Essentialism On the Decline

Before getting to the topic of essentialism, let me take an indirect approach. In reading about paleolithic diets and traditional foods, a recurring theme is inflammation, specifically as it relates to the health of the gut-brain network and immune system.

The paradigm change this signifies is that seemingly separate diseases with different diagnostic labels often have underlying commonalities. They share overlapping sets of causal and contributing factors, biological processes and symptoms. This is why simple dietary changes can have a profound effect on numerous health conditions. For some, the diseased state expresses as mood disorders and for others as autoimmune disorders and for still others something entirely else, but there are immense commonalities between them all. The differences have more to do with how dysbiosis and dysfunction happens to develop, where it takes hold in the body, and so what symptoms are experienced.

From a paleo diet perspective in treating both patients and her own multiple sclerosis, Terry Wahls gets at this point in a straightforward manner (p. 47): “In a very real sense, we all have the same disease because all disease begins with broken, incorrect biochemistry and disordered communication within and between our cells. […] Inside, the distinction between these autoimmune diseases is, frankly, fairly arbitrary”. In How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett wrote (Kindle Locations 3834-3850):

“Inflammation has been a game-changer for our understanding of mental illness. For many years, scientists and clinicians held a classical view of mental illnesses like chronic stress, chronic pain, anxiety, and depression. Each ailment was believed to have a biological fingerprint that distinguished it from all others. Researchers would ask essentialist questions that assume each disorder is distinct: “How does depression impact your body? How does emotion influence pain? Why do anxiety and depression frequently co-occur?” 9

“More recently, the dividing lines between these illnesses have been evaporating. People who are diagnosed with the same-named disorder may have greatly diverse symptoms— variation is the norm. At the same time, different disorders overlap: they share symptoms, they cause atrophy in the same brain regions, their sufferers exhibit low emotional granularity, and some of the same medications are prescribed as effective.

“As a result of these findings, researchers are moving away from a classical view of different illnesses with distinct essences. They instead focus on a set of common ingredients that leave people vulnerable to these various disorders, such as genetic factors, insomnia, and damage to the interoceptive network or key hubs in the brain (chapter 6). If these areas become damaged, the brain is in big trouble: depression, panic disorder, schizophrenia, autism, dyslexia, chronic pain, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are all associated with hub damage. 10

“My view is that some major illnesses considered distinct and “mental” are all rooted in a chronically unbalanced body budget and unbridled inflammation. We categorize and name them as different disorders, based on context, much like we categorize and name the same bodily changes as different emotions. If I’m correct, then questions like, “Why do anxiety and depression frequently co-occur?” are no longer mysteries because, like emotions, these illnesses do not have firm boundaries in nature.”

What jumped out at me was the conventional view of disease as essentialist, and hence the related essentialism in biology and psychology. This is exemplified by genetic determinism, such as it informs race realism. It’s easy for most well-informed people to dismiss race realists, but essentialism takes on much more insidious forms that are harder to detect and root out. When scientists claimed to find a gay gene, some gay men quickly took this genetic determinism as a defense against the fundamentalist view that homosexuality is a choice and a sin. It turned out that there was no gay gene (by the way, this incident demonstrated how, in reacting to reactionaries, even leftist activists can be drawn into the reactionary mind). Not only is there no gay gene but also no simple and absolute gender divisions at all — as I previously explained (Is the Tide Starting to Turn on Genetics and Culture?):

“Recent research has taken this even further in showing that neither sex nor gender is binary (1234, & 5), as genetics and its relationship to environment, epigenetics, and culture is more complex than was previously realized. It’s far from uncommon for people to carry genetics of both sexes, even multiple DNA. It has to do with diverse interlinking and overlapping causal relationships. We aren’t all that certain at this point what ultimately determines the precise process of conditions, factors, and influences in how and why any given gene expresses or not and how and why it expresses in a particular way.”

The attraction of essentialism is powerful. And as shown in numerous cases, the attraction can be found across the political spectrum, as it offers a seemingly strong defense in diverting attention away from other factors. Similar to the gay gene, many people defend neurodiversity as if some people are simply born a particular way, and that therefore we can’t and shouldn’t seek to do anything to change or improve their condition, much less cure it or prevent it in future generations.

For example, those on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum will occasionally defend their condition as being gifted in their ability to think and perceive differently. That is fine as far as it goes, but from a scientific perspective we still should find it concerning that conditions like this are on a drastic rise and it can’t be explained by mere greater rates of diagnosis. Whether or not one believes the world would be a better place with more people with autism, this shouldn’t be left as a fatalistic vision of an evolutionary leap, especially considering most on the autism spectrum aren’t high functioning — instead, we should try to understand why it is happening and what it means.

