All Commentary
Wednesday, January 1, 1969

The Only Kind of People There Are

Dr. Williams is Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Texas. This article is slightly condensed and published by permission from his address before the American Institute of Planners at Hot Springs, Arkansas, July 1219, 1968.

If Socrates were resurrected, I suspect he would call attention again to what was written about 25 centuries ago: Know thyself; if you know a lot about other things and are ignorant of yourself, this is ridiculous.

We in this advanced and scientific age have never taken Socrates seriously on this point. I maintain that we are being ridiculous; we seek to plan and yet are not informed about ourselves for whom we plan. Of course, we know something about ourselves, but science has never undertaken a serious job of understanding people—a multidisciplinary undertaking. We have not tackled the job of understanding ourselves with one-tenth of the fervor we have shown in our research in outer space.

One of the most important facts about ourselves we have not grasped: All of us are basically and inevitably individuals in many important and striking ways. Our individuality is as inescapable as our humanity. If we are to plan for people, we must plan for individuals, because that’s the only kind of people there are.

In what ways are we individuals? First as to our bodies. These ways are tangible and not subject to argument. Each of us has a distinctive stomach, a distinctive heart and circulatory system. Each of us has a distinctive muscular system, distinctive breathing apparatus, and an endocrine system all our own. Most surprising and significant perhaps, each of us has a distinctive set of nerve receptors, trunk nerves, and a brain that is distinctive in structure and not like other brains.

We are individuals also with respect to our minds. We do not all think with equal facility about the various things that can be thought about. Einstein was an extremely precocious student of mathematics, but on the other hand, he learned language so slowly that his parents were concerned about his learning to talk. William Lyon Phelps, the famous English professor at Yale, on the other hand, confessed that in mathematics he was “slow but not sure.” There are at least forty facets to human minds. Each of us may be keen in some ways and stupid in others.

The importance of this individuality in minds would be hard to exaggerate. Because of it two or more people agree with each other only in spots, never totally. The grandiose idea that all workers of the world can unite and speak and act as a unit is wholly untenable because of individuality in the minds of the individual workers. Nor can all capitalists unite, and for the same reason. Neither can all Negroes, all Latins, all Chinese, all Jews, all Europeans, or all English-speaking peoples.

It is often assumed that people disagree only because of self-interest and differences in their education. They also disagree because their minds do not grasp the same ideas with equal facility. Sometimes an individual has a specific idea which seems to him perfectly clear and potent. To him it seems certain that once this idea is expressed it will gain automatic acceptance. Practical trial shows, however, that it does not. To other individuals, because the patterns of their minds are different, this supposedly clear and potent idea may appear foggy, dubious, or even unsound.

Failure to recognize individuality in minds is widespread and is a revelation of the fact that we are ignorant about the people for whom we plan.

“Environmental Determinism”

I do not know that anyone else has ever expressed it this way, but on a long walk with Aldous Huxley about a year before he died, he decried to me the fact that the prevailing philosophy today may be described as “environmental determinism.” Environment is assumed to be the only factor in our lives; inborn individuality in body and mind are completely neglected. According to this philosophy, every child who is placed in a slum environment becomes a delinquent and a criminal. This, from the work of the Gluecks at Harvard and others, is manifestly untrue. Neither is it true that every child who is furnished with plenty becomes for this reason an honorable and upright citizen.

Our “social studies” and “social science” teaching in all our schools and universities is permeated with environmental determinism which shows no interest in the crucial facts of individuality and quite inevitably tends to destroy all moral responsibility. A delinquent cannot help being a delinquent, we are told. Society should take all the blame. A criminal is that way because society has made him so, so society is to blame. This is blatant oversimplification in the name of social science! It disregards how human beings are built—their fundamental nature—and can by its short-sightedness lead to a breakdown of our civilization.

What I have been saying does not in any sense deny the importance of environment. Environments are what we can control, and to study how to improve them is the essence of planning. But we, the people, are not putty; we are individuals, and we need to be understood.

Individuality Is Crucial

To me it seems certain that the facts of individuality need to be taken into account. There are three areas, related to planning, in which I have some special knowledge. In all these areas individuality is crucial.

Take for instance the area of nutrition and health. It would berelatively easy to produce economically in factories a “man-chow” which would supposedly be the perfect food for the average man. Laboratory experiences as well as wide observations show, however, that this “man-chow” idea is completely unrealistic. It will not work. Because of biochemical individuality we do not all like the same foods nor can we thrive on the same mixture. Many human beings are so built that they derive a substantial part of the satisfaction of life out of eating. Taking variety and choices from them would be depriving them of their pursuit of happiness. The best food planning devised involves supermarkets where thousands of kinds of foods in great variety are available.

The Food and Drug Administration in Washington has, at least until very recently, done its planning on the basis of the hypothetical average man and has sought to regulate the marketing of medicinal substances, vitamins, and the like on this basis. This cannot work because of the hard facts of biochemical individuality. Real people—individuals—do not react in a uniform manner either to drugs or to nutritional factors such as amino acids, minerals, and vitamins.

No planning in the area of nutrition and health can work on a long range basis unless the facts of individuality are taken into account. If we plan for people, we must plan for individuals, because that is the only kind of people there are.

Another area of planning in which I have some special knowledge is that of education. I have recently completed my fiftieth year as a teacher. While I have in mind no pet schemes for reorganizing schools or universities, I have had for years a growing consciousness that no successful long-range planning can be done unless we recognize fully that every mind is a distinctive one and that every young person is endowed with peculiar aptitudes which need to be recognized, developed, and used. One of the worst lacks in modern education is the failure of youngsters to know themselves and to recognize their own strengths as well as weaknesses. Education for the hypothetical average child is no good. We must plan for individual children; that’s the only kind there are.

Closely related to the problem of planning education is planning to curb crime, violence, racial hatred, and war. As Clement Attlee aptly pointed out years ago, the roots of war are to be found in the minds and hearts of men. The late Robert Kennedy pointed out when he was Attorney-General that peaceful relations between people cannot be enforced with guns and bayonets.

In my opinion, we will get nowhere in planning to curb violence by thinking in terms of the city of Dallas killing John F. Kennedy, the city of Memphis killing Martin Luther King, or the city of Los Angeles killing Robert Kennedy. Of course, social factors enter into violence, but there are important individual factors, too.

No informed person can think that curbing crime and violence is a simple problem. Because it is difficult, it is all the more important that we seek out—thoroughly—the root causes. I maintain that a great weakness which we exhibit in this modern scientific age is ignorance about ourselves.

Finally, let me say that our love of liberty and freedom is based upon this individuality. If we all had the same kinds of stomachs, the same kinds of muscles, nerves, and endocrine glands, the same kinds of brains, planning would be simple. We would all like exactly the same things. We would all be satisfied to read the same books, have the same amusements, eat the same food, and go to the same church. In short, we would all live happily in the same rut.

Planning is not that simple. We must plan for individuals—that’s the only kind of people there are.