[Paleopsych] NYT: A Modern Refrain: My Genes Made Me Do It
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Wed Jul 6 21:18:51 UTC 2005
A Modern Refrain: My Genes Made Me Do It
New York Times, 5.7.5
By KENT SEPKOWITZ, M.D.
Our theories about human disease are more the product of current
fashion than we would like to admit. But just as the moment influences
the hemline and the automobile fender, so too does a type of
intellectual currency affect our understanding of how illness happens.
Much of the 20th century was spent in pursuit of external causes of
disease - cigarettes, E. coli, fatty foods, tick bites. Rather like
the hero in an old western, medicine's job was to track down the bad
guys, round 'em up and squish 'em before a real commotion got a-goin'.
Antibiotics, vaccines, heart pills - these were our weapons in the
epic battle between us and them, good versus evil.
More recently, though, we have cast our gaze inward, mesmerized by our
own adorable DNA. Just last decade, after 40 years of intense
flirtation, this relationship was consummated as we cloned the entire
human genome. Promises of improved health and longevity soon followed,
as we had apparently found our way to the bedrock truths that underlie
But with this orgy of molecular self-admiration has come a fundamental
shift in thinking about human disease. We have moved from our
long-held premise that the outside world (too much ice cream and
flesh-eating bacteria) threatens us to a belief that the trouble
arises from something much closer to home - our own double-crossing
Although packaged with the glint of modernity, this theory actually
draws from something old and wintry - the harsh remedies proposed by
John Calvin, predestination's No. 1 guy. According to Calvin, our fate
is determined at first creation. Similar to this, the articles of
gene-ism would have us believe that our medical fate is sealed by the
genes we receive at conception. Seem a bit grim?
Maybe not. Our unquestioning acceptance of the gene as prime mover has
certain distinct - and ultramodern - advantages. Consider: you are no
longer responsible for anything. Sound familiar? Once it was the
devil. Now it is the gene that made you do it. You are officially off
the hook. It isn't your fault at all. It's your faulty genes.
It gets even better. Not only is it not your fault, but you actually
are a victim, a victim of your own toxic gene pool.
In the Age of Genetics, you no longer have to try to cut out smoking
or think twice about gobbling that candy bar in your desk drawer. And
forget jogging on a cold morning.
The die was cast long ago, from the moment the parental sperm and egg
first integrated their spiraling nucleotides. The resulting package of
chromosomes has programmed every step of your life. So sit back, relax
and leave the driving to someone else.
But one problem remains: this new world order is at sharp odds with an
older theism, that blame can and must be assigned in every human
transaction. We have built a vast judicial-industrial complex that
offers lawsuits for every need, satisfying varied urges like the wish
for fairness or revenge, for getting rich quick or simply getting your
This all-blame all-the-time approach applies to much more than
determining culpability should a neighbor trip on your lawn and break
an arm. It also says that people are responsible for their own health
- and illness. It is your fault if you develop cancer or a heart
attack because you didn't eat, think or breathe right. You have
allowed the corrosive effect of unresolved anger or stress or poor
self-esteem to undermine your health. So if you are sick or miserable
or both, it's your own darned fault.
No wonder we fled.
The transition from the chaotic, barking family feud character of
lawsuits to the sleek silence of a future devoted to cloning and
splicing genes surely derives from something larger than scientific
opportunity or our fascination with "Star Trek." How modern to deflect
blame suavely onto a poorly understood high-end concept, the manic
twitches of deoxynucleic acid. Gosh, biology is so much bigger than we
are. Nothing we can do about it, really.
Our wholehearted endorsement of the science of no personal
responsibility may sour as new insights and new intellectual fashion
result in new bedrock truths.
A future generation may castigate us for our unblinking narcissism.
What were we thinking? How could genes be responsible for red hair and
bad memory and atherosclerosis?
But if they come after us wagging their stubby fingers, we have an
airtight explanation. We'll tell them it was not really our idea, the
whole gene thing.
No, we will say, we were victims. Victims of fashion.
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