Seminar in Composition
Dr. Adam Johns
15 October 2014
Anorexia Through Lewontin
Lewontin opens up the chapter “Causes and their Effects” by talking about how modern biology is essentially shaped by a number of ideological prejudices. He comments, “One of those major prejudices is concerned with the nature of causes. Generally one looks for the cause of an effect, or even if there are a number of causes allowed, one supposes that there is a major cause,” (Lewontin 41). He then applies this approach to how we look at issues such as cancer; for instance, the genetic and environmental factors our society have found to attribute to its development. But what happens when we view modern issues that have copious factors as cancer does (potentially genetic, environmental, social, etc.) and apply these ideas to a very current phenomenon? In using Lewontin’s ideals expressed throughout the first half of his book, we are able to examine why our society seems to inadequately be able to cope with eating disorders such as anorexia nervousa.
The New York Times defines anorexia as “An eating disorder that makes people lose more weight than is considered healthy for their age,” targeting potential factors to be genetic, biological, and cultural (The New York Times Health Guide). It is no secret that the media is a factor in this epidemic, and also that there is a rather surface-level understanding of the complex disorder. Young and impressionable people (not just girls and women anymore, although the vast majority still lies with them) are inevitably bombarded with media of food, body image, etc. which in turn triggers feelings of inadequacies and self-loathing. Keeping this in mind while shifting to a seemingly unrelated point Lewontin makes about tuberculosis and the idea that it was extremely common among sweatshop and factory workers of the nineteenth century, and could possibly and simply be attributed to unregulated industrial capitalism. Of this he comments, “And if we did away with that system of social organization [unregulated industrial capitalism], we would not need to worry about the tubercle bacillus,” (Lewontin 42). Now, taking this idea and shedding it on the cultural side of anorexia, it is conceivable to ask what would result if we did away with any media that could trigger the disorder. Would our society no longer have to worry about this illness, because we would not impress such strong messages upon youth anymore? It’s technically possible, however, for reasons including the fact that this type of experiment could never actually be performed, Lewontin’s point that “We must distinguish between agents and causes,” and that perhaps culture could merely be considered an agent in some cases, we are forced to look also at the biological underpinnings of the disorder as additional factors (Lewontin 45).
According to studies, anorexia is eight times more common in those who are related to others with the disorder, and specific chromosomes have been identified that may be associated with bulimia and anorexia (The New York Times Health Guide). New studies have also found a potential link between a particular gut bacterium that seems to be produced more heavily by anorexic patients (Yeager). These bacteria are made by proteins, which are coded for by our genes. Although it is unclear if those particular chromosomes that are associated with the disorder, mentioned earlier in the paragraph, play any role in the production of the bacteria, these findings are all paradigms of what modern researchers tend to look towards when taking a biological approach to the problem. As Lewontin says in “All in the Genes?”, “First, we are not determined by our genes, although surely we are influenced by them,” (Lewontin 26) meaning that we are not in fact, “all in the genes”. So, our society’s consideration of genes as either an agent or a cause is conceivable when examining the ideology of understanding and treating anorexia.
Yet somehow, we still fall short. We attempt to understand the body chemistry, the molecular and genetic factors, the societal and physiological interplay, yet we seem to fail to separate agents from causes. And this failure is truly understandable. Anorexia is so variant from case to case, and has so many potential causes and agents, that one professional’s views and theories could be significantly different from another’s. We see this struggle and failure to fully treat the illness through the fact that many patients relapse. The contrasting views in The New York Times article, “In Fighting Anorexia, Recovery is Elusive” show that, “While patients may get better, aspects of their disease will continue to nag at them,” (Ellin). Meaning that one may be able to get their weight back up to normal and be physically cured, but still psychologically sick. Sufferers such as Dr. Suzanna Dooley-Hash have even found that they relapse after several years of being seemingly cured, sometimes cued by stressful triggers or other varying factors. Yet others, like Kathleen MacDonald consider themselves fully cured after a 16-year bought with the disorder (Ellin).
To shed a Lewontinian light on this sad truth, we fall short in understanding how to create a lasting and universally effective cure for anorexia because of how modern day science is influenced by social, political, economic, and social ideology—a pattern we see often in medicine. This is not an infectious disease, yet it has not yet been deciphered to be genetic, nor completely environmental/psychological. We move from one theory to the next as we have by examining cancer, first through viruses, then genes and environment (Lewontin 41-42). When ultimately, it seems as though the major roadblock in solving these multi-factorial epidemics is the lack of unity among the motivation and underlying influences of how and why we study them.
"Anorexia Nervousa." The New York Times Health Guide. The New York Times, n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
Ellin, Abby. "In Fighting Anorexia, Recovery Is Elusive." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Apr. 2011. Web. 11 Oct. 2014.
"Gut Bacteria Protein Linked to Anorexia and Bulimia." Science News. N.p. 9 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
Lewontin, Richard C. Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA. 1st ed. Vol. 1. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1992. Print.