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Identity: mirror between culture and genetics

Identity is as a work in progress between congenital formation and external stimuli. An exploration of the individual identiy’s costitution of and its space in the world.

The word “identity” is usually associated with the characteristics that describe a person or a group of people, starting from their name, their peculiarities, their appearance, their nationality…
It is natural to define it as something present in the individual but not innate: humans grow and develop their identity through long periods of time that allow them to change and transform. This protracted phase allows the individual to follow a path and then change its direction, and begin to define himself according to his experiences and interests.
Generally, the subject is born in a particular family background that immediately affects its disposition. Depending on the openness towards the outside of the context in which it lives, the individual will acquire a certain way of being. Growing up this will allow it to approach groups of people who are not homogeneous and who are different from it. Moreover this will help it to refine its personality until it will be able to identify the figures in which he represents himself more, moving away from those that stimulate it less and doesn’t interest him. This is why it’s inevitable that, in environments such as schools, smaller groups of people who share the same way of acting, and therefore are similar in their way of thinking, will assemble. In fact, this moment of one’s life is the period of experimentation, which is still held back by adolescent insecurity. Instead the individual will have an easier time expressing itself once it reached maturity, becoming aware of its own self. In psychology the closest term to “identity” is “personality”. The development of the latter, according to the German psychologist Erik Eriksson¹, is elaborated throughout the life cycle of a human, who advances through several stages of progress and faces multiple internal conflicts.

Identità: specchio tra cultura e genetica - Adam and Eve

Anonymous author, The Creation of Adam and Eve.

One of these stages is experienced in adolescence, and it manifests as “identity confusion,”, teens define themselves in comparison with their peers. Outside of the familiar environment, they have the opportunity to analyze themselves and experiment different roles.
In his “Τά πολιτικά”² Aristotle defined the man as a “social animal”. Personalities would be limited without the comparison with others: the lack of communication between individuals would deprive them of the opportunity to enrich themselves internally, reducing the ability to choose.
In these days, because of the pandemic, the contact between individuals has been drastically limited. The interactions and discussions have undergone a stop, as if the train on which we advance daily in life had decided to refuse new passengers, and had stopped the development given by external stimuli, with a compulsory reinforcement of the pre-existing ones. During quarantine, in the absence of new acquaintances, we contacted people with whom we had not spoken for a long time, filling the gaps caused by life experiences not shared.

Even if it’s complicated to classify identities when they come to amalgamate, each one will manifest a different point of view of the same concept.
The way of expressing shows the past, the present and even the future of an individual, so even if we gather a group of people in the same field of study, each will have been influenced a priori by previous experiences and encounters, and will continue to do so through future ones.
For the individual, belonging to a group is crucial. One rarely agrees indiscriminately with everyone. Belonging makes us more confident in our choices. All this has been tested by psychologist Herni Tajfel’s³ studies where he postulated the theory of social identity, according to which simple “belonging” influences the conduct of the individual in favor of a group and against the opposite one. For example, in the novel “The French Will” by Andrei Makine⁴, the protagonist, who was adopted by a French woman, will manifest a strong attachment to his adopted country, despite genetically owning nothing of that place. This phenomenon surprises the protagonist himself when he learns about his true origin, unknown to him until the death of his adoptive mother.

Identità: specchio tra cultura e genetica - Identità riflessa

Claudia Habib, Reflected identity, Rome, 2020.

Therefore, does something congenital persist in the personality?
The Austrian psychiatrist Peter B. Neubauer⁵, a collaborator of the Jewish Board of Guardians, carried out an experiment during the 1970s in America on groups of twins separated at birth and placed in different families. The result was that three of them⁶, when they met again by chance in their college years, developed a strange phenomenon whereby they genetically reacted and moved in the same way, even though they had grown up as perfect strangers and in different environments, with different external stimuli. So it’s extremely important to distinguish between genetic identity, which acts in individuals without them being able to condition it, and a long-term empirical identity which develops daily. Thus, it is recognized that a person’s identity is formed by hereditary gifts, family background, school environment, and external experiences.
In the long run, identity is fundamental for an individual who will be able to fit into a group of people and participate in a collective life. The fact of being in a group will give it security and conviction of its choices, reinforcing the conviction that it’s not alone in implementing them. This will allow it to strengthen its personality with confidence and self-esteem. When a population, for example, is subjected to strong external political and economic influences, it tends to be more likely to forget its own identity. In this case, peoples exposed to the abuse of others risk the loss of an identity that in the past was strong and unique, or that includes traditions, history, way of life and religious beliefs.

