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Who Defines Who We Are?

Mustafa Ozer
AFP/Getty Images

In The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond offers a clever — if speculative — theory of the origins of race. After first dismissing the idea that racial differences are functional adaptations to different climates, he proposes that the tendency for certain people to look alike in respect of facial features, skin color, body type, etc., is a consequence of the fact that people mostly choose to reproduce with people like themselves. He points to studies suggesting contemporary couples tend statistically to be like each other in respect of finger size and the distance between the eyes. This is a kind of sexual selection. To understand the origin of traits, you need, in effect, to look at how we think and feel about the traits we have. What we are is fixed, in part, by us.

I thought of this last night when I arrived, for the first time, in Istanbul.

Although it was after midnight, traffic was heavy as my taxi worked its way along the water into the heart of the city. Booming Turkish hip-hop-like music bounced out of the car next to us. But the music sounded Eastern. At the heart of the song was a horn riff that sounded like something you'd expect on the soundtrack to an old Abbott and Costello movie set in the Middle East. The melodic twirl spoke loud: this is a Turkish sound!

I wondered: is this just what people here know and like, or do they know and like it because, after all, it is a tune that they think goes with being them? Is this like race — at least according to Diamond's hypothesis — something that defines us but only because, somehow, maybe unconsciously, we believe it should?

You can see evidence of this kind of downward looping everywhere. Cops in Law and Order-type TV shows affect working class accents. But maybe working-class people retain working-class accents because they believe, on some level, that this is how they should sound.

Could it be that speaking in broad dialect — like the man who served me a bratwurst in Dresden, Germany a few nights ago — is actually a kind of sophistication? A kind of universal irony that defines us all the way down?

This would explain the persistence of regional variation and dialect in the face of state-run education and the media.

Another example: The taxi driver on the way into town last night offered me a cigarette. Is smoking still normal here? Was this a simple act of politeness?

Back at the hotel, the clerk mentioned there were cups in the room that could be used as an ashtray. Ashtrays themselves, he noted, are forbidden. Ah, so the move to prohibit smoking in public places is known here in Istanbul, too.

So maybe the taxi driver wasn't just being polite. Maybe he was expressing an attitude towards smoking. Maybe he wasn't so much backward, an unreconstructed smoker, as he was, well, subversive?

I found myself wishing I smoked. It would have been nice to accept the smoke and, in doing so, be like the man who had offered it.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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