Researchers have found that there are prospective causes to be studied. Consider proprionate, a substance discussed by Alanna Collen (10% Human, p. 83): “although propionate was an important compound in the body, it was also used as a preservative in bread products – the very foods many autistic children crave. To top it all off, clostridia species are known to produce propionate. In itself, propionate is not ‘bad’, but MacFabe began to wonder whether autistic children were getting an overdose.” This might explain why antibiotics helped many with autism, as it would have been knocking off the clostridia population that was boosting propionate. To emphasize this point, when rodents were injected with propionate, they exhibited the precise behaviors of autism and they too showed inflammation in the brain. The fact that autistics often have brain inflammation, an unhealthy condition, is strong evidence that autism shouldn’t be taken as mere neurodiversity (and, among autistics, the commonality of inflammation-related gut issues emphasizes this point).

There is no doubt that genetic determinism, like the belief in an eternal soul, can be comforting. We identify with our genes, as we inherit them and are born with them. But to speak of inflammation or propionate or whatever makes it seem like we are victims of externalities. And it means we aren’t isolated individuals to be blamed or to take credit for who we are. To return to Collen (pp. 88-89):

“In health, we like to think we are the products of our genes and experiences. Most of us credit our virtues to the hurdles we have jumped, the pits we have climbed out of, and the triumphs we have fought for. We see our underlying personalities as fixed entities – ‘I am just not a risk-taker’, or ‘I like things to be organised’ – as if these are a result of something intrinsic to us. Our achievements are down to determination, and our relationships reflect the strength of our characters. Or so we like to think.

“But what does it mean for free will and accomplishment, if we are not our own masters? What does it mean for human nature, and for our sense of self? The idea that Toxoplasma, or any other microbe inhabiting your body, might contribute to your feelings, decisions and actions, is quite bewildering. But if that’s not mind-bending enough for you, consider this: microbes are transmissible. Just as a cold virus or a bacterial throat infection can be passed from one person to another, so can the microbiota. The idea that the make-up of your microbial community might be influenced by the people you meet and the places you go lends new meaning to the idea of cultural mind-expansion. At its simplest, sharing food and toilets with other people could provide opportunity for microbial exchange, for better or worse. Whether it might be possible to pick up microbes that encourage entrepreneurship at a business school, or a thrill-seeking love of motorbiking at a race track, is anyone’s guess for now, but the idea of personality traits being passed from person to person truly is mind-expanding.”

This goes beyond the personal level, which lends a greater threat to the proposal. Our respective societies, communities, etc might be heavily influenced by environmental factors that we can’t see. A ton of research shows the tremendous impact of parasites, heavy metal toxins, food additives, farm chemicals, hormones, hormone mimics, hormone disruptors, etc. Entire regions might be shaped by even a single species of parasite, such as how higher rates of toxoplasmosis gondii in New England is directly correlated to higher rates of neuroticism (see What do we inherit? And from whom? & Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology).

Essentialism, though still popular, has taken numerous major hits in recent years. It once was the dominant paradigm and went largely unquestioned. Consider how early last century respectable fields of study such as anthropology, linguistic relativism and behaviorism suggested that humans were largely products of environmental and cultural factors. This was the original basis of the attack on racism and race realism. In linguistics, Noam Chomsky overturned this view in positing the essentialist belief that, though not observed much less proven, there must exist within the human brain a language module with a universal grammar. It was able to defeat and replace the non-essentialist theories because it was more satisfying to the WEIRD ideologies that were becoming a greater force in an increasingly WEIRD society.

Ever since Plato, Western civilization has been drawn toward the extremes of essentialism (as part of the larger Axial Age shift toward abstraction and idealism). Yet there has also long been a countervailing force (even among the ancients, non-essentialist interpretations were common; consider group identity: here, here, here, here, and here). It wasn’t predetermined that essentialism would be so victorious as to have nearly obliterated the memory of all alternatives. It fit the spirit of the times for this past century, but now the public mood is shifting again. It’s no accident that, as social democracy and socialism regains favor, environmentalist explanations are making a comeback. But this is merely the revival of a particular Western tradition of thought, a tradition that is centuries old.

I was reminded of this in reading Liberty in America’s Founding Moment by Howard Schwartz. It’s an interesting shift of gears, since Schwartz doesn’t write about anything related to biology, health, or science. But he does indirectly get at environmentalist critique that comes out in his analysis of David Hume (1711-1776). I’ve mostly thought of Hume in terms of his bundle theory of self, possibly having been borrowed from Buddhism that he might have learned from Christian missionaries having returned from the East. However he came to it, the bundle theory argued that there is no singular coherent self, as was a central tenet of traditional Christian theology. Still, heretical views of the self were hardly new — some detect a possible Western precursor of Humean bundle theory in the ideas of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677).

Whatever its origins in Western thought, environmentalism has been challenging essentialism since the Enlightenment. And in the case of Hume, there is an early social constructionist view of society and politics, that what motivates people isn’t essentialism. This puts a different spin on things, as Hume’s writings were widely read during the revolutionary era when the United States was founded. Thomas Jefferson, among others, was familiar with Hume and highly recommended his work. Hume represented the opposite position to John Locke. We are now returning to this old battle of ideas.