Identically Different: A Scientist Changes His Mind

Another book I picked up from the public library is Identically Different by Tim Spector.

I read the introduction and skimmed the rest of the book. It is about genetic and environmental influences, about the interaction between them, and about heritability and epigenetics. I already have a bunch of books about all of this, and so it is mostly data and ideas I’ve come across before. Still, it is always interesting to read about this subject.

What makes this book somewhat unique is the author himself. He is a research scientist who has been heavily involved in the popularizing of this field. According to the book, he has changed his views in recent years. A revolutionary paradigm shift is happening right now, largely because of new research that is challenging old theories. It’s nice to see that established scientists can and do change their minds, rather than merely old scientists dying and younger scientists replacing them with new perspectives.

Here is from the introduction to this book:

“Until three years ago I was one of the many scientists who took the gene-centric view of the universe for granted. I had spent the last 17 years producing hundreds of twin studies trying to convince a sceptical public and scientific world that virtually every trait and disease had a major genetic influence. My colleagues and I around the world were largely successful in this, and the prospect of finding the genes underlying most diseases looked increasingly certain. But I had a nagging doubt that we were missing something. [ . . . ]

“However, despite the extensive list of successes, a few signs were emerging that the paradigm was wrong. Most of the gene discoveries for common diseases turned out to be interesting in terms of biology, but the more we discovered the less useful each new gene became in accounting for the disease, since each gene is of tiny individual effect. For example, the 30 or so genes discovered for obesity, even when combined, account for only 2 per cent of the disease.

“This was frustrating to all of us working in the field, as it meant that each common disease was contolled not by one gene but by hundreds or even thousands of genes. This would require teams from many countries to combine forces and perform studies of tens, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of subjects in order to find these tiny effects. Another consequence was that for common diseases (unlike rare monogenic diseases) these gene tests were pretty useless for prediction [ . . . ]

“While hundreds of recent gene discoveries have given us great insights into new disease mechanisms and possible drug targets, the common genes found to date usually account only for less than 5 per cent of the genetic influence. Exactly where the missing 95 per cent comes from is a mystery that is perplexing the field. Most scientists agree that we simply aren’t smart enough to realize what we don’t know. [ . . . ]

“There are few if any examples of environmental factors without a genetic component, and conversely genes don’t work alone and are usually dependent on the cells they live in and their environments. So in a world where hundreds of genes are working together to influence a trait or disease, the old distinction between nature and nurture is simply no longer relevant.”

The introduction is worthy of being read on its own. It could easily be read as a stand-alone essay.

The rest of the book deals with specific issues about traits and diseases. It is all standard analysis for this type of book, but it is useful as a fairly recent review of the research as it was published in 2012. The research is constantly changing which means books quickly become less relevant. As the author points out, “Most scientists agree that we simply aren’t smart enough to realize what we don’t know.” There are more questions than answers at this point. So, any theory is largely speculation, to varying degrees of probability not easily calculated.

I did have one problem with the book. The author seems to still be trapped within the terminological constraints of the old paradigm of nature versus nurture. He constantly refers to percentages of influences being genetic or environmental. Such claims are meaningless. The author speaks of the problem, but doesn’t get to the core issue.

He argues that the research shows that only a tiny percentage of influence is genetics alone and that only a tiny percentage is environment alone. I suspect, to be most accurate, absolutely zero percent of genetics and environment ever acts alone. They are inseparable. Genetics never exists or acts outside of an environment. And an environment that exists without genetics would be an environment that is irrelevant to human biology and behavior.

As David Shenk explains, in The Genius in All of Us, “heritability estimates are statistical phantoms; they detect something in populations that simply does not exist in actual biology.” The larger context of that quote can be found in a previous post of mine, along with quoted material from a bunch of other books. Also, scientific commentary can be found in another of my posts as well.

The paradigm that needs to change isn’t just about data and theory, but also about the terminological and conceptual framework we use to discuss data and theory.

Paradigm Shift: Beyond Reform and Revolution

We need a miracle.

That is how I titled and concluded my last post. I did so a bit jokingly. It was an expression of how little we know about what causes social change. It might as well be divine intervention.

Although it was just a passing thought added to my otherwise serious analysis, I was trying to get at some kind of understanding. A miracle is a religious belief, a theological concept. The basic idea behind it is that god(s), saints or other supernatural beings may intervene on our behalf. The belief in a personal god who would intervene in human affairs became popular during the Axial Age. Before that time, the the great deities, the rulers of the universe were often portrayed as distant and aloof.

Speaking of D.M. Murdock’s scholarship, I previously explained that,

Prior to the New Kingdom, love (mri) was bestowed upon a subordinate by a superior which also included by a god bestowing love to a follower, but this was strictly hierarchical except in certain situations such as a leader being beloved by his people.  With the New Kingdom, love became a more common ideal where the follower could offer love to a god.  There was an equality in that the person could, through love, join with their god.  It was at this time that the epithet meri became extremely popular and was applied widely, in particular with Isis.

That is a very impressive transformation that happened and it was happening across many societies. This didn’t cross-cultural shift can’t be pinpointed to particular revolutions or reforms. It was a paradigm shift and it spread like a contagion, both its cause and origin being unknown. Now, that puts the American Revolution in perspective.

My interest in the history of religion precedes my interest in the history of politics and revolutions. This is how my interest in the Axial Age came about. In my last post, the focus was on social change and the relation between reform and revolution. I queried why so often reform always eventually fails leading to revolutions and those revolutions, even as they fail, force the reform that previously failed. This is fine. I say it is fine because it just is what it is and apparently can’t be otherwise. It’s just human nature on the collective level.

As this cyclical pattern has been going on for millennia, it seems doubtful it will likely change. Yet change happens across the long view of history. The Axial Age is probably the most important shift for all of modern civilization. I’ve hypothesized that the ensuing history was a playing out of this worldwide transformation of human society: personalizing of religion, universalizing of theology and politics, Arabic math and science, European Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, English Civil War, Revolutionary Era, globalization of imperialism, multiculturalism of colonialism, pseudo-scientific racialized slavery, and on and on.

I still don’t think the Axial Age transformation has yet played itself out. When this old paradigm creates problems so massive that they can’t be solved within that level of understanding, human society will either shift once again to some yet unknown paradigm or else self-destruct. That is why we need more than reform or revolution. We need a change that comes from a ‘higher’ level of thinking and functioning. Something that, from our limited perspective, would be akin to a miracle.

This puts us in a special position. During the Axial Age, people including the prophets lacked such broad historical perspective and understanding. We instead are facing the possibility of a paradigm shift with, if we choose, awareness. That could make all the difference. Maybe we don’t need to be stuck in cycles or be passengers of history passively waiting upon the future.

Our fate will be decided by the choices we make, not just or even necessarily in what we do but how we see, think and feel. Once you realize you are in a reality tunnel, you don’t need to know what is outside of it. All you have to do is look for an opening.