Just how unique are we?

by Bruce Kasanoff on November 23, 2009

The bankruptcy earlier this month of DeCode Genetics raises the question, “Just how unique is each human being?” The well-funded ($700 million) company found that the genetic underpinnings of human disease are much more complicated than scientists anticipated. It seems that at minimum thousands of genetic mutations – rather than just a handful – cause what look like the same disease.

As a New York Times headline put it, “A Genetics Company Fails, Its Research Too Complex.”

For longer than any of us has been alive, our society has minimized the differences between people. Mass marketing firms have spent literally trillions of dollars convincing us that our needs could be met by products produced in huge quantities on assembly lines. We lacked the motivation or the knowledge to refute this belief.

But now scientists are peering deeper and deeper into what makes us tick. I suspect that they will discover that each person is unique in far deeper and important ways than most of us yet realize.

Study 1,000 people with “lung cancer” closely enough, and you will likely discover that it is a gross overstatement to say they have the same disease.

Offer 1,000 students an education in which they truly receive differentiated instruction, and you will likely discover they learn far better than students taught with a traditional classroom approach.

The differences between us have been minimized for so long, we don’t even have a way to identify them. Most market research questions only offer a handful of possible answers. Most newspaper articles only have room for a handful of facts. Few teachers have the time or inclination to understand what makes each of their students unique.

But we are unique. The more closely we study how human beings work, the more obvious this will become.

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