I won’t be coming to work today – I’d rather go back to sleep

The BBC
reported yesterday
that the inability of
some people to get out of bed in the morning is genetically determined. A study at the University of Zurich
found that individual cells have ‘clocks’, which regulate body processes. The schedule of these clocks determines whether one is better suited to early mornings or late nights.

When a pattern of behaviour is found to be
biologically based, those who exhibit it often find themselves excused from
responsibility for it, particularly if it is correctable. It is not the fault of dyslexics that they
make mistakes reading and spelling, and it is not the fault of Tourette
syndrome sufferers that they make offensive remarks. As a result, medical help is provided for
sufferers of these conditions. Sometimes, however, the view that those who exhibit undesirable,
biologically-determined behaviour should be excused from responsibility for it,
and their behaviour medically corrected, is controversial. For example, many view the widespread
prescription of Ritalin to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
(ADHD) in children as suspect, in part because it encourages the view that
unruly but normal children are diseased, and therefore excuses those children
and their parents from applying discipline to reign in the offending behaviour.

Those who have trouble rising in the morning are
often frowned upon, too, particularly if they make no attempt to curb their
night-time activity. Such people are
often viewed as indolent, irresponsible, and undisciplined. Few employers or lecturers sympathise with
those who arrive for morning work or study bleary-eyed after a late night; and
the preferred pattern of sleeping and waking is immortalised in Franklin’s
proverb, ‘early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and
wise’. However—setting aside conventions
dictating when most people start and finish work—there seems little reason to
claim that any particular sleep cycle is preferable to any other. Further, since it turns out that many people
are biologically less suited to a conventional sleep cycle, meaning that they
may not currently be making the most of their most productive hours, it seems
that both society and individuals could benefit from rethinking the way we
operate.

But, perhaps this conclusion is not strong
enough. When our biological make-up
renders us insufficiently suited for the way the world is, technology offers us
a choice: we can either make ourselves better suited to the way the world is,
or make the world better suited to the way we are. A popular line of thought is that, if we can
introduce reasonable social measures to improve the fit between individuals and
the world, we should do so, regardless of whether changing the individual would
also improve things. Just as wheelchair
users have cause to complain if public buildings do not provide wheelchair
access, and blind people have cause to complain if they are not considered for
jobs merely because potential employers deem it too costly to adapt the role to
accommodate their disability, perhaps night owls have cause to complain if they
are denied opportunities because they are unsuited to conventional working
hours. Technology currently offers many
largely untapped possibilities to cater for people’s divergent sleep cycles:
telephones, email, videoconferencing, and virtual reality environments like
Second Life all provide opportunities for people to communicate without having
to be in the same place at the same time. Taking full advantage of such opportunities could, in many cases,
dispense with the need for the physical workplace, and solve many problems
relating to traffic congestion and overcrowded public transport. People could work, study, and socialise when
they are at their most alert. Physical
space could be used more effectively, with people on different sleep cycles
occupying places like libraries, restaurants, and offices in ‘shifts’ rather
than visiting en masse for short periods, leaving the places deserted and
unused afterwards.

There are downsides, too, however. Socialising and working with people whose
sleep cycles do not match our own will become increasingly difficult as we take
on commitments at opposite ends of the sleep cycle. Different sleep cycles may grow or shrink to
more or less than 24 hours, making it difficult even to keep track of who is
awake and who is asleep. Incompatible
and changing sleep cycles could be cited in divorce proceedings and employment
tribunals. The bustle of a city centre
and the silence of early morning could become things of the past as activity levels
even out over the course of the day and night.  And, with no hour devoid of noise, the quality of sleep for everyone may decline.

It is difficult to assess antecedently what the
ideal balance might be between changing people to accommodate the world and
changing the world to accommodate people. Currently, little serious thought is given to this question: decisions
whether to medicate particular traits, such as hyperactivity, are often made in
response to short-term social demands, leaving unaddressed questions about the
long-term. But, as more and more of our
personality traits are revealed to be genetically determined, and as we
continue to demand that those placed at a disadvantage by their genes should be
recognised and assisted, such long-term considerations are essential. Genetic inequality may be a bitter pill for
liberal democratic societies (or those that approximate them) to swallow; but
what would a society designed to level the playing field for all look like, and
would we want to live in it?

(Thanks to Marcus Williams for discussion and comments)

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