“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”
– William Shakespeare
“We are still the masters of our fate. We are still the captains of our souls.”
– Winston Churchill
“Remember one thing only: That it’s you—nobody else—who determines your destiny and decides your fate.”
- e. e. cummings
I have long believed these sentiments—that we each have the remarkable opportunity to craft our own lives and to shape our own destinies.
However, it wasn’t until I read the biography of Oliver Sacks that I learned this isn’t only an inspirational notion, but a biological fact.
Sacks, the renowned neurologist, met and learned from many of the 20th century's greatest scientists. The lessons he shared from Gerald Edelman struck me in particular.
Born in 1929, Edelman won the Nobel Prize in 1972 for his work in science. In 1986, Sacks first learned of Edelman’s theory of neural Darwinism. In brief, it is the notion that our own neural pathways evolve over the course of our lifetimes much like species evolve over time.
Edelman realized that “cellular development [is] subject to all sorts of contingencies—nerves cells could die, could migrate, could connect up with each other in unpredictable ways—so that even by the time of birth the fine neural circuitry is quite different even in the brains of identical twins; they are already different individuals who respond to experience in individual ways.”
In Edelman's view, “very little is programmed or built in. A baby turtle, on hatching, is ready to go. A human baby is not ready to go; it must create all sorts of perceptual and other categorizations and use them to make sense of the world—to make an individual, personal world of its own, and to find out how to make its way in that world.”
The beauty of this science applied in everyday life is profound. It means we really are the masters of our fate, even on a deep, cellular level.
As Sacks further explains, “individuality is deeply imbued in us from the very start, at the neuronal level. Even at a motor level, researchers have shown, an infant does not follow a set pattern of learning to walk or how to reach for something. Each baby experiments with different ways of reaching for objects and over the course of several months discovers or selects his own motor solutions.
“In its broadest sense, neural Darwinism implies that we are destined, whether we wish it or not, to a life of particularity and self-development, to make our own individual paths through life.”
I don’t know about you, but I love this concept.
To me, neural Darwinism means we are innately designed to design our own lives.
If an infant experiments with different ways of reaching for objects, we can experiment with different ways of reaching for the stars.
If our cells interact and connect unpredictably, so can we—with each new day—break from our old habits and become unpredictably exceptional ourselves.
If nothing is predestined, not even the way we move as humans, then we get to decide exactly how we're going to move and shape our own world.
In other words, charting our own path isn’t only a wonderful opportunity, it is our biological destiny. How insanely awesome is that?