Identità: specchio tra cultura e genetica - Continuità religiosa congolese

Giovanna Gavotti, Congolese religious community, Rome, 2021.

In history we have examples of abuse perpetrated always for political/economic reasons by stronger and more commercially influent states on smaller identities, at the expense of the traditional values of the latter. The identity of peoples has always been threatened, and today more than ever, by the diasporas caused by wars and economic difficulties that characterize our days.
Those who leave their own country, when fleeing from problematic situations, often find themselves forced to follow the paths of illegality and danger. As in the case of those who undertake immigration by sea and end up losing their lives, only to be found much later unrecognizable, as Cristina Cattaneo tells us in her book “Naufraghi senza volto”⁷ (that means “Shipwrecked without a face”), when she describes the discovery of the bodies and the attempt of a forensic doctor to give a name to each victim. A work prolonged over time, started after the first major disaster of the shipwreck near Lampedusa on October 3, 2013, in order to contact the victims’ families and reconstruct the identities of the dead. This effort continued with a better quality of means after the second disaster, which occurred off the Libyan coast on April 18, 2015 with the capsizing of a fishing boat. The research team set out to analyze the bodies recovered by the Italian Navy, and extracted as much information as possible from their DNA and personal effects. Some of these men and women were leaving their country, so they were carrying little pieces of land sewn in their shirts to remember their origins. Even these small details were relevant to continue the analysis. The second part of the study, regarding information gathered from possible acquaintances, was fundamental: relatives and friends were able to respond to the call and go directly to Milan or Rome where the comparisons then took place. They brought with them photographs, locks of hair of relatives, letters and anything else that could facilitate recognition. By cross-referencing these clues with the remains of the deceased, it was possible to verify the identity of some of them.

Identità: specchio tra cultura e genetica - Mare calmo

Giovanna Gavotti, The deceptive calm of the sea, Albissola, 2020.

In the end we can conclude that both “genetic” and “cultural” identities are necessary for the formation of an individual. There can be no development of a man without both, because they correspond to a single element. Everyone is born with a DNA and is also, by necessity, influenced by external stimuli.
Humans work on the development of their own personality from childhood to old age, and acquire their own and distinct characteristics from others without losing, on the contrary strengthening, his relationship with society and the collective.
Identity takes on the task of distinguishing each of us in a life of continuous collaboration. Uniqueness, though composed of deceptive individualism, is only found in the collective, even if we all think to be “unique”.

Translated into English by Giovanna Gavotti.

Cover: Imprinted Identity, Milan, 2021, courtesy of an anonymous author.

¹ E. Eriksson, Infanzia e Società, 18°, Roma, Armando Editore, 2000.
² A cura di Renato Laurenti, Aristotele, Politica, 14°, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 2007.
³ E. Tajfel, Gruppi umani e categorie sociali, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1999.
⁴ A. Makine, Le testament français, Parigi, Mercure de France, 1995.
⁵ P. Neubauer, Nature’s Trumbprint: The New Genetic of Personality, NY, Columbia university press, 1996.
⁶ T. Wardle, Three identical strangers, Gran Bretagna, 2018.
⁷ C. Catteneo, Naufraghi senza volto, Milano, Raffaelo Cortina Editore, 2018.

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Born in Rome in 1997 where she graduated from high school and obtained a degree in Science of Architecture at the Sapienza University of Rome in 2019, currently attending the master’s degree at the Politecnico of Milan. She has completed three internships, one of which was in Brussels. She loves to travel, attends theatre and cinema and is interested in music, art, anthropology, philosophy and in particular the relationship between humans and everything that surrounds them.
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