotations will gradually become discredited and discarded and that the ultimate acceptance of the nonuniformity idea will greatly strengthen our love of liberty and foster wholesome human relations."

The nonuniformity idea: that "every newborn baby has a distinctive and complex pattern of inborn mental capacities. Each item in this pattern is derived from his human forebears, but the pattern with its interactions is unique." The basis for this conclusion: "(1) common observation, (2) what appears to me to be irrefutable biological evidence, and (3) specific objective psychological findings."

To some, the conclusion must appear startling, says Williams, for the accepted view of the mind of a child is what he identifies as the "lump of dough" theory: each person is born with a mind that is a "lump of dough" to be shaped and molded until the child has been made into a "civilized human adult." This concept of the environmentally created person is commonly accepted by a great body of psychologists, sociologists, social anthropologists, as well as educators, legal scholars, and public figures.

If it is not the variations in individuals' surroundings that explain their differences, what is it? Williams, a biochemist and currently professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, devotes himself to establishing that there are biological factors, known and unknown, physiologically constructive or destructive, that account for many tastes that were at one time attributed to personal quirk and thus subject to change at will. Alcoholism, for example, once thought to be the result either of an inherently addicting effect of alcohol or of a lack of will power, may well be the result of ignoring inborn nutritional variations. (Williams has another book, Nutrition and Alcoholism, devoted entirely to that topic.) His exploration of individual differences includes why people describe different tastes for the same chemical and why some people prefer more salt in their diets than others do.

There is even an exercise in which the reader is given a list of activities to be ranked according to personal preferences. There is a discussion of a variety of responses given by others and an "average" list to compare with. Of course, no particular individual matches the average, and that tells us something about individuality. "We will have to learn that 'being statistical' (and interested in averages) and 'being scientific' are not synonymous expressions."

Williams elaborates:

We will have to give up a substantial amount of interest in "the individual," because he is an abstraction, a hypothetical, generalized being with the taint of an assembly line, to whom universal statements apply. We will have to trade off this interest for an interest in individuals. These are not abstractions; they are real. They are not hypothetical, but actual; specific, not generalized; distinctive, not standardized; and to them relatively few universal statements apply.

The fact of individuality is largely ignored, laments the author, in our "educational assembly line." Educators pay lip service to children's individuality but do not act accordingly. "We cannot ease ourselves away from educational problems by saying that the differences are 'not very important.' If the differences are not very important, then freedom is not very important and the idea of individual worth is not very important."

Individual differences are ignored also by food faddists who, once they have discovered their own nutritional needs, proceed to recommend their dietary practices for everyone "on the assumption that what fits one fits all." The evidence, however, from genetics and biochemistry, is "that each distinctive individual has a pattern of needs that is quantitatively different from that of his fellows. The various chemical processes that take place in our bodies do so with unequal efficiencies (for genetic reasons), and our needs for the various raw materials are quantitatively unequal for this reason."

Along this same line, Williams points out that members of the medical profession frequently fail to recognize and address individual variations in health and disease. The point is brought home in an account of the very personal and poignant events that led to the death of his wife, Hazel, to whom this book is dedicated. "Individuals and their differences must be studied before such tragedies as happened in my family can be prevented."

In his explorations, Williams takes up the implications of inborn individuality for the issues of religion, art, war, political systems, culture, and race. His theme throughout is that individual attributes, inborn or acquired, are what count, that any attempt to classify people as superior or inferior according to any generalization is not based on reality but rather on the "lump of dough" model.

In the social and political realms, the results of ignoring individual differences are devastating. "Nothing is a more effective stimulus to hate than the continual imposition of someone else's contrary taste, and nothing leads to this imposition as effectively as a belief that human beings are all alike and that tastes can always be changed at will." This is why the title of Williams's book points to an intimate connection between inequality and freedom—a startling insight in our day and one well worth having revived through this LibertyPress reprint.

Jane Henson is the manager of a book store in Austin.