This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 44 – September 1999
Jeans are out, genes are in. Culture and commercial pressures have decided on the fate of these two homophones. It was in the papers a few months ago – wearing jeans, once so popular, is fast fading out. Meanwhile, genes are very trendy, the little darlings of the scientific community, and of the financial world.
You cannot open a newspaper without finding a reference to these genes. They are supposed to be the cause of anything and everything. Genocentrism is the new religion, so much so that even God will certainly be found to be an almighty Gene. Almost daily, a disease, or worse, a form of behaviour, is said to be caused by a “bad” gene. A gene for every ill is the new motto of so-called scientific medicine.
So I was not surprised to read recently that we should blame our genes for our bad backs. How predictable and convenient! Disease has always been interpreted as an entity, something that attacks us, with little or no relationship to lifestyle. There is no need to pay attention to how we live if disease is encoded in our genes. ‘Don’t change your habits, change your genes’ will be the future advice given by modern medicine.
In the past the culprit was outside us: evil spirits, germs, or viruses. Now the enemy is within, part and parcel of our own being. It is interesting to observe how a new breed of ultra-reductionist scientists present to the public a distorted view of genes. Following a strange logic, genes, which are mere bits of DNA, are described as all-powerful agents. According to this view, you are nothing more than a shelter, a vessel for your, now famous, “selfish genes”.
We had the regrettable Cartesian dualism of mind and body. Now that mind has been reduced to mere physicality, we are witnessing an even more damaging and illusory dichotomy – genes and organism. Illusory because genes are not the cause of everything; they are part of a whole system of interconnected bits and pieces, and as such, are not independent and isolated entities modelling our features, conditioning our behaviour and dictating their whims to a powerless organismal envelope.
A few weeks ago, medical researchers published in the journal Arthritis And Rheumatism the proposition that back pain is predominantly determined by our genes. Their conclusion was deduced from a study of twins, a standard procedure that compares identical (monozygotic, MZ) with non-identical (dizygotic, DZ) twins. Since MZ twins are the outcome of the fertilisation of a single ovum by a single sperm they are genetically identical. DZ twins, who are the result of two separate ova fertilised by two separate sperm, are like ordinary siblings, sharing only half their genes. The researchers found that the risk of developing disc degeneration due to osteoarthritis was more common in MZ twins. For our scientists, this was sufficient evidence to infer that bad backs come from bad genes. To me this amounts to jumping to a conclusion by overlooking the old debate between nature and nurture, or, as we say now, genes and environment.
In their excellent book Not In Our Genes, the authors R.C. Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin caution us against such intellectual short cuts: “…an MZ pair creates or attracts a far more similar environment than that experienced by other people”. To them “the demonstration that concordance is higher among MZs does not necessarily establish a genetic basis for the trait in question…” because “the environmental similarities, no less than the genetic similarity, might plausibly account for the higher concordance of MZs.”
In connection with environmental factors, I saw a TV programme about bad drivers. A study revealed that the sons of reckless drivers tended to become equally bad at driving – bad driving runs in families! But no one, except the most stubborn reductionist, would conclude that there is a gene for bad driving. The explanation offered in the programme was that the sons of bad drivers learned at an early age the habits of their fathers (bad driving seems to be a male thing). This is not surprising as babies have, in the words of the well-known educator Maria Montessori, ‘an absorbent mind’. They easily pick-up and duplicate the habits of their parents.
It is important to distinguish between heritability and familial similarities. It’s not all in our genes. Human movement has a lot to do with cortical education and little to do with instinct. Babies have to learn to crawl, walk, run, and plenty of other skills. They have to learn how to use themselves in much the same way we learn how to drive a car. Unfortunately, in our mechanised society, bad habits in the way that we handle ourselves are widespread. But “Things refuse to be mismanaged for long” said Emerson, and the effects of bad use soon make their appearance, most commonly in the form of a painful back.
To return to our twins, it does not require much imagination to understand how identical twins would have more opportunities to be exposed to the same influences and to develop the same habits, than non-identical ones. Having very similar body shapes they will also tend to end up with similar distortions and symptoms.
Keep your jeans on! They are not a threat to your back (unless they are so tight that they prevent you from bending properly at the hip joints). But you would be wise not to accept the gene theory of disease without a healthy dose of scepticism. Failing to do so could make you ignore the fundamental cause of back pain: the way you use and shape yourself.