inaugural blog – epigenetics

 

ESRC profile pic me

Hello and welcome to my first blog post!

 

NB: Any waffley terminology I use will have definitions at the end of the blog.

 

I thought I would start with something simple to ease everyone in to future discussions on:

  • critical perspectives of what we as a society are led to accept as facts

  • clearing up the misunderstandings and misinterpretations of complex ideas

  • things that interest me that direct my ideological and ontological positions when it comes to looking at the world

Simple!

And, to clarify, these are positions, views, and subjective takes on ideas about human psychology, with some other lovely subject areas such as evolution thrown in for good measure!

And, with that, my first thought for the day is epigenetics and how this relates to misunderstandings about mental health/neuro-diverse experiences.

 

Quick background:

Point One. The theory (fact) of evolution is often misunderstood; just so you know Darwin never said we are direct descendants of apes, we share a common ancestor. I throw this in as an aside, and one that frustrates me when I hear people misunderstand evolutionary processes.

Point Two. The workings of human genes and the inheritability of physical and psychological traits are also misunderstood, misinterpreted and simplified to the extent that even most psychologists are not critical of the assertion that many neuro-diverse (‘mental health’) experiences are passed on genetically (I shall be providing a treatise on this subject, at length, later).

Often overlooked in research investigating the degree to which neuro-diverse experiences are inherited is the part that epigenetic processes play on the expression of physiological and psychological traits.

I am not going to go into the debate and my argument at length here. What I thought I would do is share with you a passage from the fictional and third instalment of the Brilliance series, written by Marcus Sakey, where Sakey does a good job of explaining the complex idea of epigenetics1.

In this trilogy, Sakey paints a picture of what the world would be like if differential psychological ways of being (such as autism) were advantageous.

Brief book synopsis: 

What if one percent of children were born with abilities to read people’s body language and predict their next move? If there existed individuals who could see ‘vectors’, meaning that they could know where people would be looking and move through whole crowds in the blind spots, effectively becoming invisible?

It is in this premise that Sakey explains the rudiments of epigenetic processes, via a conversation between an academic and a federal agent.  

NB: Where Sakey uses the term brilliance/brilliants, replace the words with mental illnesses. 

 

Ethan, the academic: “People have been searching for the genetic basis of brilliance for three decades. They couldn’t find it because it wasn’t there, not in the code. Our breakthrough was discovering the epigenetic basis of it. That’s why the answer was so slippery, because epigenetics is about the way DNA expresses, not the genes themselves. DNA is the raw ingredients, but you can make very different dishes from the same ingredients, and human DNA has twenty-one thousand genes. That’s a lot of ingredients. The trick is locating the specific cause. Abe called it the three-potato theory.”

“Right, you told me,” Cooper said. “If the cause of the gifts was eating three potatoes in a row, figuring that out is hard, because it’s a big world. But once you know, all you have to do is eat three potatoes.”

Ethan, the academic: “Here’s the thing, though. Nature is messy. Evolution is about random errors— mutations— that end up conferring a survival advantage and get passed on. But so does a lot of other junk, stuff that doesn’t really do much but hitch a ride. So while you end up with three potatoes, they’re ugly potatoes. Lumpy, deformed potatoes. ”

End.

I am not entirely enamoured about referring to anything in humanity as ‘ugly, lumpy, deformed potatoes’, but you get the gist.

The point is, when you consider phenomena such as any given mental health experience (some might say the random errors – mutations – considered ‘junk’, a point I will refute in later blogs) it is not simple enough to say that they are highly heritable or linked to specific genetic causes (as many psychologists might claim) – they are complex.

I will talk about this in-depth in a later blog but, for now, I wanted to publish my first post and get people thinking about the difficulty psychology has in explaining complex phenomena, such as the idea that the environment affects the genetic expression of DNA – epigenetics.

 

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SUMMARY:

  • Complex theories and ideas are often simplified and passed down through society (later blog on this subject) 

  • Society is led to believe that mental health/neuro-diverse experiences are genetically determined/highly heritable (passed on by parents to children via genes)

  • Neuro-diverse experiences are complex; they are not just passed on genetically

  • Epigenetic processes occur; there might exist genes linked to neuro-diverse experiences (although the research to date has a hard time supporting this – discussed in a later blog), but genes can express differently when the environment works on them  

Terminology in this blog:

  • Ontological position. Basically, a fancy way of saying the tinted glasses with which I view the world. For example, when I consider most things in the world, it is by considering its evolutionary advantage for the species in question. If I were purely a Marxist, then I would consider everything in terms of the elite class, profit, capitalism, etc.

  • Epigenetics. The study, in the field of genetics, of cellular and physiological phenotypic trait variations that are caused by external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off and affect how cells read genes instead of being caused by changes in the DNA sequence.

  • Phenotypic. Posh word for physical expression of gene information. Interestingly, and importantly, the phenotype expression of a gene might actually differ to the genotypic information, e.g. by the environment altering the way a gene expresses.

  • Neuro-diverse. The mental diversity of all human minds, psychology and ways of being.

References 

Sakey, M. (2016). Written in Fire. (location 242). Seattle, US: Thomas & Mercer.