Monday, 25 April 2016

Nature vs Nurture ....Never Really to Be Solved?

I was a bit perturbed to a state of almost irritation by the full broad side against physical, evidence based science which was unleashed by Professor Oliver James of the Nurture camp. I was rather happily living with the presumption that in the many years since I was actually a scientist, that fellow geneticists would have dropped the notion of genes determining the next Einstein or neurotic teenager, and likewise the nurturists would have dothed cap to hereditary molecule folk and accepted some predetermination tendencie. Alas, not on Prof' James' side.

As his full frontal attack developed I had the destinct assertion that the man had been got at by the American Republican Party's worse science denier PR types, who are doing so much to damage progress on climate change and are also allowing the backward Christian conservative movement to teach theology and worse, pseudo science side by side with equations, DNA, and paleantology. His main contention was that the human gene project had drawn a blank and that all other research on specific links to evern diseased states like schizophrenia, where unconclusive at best.

Well let us indeed criticise the Human Genome Project (HGP). The main finding from the HGP was that there were far fewer nominal genes in our chromosomal DNA than previously envisaged. Which was good news in fact for science, because had we discovered a closer relationship possible between one-gene/one-disease then the patenters would have been out in force, and the uber liberals would have been up in arms about a brave-new-world or GATTACA scenario laid on the plate of big pharma and medical corporations. Instead we found out that all those little threads of evidence in 'post translation', epigenetics, meta controls and so on were actually a bigger part of the picture than the gargantuine hammer laid down to crack the nut of human genetic encoding, the HGP.

Science can now flourish in the areas which were once seen as the 'ticklers' in the flow of genetic information, are now the extended software which creates the ghost in the machines. Higher organisms and even some rather simple bacteria, have evolved to pack down their blueprints and allow other mechanisms above this concentrated coding to unravel and write a larger programme which creates the species and helps it not only survive, but evolve over time. All this would be worthy of a blogg, a chapter, a book, an encyclopedia......

We might actually expect that the mamalian brain was something which requires the most intricate of drawing packages, the biggest instruction book, the longest syphonic sheet music of all creatures. The debate there after is about how much of the human brain is just a white page, or rather a machine programmed to learn - epiphenomenologists would agree- or if far more of the way the animal will behave is predetermined in tendency at least, by genetics and in particular genetic variation. And in that area we are still just beginning to look at genetic variation at the DNA base pair level, on particular locii and in genes which seem to have a correleation to mental disease. Let alone studying the epigenome and its potential effects on complex biological phenomnenon like the nervous system.

Back to Prof'James then. He would rather not concurr with the jolly consensus behavioural and social psychologists had made with geneticists- that the two sciences both have a contribution to make in unravelling both normal and abnormal behaviour, achievement and mediocrity in life.  A full frontal blunderbuss against this notion, the ground of behavioural scienc shall not be shared with the test tube crowd! The geneticist and ethologist I think they were, also taking part in the debate grew a little tired of James's badering, especially after thay had offered the usual well trusted olive branch that upbringing, experience, learning and free will play a large part in any psychological trait, and genetics may or indeed maynot be a contributing factor.

Furthermore, they defended science as not being a route to eurgenics in parents DNA testing each other, because of the amount of genetic recombination going on in our ahem, yep, Gonads. We are mixing new potential people every day of our fertile life span. In turn those mixes get blended together., one set from mum, one from dad, we are 'diploid' we mammals all. i studied one of those little side alleys of genetic control when I was a scientist way back quarter of a century ago- allellic exclusion, where one of the pair of genes we inherit is switched off in either all cells or some special cells like those in the generation of blood cells. It was seen as a fascinating aside, most important in immunology. Years later work keeps on showing that maternal or paternal copies of genes are switched off or turned down to the benefit of the other half's genes.

It turned out that Prof' James is actually on an UberLiberal Ticket - he is most worried about the GATTACA scenario, the eugenic society. Also I dare say like all departmental heads in the UK, he is worried about his streams of funding and this is perhaps then a less than subtle strategy for getting more wonga for non biological psychology.

We stand rather at a point of bafflement from both sides. Psychologists have had since at least the time of Freud, if not the days of Socrates, to come up with solutions to the human condition and of course mental illness. It has longer than molecular biology to observe and then extrapolate ways of predicting and avoiding disease or criminal behaviour. Neuroscience has recently had some major break throughs, in Norway, the USA and UK in particular, and this is because they have decided to look at very simple systems in the brain at the very fewest number of neurones and thus been able to produce experiments and observations which have lead to some level of proof of how our cauliflower like cranial computers.  So we are baffled like the child who took a screwdriver to an iPhone to see the pretty pictures piled up inside. Confused by the compactness of our genetic material in relation to the number of proteins and variations on those we have in our cells and bodies. Left to muse again on how behaviours can arise in one individual yet not another exposed to the same set of social and familial environment.

One area Prof' James side stepped like Fred Astaire was the evidence from identical twin studies, especially those seperated at birth and adopted to disparate families. These can be quite damning in terms of the nurture camp. However there has been criticisms levelled at the methodology and if there is really statistical significance. The main issue here is that some individuals seperated at birth or very early childhood, show remarkably similar behavioural patterns and life choices when studied as adults. These are explained away as the anecdotal, the researcher showing bias in questioning and reporting on the similarities between the twins and ignoring blatant differences. However the anecdotes are pretty over powering in some cases beyond any face value doubt that could be denied in some kind of philosophical or judicial mechanism. Yes though, even perhaps fifty years of identical twin studies is not very conclusive but has some remarkable individal twin pair stories.

Going to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist with a set of purely verbally reported symptoms seems just as dangerous these days as would have been the case if we had found one-gene/one-disease from the HGP. There is a massive over diagnosis amongst teenagers of ADHD. People who are introverted and a little asocial get landed with teh stigma of Aspergers disease. Clinicians are maybe more likely to reach for the prescription pad now than ever given diagnosis 'disciplines' from patient histories and simple mental agility tests. They get a sure fire diagnosis for a chronic, high value debilitating disease,  and big pharma come along with the cure. a life on ritalin to be normal ...prozac for the neurotic house wives...only big pharma have been in there a long time influencing the diagnostic routine. Pure non molecular psyhological study and routes to describing the normal and differentiating the abnormal, have lead to an epidemic of teenage drug taking in order for angstful, energetic young people to fit into the NeoLiberal success-or-fail economy.

My own little bits of science which put me off being a scientist when it came to micropippetting and loading gels, were odd side shows then and glorious for it. Allellic exclusion. Familial porphyria, the alleged disease of vampires. In studying genetics and in esscence what the hell I wanted to or took my fancy down the library from the journals, I usually discovered that in considering the esoteric in genetics and mol'biol', you usually uncovered a new realisation about the grandoise. In the diversity, you found universality. The miniscule illustrated the bigger system. I remember too an old adage which was coined long before, but much used in the 1980s counter culture which science was in those days - "the more we understand, the less we realise we actually know". I hope prof' Oliver James realises that the benefit of the doubt is wisdom while riding in on your high horse and claiming an unsound higher ground, often leads to a fall.

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