The left-wing genes

Paul Raven @ 13-10-2010

Which genes are left-wing? All of them! At least that’s the interpretation Oliver James puts forward in this piece at The Guardian, as he points out that the mapping of the human genome hasn’t delivered evidence for the genetic determinism of mental health and social status that conservative politics – not to mention the pharmacology industries – hoped it would:

This result had been predicted by Craig Venter, one of the key researchers on the project. When the map was published, he said that because we only have about 25,000 genes psychological differences could not be much determined by them. “Our environments are critical,” he concluded. And, after only a few years of extensive genome searching, even the most convinced geneticists began to publicly admit that there are no individual genes for the vast majority of mental health problems. In 2009 Professor Robert Plomin, a leading behavioural geneticist, wrote that the evidence had proved that “genetic effects are much smaller than previously considered: the largest effects account for only 1% of quantitative traits”. However, he believed that all was not lost. Complex combinations of genes might hold the key. So far, this has not been shown, nor is it likely to be.


Another theory was that genes create vulnerabilities. For example, it was thought that people with a particular gene variant were more likely to become depressed if they were maltreated as children. This also now looks unlikely. An analysis of 14,250 people showed that those with the variant were not at greater risk of depression. Nor were they more likely to be depressed when the variant was combined with childhood maltreatment.

In developed nations, women and those on a low income are twice as likely to be depressed as men and the wealthy. When DNA is tested in large samples, neither women nor the poor are more likely to have the variant. Worldwide, depression is least common in south-east Asia. Yet a study of 29 nations found the variant to be commonest there – the degree to which a society is collectivist rather than individualistic partly explains depression rates, not genes.

Politics may be the reason why the media has so far failed to report the small role of genes. The political right believes that genes largely explain why the poor are poor, as well as twice as likely as the rich to be mentally ill. To them, the poor are genetic mud, sinking to the bottom of the genetic pool.

It’s a rather generalised and sweeping statement, but I think there’s a core of truth to it. Is this why there’s been such a right-wing push-back against genetic science in recent years, perhaps?

[ That said, James is narrativising genetic science in a very similar way, albeit on behalf of the other side of the debating chamber. The political polarisation of science worries me regardless of who’s doing it, because it puts the primacy onto agenda-driven interpretation rather than evidence; nowhere is this more clear than in climate science, where progressive/left-wing attempts to counter the right’s conspiracy theories with their own rhetoric have obscured the facts of the matter even further. ]

Mental illness: America’s biggest export?

Paul Raven @ 15-01-2010

A fascinating (if slightly grim and worrying) article at the New York Times by Ethan Watters suggests that Western psychiatry may be successfully homogenising the mental illnesses of the entire planet, thanks to aggressive programs designed to export “psychiatric literacy”. The intent was good, but the results may not be – as it seems that the expression and symptoms of mental illnesses around the world have changed to suit the blueprints brought by the white man..

For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we’ve been exporting our Western “symptom repertoire” as well. That is, we’ve been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures. Indeed, a handful of mental-health disorders — depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia among them — now appear to be spreading across cultures with the speed of contagious diseases. These symptom clusters are becoming the lingua franca of human suffering, replacing indigenous forms of mental illness.


Of course, we can become psychologically unhinged for many reasons that are common to all, like personal traumas, social upheavals or biochemical imbalances in our brains. Modern science has begun to reveal these causes. Whatever the trigger, however, the ill individual and those around him invariably rely on cultural beliefs and stories to understand what is happening. Those stories, whether they tell of spirit possession, semen loss or serotonin depletion, predict and shape the course of the illness in dramatic and often counterintuitive ways. In the end, what cross-cultural psychiatrists and anthropologists have to tell us is that all mental illnesses, including depression, P.T.S.D. and even schizophrenia, can be every bit as influenced by cultural beliefs and expectations today as hysterical-leg paralysis or the vapors or zar or any other mental illness ever experienced in the history of human madness. This does not mean that these illnesses and the pain associated with them are not real, or that sufferers deliberately shape their symptoms to fit a certain cultural niche. It means that a mental illness is an illness of the mind and cannot be understood without understanding the ideas, habits and predispositions — the idiosyncratic cultural trappings — of the mind that is its host.

Well worth a read.

Depression may be evolution’s way of telling us to think things over

Tom Marcinko @ 30-08-2009

hello“Mental disorders should generally be rare,” state researchers Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr. ” — why isn’t depression?” It doesn’t seem to be a function of aging and culture, yet prescription drugs for it help keep pharmaceutical companies afloat.

There is another possibility: that, in most instances, depression should not be thought of as a disorder at all. In an article recently published in Psychological Review, we argue that depression is in fact an adaptation, a state of mind which brings real costs, but also brings real benefits…. So what could be so useful about depression? Depressed people often think intensely about their problems. These thoughts are called ruminations; they are persistent and depressed people have difficulty thinking about anything else. Numerous studies have also shown that this thinking style is often highly analytical. They dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time….

Many other symptoms of depression make sense in light of the idea that analysis must be uninterrupted. The desire for social isolation, for instance, helps the depressed person avoid situations that would require thinking about other things. Similarly, the inability to derive pleasure from sex or other activities prevents the depressed person from engaging in activities that could distract him or her from the problem. Even the loss of appetite often seen in depression could be viewed as promoting analysis because chewing and other oral activity interferes with the brain’s ability to process information.

But is there any evidence that depression is useful in analyzing complex problems? For one thing, if depressive rumination were harmful, as most clinicians and researchers assume, then bouts of depression should be slower to resolve when people are given interventions that encourage rumination, such as having them write about their strongest thoughts and feelings. However, the opposite appears to be true. Several studies have found that expressive writing promotes quicker resolution of depression, and they suggest that this is because depressed people gain insight into their problems.

The idea that depression–which the authors acknowledge is painful and can be serious–can have a purpose is a new idea to me.

I’m going to go lie in a dark room and think about it.

[Image: Somebody Needs a Hug by Robyn Gallagher]

Don’t want Alzheimer’s? Study says you might need to be a better person

Tomas Martin @ 02-10-2007

Will being strong and dependable mean a stronger mind at old age?A lengthy study of nuns, priests and monks by a medical researcher in Chicago produced a stunning correlation between the conscientiousness of the person and the likelihood of dementia in later life. Conscientiousness was described as someone self-disciplined, scrupulous and dependable. Those that scored in the 90th percentile for conscientiousness in 1994 had 89% less chance of contracting Alzheimer’s than someone in the 10th percentile as well as less cognitive decline. The researcher’s hypothesis for the link is that determined and dependable people are more resilient and adaptable to change.

[via reuters, photo by triblondon]