Biological Variation and the Man Who Didn’t Like Operas by Mozart

I once read a statement by a man who said that he didn’t like operas by Mozart!  He liked opera, just not Mozart operas.  My thought at the time was really?!  You like opera, but you don’t like Cosi Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, or The Magic Flute? How could he like opera and not like Mozart operas?  What is wrong with this guy?  I even suspected he was posturing for some reason, not really being honest about his preferences.  Reflecting back on this, I am surprised at my reaction. 

Here’s why:

If I were writing a blog about life’s lessons, my first post would be about this: people are different; no two are alike. Science will back me on this point.  As an example, let’s consider hands.  When the image of a hand comes into our minds, most of us see the standard five-fingered hand, but even there, we probably see that hand in different colors from each other.  Some might see a young hand, others an old hand.  Some might see a hand with colored nails; other might see a calloused hand.  Hands come in different sizes.  If we look more closely we see skin of different types on the hands.  We see some hands are deformed.  We see the ratio of the lengths of the fingers on the hand differ between individuals.  Some hands have joints that can bend further than other hands.  Some hands are missing fingers, deleted by lawnmowers or by a genetic mutation.  Some hands are frozen in place.  I have read there are rare hands with six fingers.  We could keep going in this vein for quite awhile, but just compare your hands with anyone else’s and they will be different. 

So, who has something wrong, you or the other person?

Let’s consider that question a little more deeply.  In most cases, these differences have not been deliberately chosen.  These differences are a combination of genetic and environmental influences.  It is simple biological variation.  Unless we have a twin, we all get a unique genome from our parents.  So most of us begin with built in differences from each other.  If you have kids, think about how different they are from each other, from the moment you first hold them in your arms.  Then, stuff happens.  Our genomes might suffer mutations that change whether individual genes work or not.  And importantly, there are also factors that determine how these genes get expressed.  Epigenetics is a field of study concerned with how genes get turned on and off. This process is highly influenced by environmental factors.  Even identical twins who share identical genetic make-up have variations in gene expression due to external influences changing their epigenome.  Think of a house and its light fixtures.  It has lights for every room as part of its basic make up.  However, the lights can be on or off in each room depending on the light switches that control them.  So it is with the genes in our bodies.  If you live in the Artic, the cold will serve as a switch that turns on certain genes and others off.  If you eat too much certain genes get turned on and off.  The NIH Director’s Blog recently had a post about how a mother’s smoking affects her baby’s epigenome, a truly cautionary tale about how our environment can shape not only the current, but future generations. 

It’s complicated.

The more deeply you look, the more complex the process gets with other internal processes  going on that I have not mentioned, and undoubtedly some we don’t even know about yet.  Now just as there is so much variation in hands, there is similar or even more levels of variation with other biological features or systems, including and especially our brains.  We share a lot of the human genome, but we all have our own variations.   I offer this scientific discussion because science is impersonal.  In some cases, like the deformed hand we might question what happened, but in none of the cases would we ask what is wrong with the person who has those hands.  And that translates to behavior and personal preferences as well.  Most often our behavior is dictated not by ulterior motives but simply by who we are.  We like what we like and we don’t like what we don’t like because that is who we are.  No amount of culturing will make the first George Bush like broccoli.  Gene therapy might, but that is a different topic.

It’s true, but we act like we don’t know it.

People are different.  We all know this but we frequently don’t act like we know it, like me when I encountered the guy who didn’t like Mozart operas.  We most frequently don’t act like we know it in how we judge ourselves.  This easily translates to opera.  We assume that if other people like or dislike something, especially knowledgeable individuals, then we should like or not like it accordingly.  In reality, our reaction to opera is highly subjective, and we, the reactors, are all different.  Whatever your opinion is, if it is genuine, it is valid.  So, do not fear to express your opinions.  Having differences is not a bad thing.  In fact, it is a great thing.  The differences allow us to hear and see things from a different perspective, and that helps us to grow and experience life in new ways.  At OperaGene I want to hear your opinions whether they agree with me or not, maybe even more so if you disagree.  If I ever meet the man who doesn’t like Mozart operas, instead of questioning his sanity or honesty, I will offer to buy him a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and ask him to please tell me about his opera preferences and share mine.  It just might enhance how we both listen to opera in the future.