Once Again, The Wild Mad Gene Evades Capture

A fascinating article just appeared in The New Statesman about what’s wrong in the search for the mad gene, now mad genes. This piece written by Brit Oliver James starts out by exploring biological psychiatry’s relationship to Social Darwinism. It bears the heading, The Genes Don’t Fit.

There has long been an assumption on the right that genes explain why the rich are rich and sane, and the poor more likely to be bad, mad and impoverished. Yet the key question for molecular geneticists today is: why are siblings so different from each other, despite having had the same biological parents? Many incline to the cosy answer that “it’s a bit of both” – by which they mean a bit of nature and a bit of nurture. Yet the evidence I presented eight years ago in my book They F*** You Up already showed that, even if you accepted the validity of studies of identical twins (which I did not), on which nearly all claims about the role of genes were based, they still did not support this idea of a bit of both. In fact, for most common traits, such as sociability, memory or creativity, genetic inheritance accounted for only close to a quarter.

I’ve read biological psychiatry texts claiming that the development of a serious mental illness was approaching 75% determined by genetic makeup. When you consider that this determination has to be almost entirely a matter of complete speculation and bias, coupled with the above information, you just have to wince, “That can’t be right.”

Other convenient theories would be likely to hit the dust, too, if researchers were really interested in scientific validity rather than in advancing more selfish professional and corporate interests.

Another fallback is to claim that our genes create vulnerabilities that environments may or may not cause to be expressed. But this position was undermined in June 2009. Studies by Avshalom Caspi in New Zealand had shown that people with a particular gene variant were more likely to become depressed if they were maltreated as children; the variant created a vulnerability. This has been all but disproved. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a meta-analysis by a team of ten scientists led by Neil Risch, of 14,250 people in total whose DNA had been mapped across 14 separate studies, showed that those with the variant were not at greater risk of depression than those without it. Nor were they more likely to be depressed in cases where childhood maltreatment combined with the variant.

The case for the depressed gene can get even weaker when you widen the scope of your studies to explore the relationship of disparities in income and power to the development of depression.

There are convincing reasons, as I wrote in my book The Selfish Capitalist, for supposing that free-market (what I call selfish capitalist) economics are a leading cause of high levels of mental illness. Using data from a very reliable 2004 World Health Organisation study (the World Mental Health Consortium), I found that the prevalence of mental illness is twice as great in New Zealand and the US as in six relatively unselfish, capitalist, mainland western European nations (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain). If you include other studies for Australia, Canada and the UK, the average level of mental illness for all the English-speaking, selfish capitalist nations is 23 per cent of the general population, against 11.5 per cent for continental European countries. This cannot have anything to do with genes.

It is interesting to note, when considering the above statistics, that New Zealand and the USA are the only countries in the world in which Direct to Consumer Advertizing for pharmaceutical products is legal. You can’t, after all, sell psychiatric drugs to a consumer without having first sold “mental illness” to the same consumer.

At the close of his article Oliver James discloses 3 very good “fundamental considerations”, 2 of them supported by science, he would have the Labour Party of Great Britian incorporate into its policies. These “fundamental considerations” could also apply to the USA or any other country wishing to improve, rather than profit from, the mental health of its populace. At the present time he doesn’t think our politicians are capable of understanding the science behind these studies, but 20 to 50 years from now, he seems to feel such considerations are going to prove unavoidable.