October 24, 2014
Seminar in Composition
Environment vs. Genetics – Lewontin and Autism
How do you separate the factors that make you, you? It is universally accepted that every person is built on a set of genes. At the same time when we all arrived on campus for the first time and met new people we noticed things that made them different in other types of ways, most notably – accents, slang, beliefs and many other things. None of those that I listed are genetic, or are they? But would it not make more sense for them to be acquired by ones environment? Quite frankly that makes more sense and in Biology as Ideology Lewontin figures the same in the chapter “A Story in Textbooks.”
In his argument against the sociobiological theory, Lewontin notes that a result of the theory the claim of “individual properties are coded in our genes” (94, Lewontin) and follows up by pointing out a lack of evidence. He lists of some of these proposed ‘properties’ including; entrepreneurship male dominance and aggressivity that all cause conflict between sexes. As we lack a vast knowledge of what characteristics origins from certain genes neither side of this argument can truly be proven as of now but it seems highly unlikely and “social traits in North America…no serious person believes genes determine these attributes” (96, Lewontin) takes the words out of my mouth. So yes, I agree with Lewontin that environmental attributes like these are in no way genetic but picked up as we grow in our environment but another question that should be asked is – can the environment cause biological changes?
In an article by CNN’s, Harmeet Kaur, “Genetics play a bigger role than environmental causes for autism,” Kaur brings attention to the debate of the strength of the environment on mental diseases, mainly focusing on autism. Autism has taken on new forms of publicity as science has advanced, originally people with these mental diseases were outcast into institutions until realizing the reality of the situation. As society grew to know more about the disease we discovered it became relevant that autism is a genetic disorder that directly effects the neurological system of our bodies. More recently the disease has become more common, spawning the question, do parts of our environment have the ability to give a child autism. What makes this question legitimate is the complexity of genetics associated with the disease itself, allowing things like metals and pesticides among the many victims of blame towards causation of autism. That being said Kaur makes it clear “genetics plays more of a role in the development of autism than environmental causes, according to new research published Sunday in Nature Genetics” (Kaur) right off the get go and includes the statistical medium “the study found that 52% of autism risk comes from common genes, while only 2.6% are attributed to spontaneous mutations caused by, among other things, environmental factors.” There is a fine line in biology of what causes autism as proven above but with certain radicals 2.6% is still claims a chance.
How does this connect to Lewontin’s argument? On page 97, he delves into the functions of DNA and the science of it with in the body and that is where he would disregard environmental factors as causing autism. I am sure that his claim would be along the lines of the popular explanations for autism that something went wrong in development stages for the baby thus causing cells and genes to get messed up somehow. On the surface, blaming mental diseases on pesticides in the air sounds well, sound but if I were to follow a possible Lewontin argument my first question would be how did they make their way all the way down to the DNA? I am no scientist at all, in fact I take astronomy classes to avoid chemistry and biology so it is quite possible that there is a great answer to that question but it seems more like fiction to a common folk like myself.
Early in the book Lewontin points out a possible solution to the autism argument and a cure for it. On page 49 he goes on about how if we could find where autism comes from in a gene then look at a ‘normal’ persons same gene that we could take the normal gene and fix the broken autistic gene. In this argument he both claims that autism is genetic but also gives a realistic solution. Continuing his writing though, he raises the big red flag and gets into a whole new social argument by claiming “the first error it makes is in talking about the human gene sequence as if all human beings were alike” (50, Lewontin), what is normal? In fact earlier this afternoon my floormates and I were debating if there really is a ‘normal’ person and what defines one of these people? I’m going to end that before I get off too much on a tangent so all-in-all to answer my opening question, yes. I do believe that both environment and genetics make us. But genetics make us, us while the environment makes us who we are. It is our social, religious, political and personal beliefs that come from what we grow up around but the actual growing up comes from those pesky double helix things floating around within us.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire; a Season in the Wilderness. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Print
Kaur, Harmeet. "Genetics Play a Bigger Role than Environmental Causes for Autism." The Chart RSS. CNN, 22 July 2014. Web. 21 Oct. 2014. <http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2014/07/22/genetics-play-a-bigger-role-than-environmental-causes-for-autism/?iref=allsearch>.