Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

To What Extent Does Your Biology Determine the Direction of Your Life?

playcity23's picture

Zadie Smith’s NW mulls over how our neighborhood, clan, and race affects the path your life takes. None of the main characters are satisfied with how their lives turned out, even if in society’s view, their lives turned out rather well. They all feel various degrees of agency to do something about it. While I was reading the book on the Amtrak back to Bryn Mawr, I started thinking about where their biology fits into their predicaments. By biology, I mean how and why their brains are wired. For example, if Leah is wired to have a deficit of agency, is it still her fault? 

Podcast Radiolab’s producer Pat Walters found a story of a typical middle-aged man’s brain that made me re-evaluate how I assign blame. Kevin is a musician who has dealt with severe epilepsy since his teen years. In July 2006, after a seizure caused him to cause a serious car accident, he decided to get a brain surgery to remove the problematic area causing the seizures. The surgery was a success in that the epilepsy was gone. However, Kevin began to eat like a horse. He began to obsessively play a piano piece for up to nine hours at a time. His libido was racked up to eleven. What got him in trouble with Homeland Security was the stash of child pornography he began downloading. When his case came to trail, Kevin’s neurosurgeon saved him from five years of jail time. According to the neurosurgeon, Kevin has Klüver-Bucy syndrome. It can be treated with drug therapy. During his brain surgery, the surgeon’s accidentally removed a part of his brain that deals with keeping our morally unacceptable, most disgusting desires in check. Without this lid, Kevin could not neurologically control himself from downloading child porn. However, he consciously knew it was wrong and tried to fight it. When the neurosurgeon gave Kevin him a drug, “it was like flipping a switch” (quote from Kevin in the podcast). He could control those desires again. 

The point of this story is, how much blame can we pin on neurological abnormalities, temporary or not? After Kevin’s story, Walters brought in neuroscientist David Eagleman to elucidate the debate. He asserts in the future when medical technology becomes able to pinpoint the tiniest flaw in your wiring, we could say that said tiny flaw should be blamed for the defendant's actions, not the defendant himself. BUT, then we start to separate the person from their brain when in fact, the two cannot exist independently. Therefore, they are one and the same. Eagleman strongly asserts that you are your biology. “All of your experiences, your neighborhood, your upbringing, your parents are etched into your brain tissue” he says in the podcast. 

So if we are your biology, how accountable is Leah for the direction her life has taken? If the part of Leah’s brain that regulates agency is abnormal, is she still accountable for fashioning her life to enable her to stay eighteen? What if the reason for Keisha/Natalie’s need to remain mobile is because she has a mild case of ADHD? Are these legitimate justifications or just excuses for behavior if Leah and Leah’s brain are the same thing? 

Point being, I have no idea of the answers to these questions. Just like Natalie and Leah in one of the last scenes of NW. Leah’s husband Michel calls Natalie in a panic about Leah. Leah’s lying in the hammock and refusing to respond to anybody. She rouses herself when she hears Natalie’s children crying and says “I just don’t understand why I have this life” (399), Natalie responds with a spiel titled “Because we worked harder” (400). This whole scene is oozing with this debate. Leah’s out in the hammock moping about the way her life turned out, getting skin cancer instead of changing her life. This has been a trend throughout the book. When she asks ‘why me?’, she’s asking someone to explain how have her upbringing, neighborhood, and parents have intricately affected her brain. She’s asking the impossible from science’s perspective. Neuroscientists can see when something in the brain has been majorly affected, like when a tumor is growing or epilepsy is occurring. They cannot see the little tweaks that Northwestern London and poverty and Keisha and all that weed in college made to her tissue. But those tweaks are the agents of her decision-making. Until technology is capable of mapping out every single connection Leah’s neurons have made ever, her question will remain unanswered. Which still leaves us with an untargeted finger of blame.

Personally, I believe Eagleman is leaving out the fact having a neurological disorder is not the be-all, end-all of it. I think there are ways you can fashion to work with (or around) a disorder to make up for the disability it brings. A good example of this would be dyslexia. It is accepted now that those with dyslexia need to learn to read and write fluently in a different way than those considered “normal”. Because their wiring is different doesn’t mean they will always be weak readers and writers. I think the same could be applied to other disorders, provided that enough research and time is put into finding out how. 

Although this clashes with what Eagleman asserts. He would probably ask whether or not people even have the neurological capacity to overcome their abnormalities. This further proves my point that the majority of us have no idea how to satifactorily resolve this debate. Yet, me being a human, I will keep unfairly assigning blame until the judicial systems decide how to "fairly" assign it while remaining ethically sound.


"Radiolab - Blame." Audio blog post. Radiolab. N.p., 2013. Web. 26 Oct. 2013. <>.

Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.