Genetics

We're not blank slates

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Kevin Devine and Susan Rosenthal make some valid points about the importance of social environment in the genesis of mental disorder, in their defence of Oliver James’s book Not In Your Genes (Feedback, September SR).

But this doesn’t prevent their “blank slate” view of the mind being not just scientifically flawed, but also potentially reactionary in a political sense.

Solutions are social

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John Parrington’s article ignores the racist use of genetic research and reduces the social problem of mental illness to the micro-level where it cannot be solved.

The human brain is not a super-computer, as Parrington claims, but a super-connector that enables collective problem-solving. Blocking our ability to solve problems is a capitalist system that celebrates individualism and promotes biological solutions. Parrington falls into this reactionary trap.

Cause and effect

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Parrington’s article in my view suffers from two main weaknesses.

One is his attack on what he calls “the standard view that the genome changes only very gradually”. Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel says that experience does have an effect on genes, but solely within the brain, and quite categorically rules out experience being carried over to the next generation through the genes.

Kandel, like so many others, sees no problem in accepting both tenants: conservatism when it comes to DNA reproduction and extreme flexibility within one’s own life span.

Science is not neutral

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Epigenetics has become a high-profile contribution to understanding what makes us human. A relatively small body of research is portrayed as having discovered that some human conditions can be passed down through a process of interaction between genes and environment.

There are serious dangers with the way in which this is being represented, and John Parrington’s article (“Nature, Nurture: Mind the Trap”, October SR) is far from critical of the science on which these claims are based.

Nature, nurture: mind the trap

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Is it the DNA we are born with or our environment that determines how we act? John Parrington, author of The Deeper Genome, looks beyond this false dichotomy to a dialectical approach.

Imagine if someone invented a portable supercomputer that required only the wattage of a light bulb to run, but had the literary imagination of a William Shakespeare or Emily Brontë, the scientific genius of an Albert Einstein or Marie Curie, and the musical talent of an Amadeus Mozart or Billie Holliday. In fact such a computer already exists — it’s called the human brain.

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