Tuesday, January 12, 2010

'We don't like feeling responsible'

Gabor Maté, M.D.: There is a new and rapidly growing science that focuses on how life experiences influence the function of genes. It's called epigenetics. As a result of life events, chemicals attach themselves to DNA and direct gene activities... Epigenetic effects are most powerful during early development and have now been shown to be transmittable from one generation to the next, without any change in the genes themselves. Environmentally induced epigenetic influences powerfully modulate genetic ones...

Why, then, are narrow genetic assumptions so widely accepted?... There is a psychological fact that, I believe, provides a powerful incentive for people to cling to genetic theories. We human beings don't like feeling responsible: as individuals for our own actions; as parents for our children's hurts; or as a society for our many failings. Genetics -- that neutral, impassive, impersonal handmaiden of Nature -- would absolve us of responsibility and of its ominous shadow, guilt. If genetics ruled our fate, we would not need to blame ourselves or anyone else. Genetic explanations take us off the hook. The possibility does not occur to us that we can accept or assign responsibility without taking on the useless baggage of guilt or blame.

More daunting for those who hope for scientific and social progress, the genetic argument is easily used to justify all kinds of inequalities and injustices that are otherwise hard to defend. It serves a deeply conservative function: if a phenomenon like addiction is determined mostly by biological heredity, we are spared from having to look at how our social environment supports, or does not support, the parents of young children; at how social attitudes, prejudices and policies burden, stress and exclude certain segments of the population and thereby increase their propensity for addiction. The writer Louis Menand said it well in a New Yorker article: 'It's all in the genes:' an explanation for the way things are that does not threaten the way things are.'