Since the beginning of this weblog (I’ve been writing for eight years) heritability has been a major confusion. Even long time readers misunderstand what I’m trying to get at when I talk about heritability. That’s why posts such as Mr. Luke Jostins‘ are so helpful. I had seen references to a piece online, The Causes of Common Diseases are Not Genetic Concludes a New Analysis, but I hadn’t given it much thought. Until Ms. Mary Carmichael’s post DNA, Denial, and the Rise of “Environmental Determinism”. She begins:
Michael Pollan, the well-known writer on food and agriculture, is a smart guy. His arguments tend to be nuanced and grounded in common sense. I like his basic maxim on nutrition – “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” – so much that I recently promoted it in a Newsweek cover story. He’s the last person I’d suspect of reactionary thinking, which is why I wish I didn’t have to say this: Michael Pollan has made a deeply unfortunate mistake.
A few days ago, speaking to his 43,000 followers on Twitter, Pollan linked to an essay written by an environmental advocacy group that spends much of its time fighting the depradations of Big Agriculture. Curiously, the essay wasn’t about ecological destruction or even about agriculture. It was about human genetics. It argued that since genetics currently can’t explain everything about inheritance, genes must not influence the development of disease, and thus the causes of illness must be overwhelmingly environmental (meaning “uninherited” as opposed to “caused by pollution,” though the latter category of factors is part of the former one). This was a little like arguing that your engine doesn’t power your car because sometimes it breaks down in a way that confuses your mechanic — and concluding that gasoline alone is sufficient to make a car with no engine run. But Pollan took the argument at face value. He said it showed “how the gene-disease paradigm appears to be collapsing.” He was troubled that its contentions apparently had gone unnoticed: “Why aren’t we hearing about this?!”
Of course I had seen Dr. Daniel MacArthur’s post Bioscience Resource Project critique of modern genomics: a missed opportunity in my RSS, but when I started reading the rebuttal I immediately thought “Dr. Dan’s interlocutors sound kind of dumb,” and I stopped reading. After reading the post I don’t think they’re dumb, I think they’re being lawyerly. Much of the piece is a rhetorical tour de force in leveraging the prejudices and biases of the intended readership. This is the Intelligent Design version of Left-wing “Blank Slate” Creationism.* They smoothly manipulate real findings in a deceptive shell game intended to convince the public, and shape public policy. Their success is evident in Pollan’s response. “X paradigm appears to be collapsing.” “Why aren’t we hearing about this?” Does this sound familiar? Like Dr. MacArthur I think some of the criticisms within the piece are valid. Despite not being hostile to the maxim “better living through chemistry,” I do think that there has been an excessive trend toward pharmaceutical or surgical “cures” in relation to diseases of lifestyle (anti-depressants, gastric bypass, etc.). But we go down a very dangerous path when we make recourse to shoddy means toward ostensibly admirable ends. This sort of discourse is not sustainable! (just used a buzzword intended to appeal right there!)
I honestly can’t be bothered to say much more when so many others already have. This is a boat I missed. But if some of what I say above isn’t clear, I recommend you read the original essay. Then read Dr. MacArthur and Ms. Carmichael. If you’re hungry for more, Ms. Carmichael has a helpful list of links.
* Left Creationism had its most negative manifestation as Lysenkoism, but it suffuses the outlook of many who fear the emergence of a new Nazi abomination. Leon Kamin in the 1970s even claimed that IQ was not heritable at all! Though he backed off such an extreme position, it shows how confident he was that could claim such a thing.