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‘Scientists find new gene’ talk

14 May, 2007

Although we usually deal with ‘sociocultural’ anthropology issues on Culture Matters, those of you who know me know that I’m neck deep in biological anthropology, neurosciences and other research, in part because I’d like to help reinforce a meaningful connection between cultural and physical discoveries on issues like physical education, the senses, gender-sex relations, and the like. Almost always with new discoveries in biology, the problem as I see it is not the research methods or the data that is generated, but the way that these results are interpreted.

A great example of this is the recent discovery of a gene seemingly linked to the relatively well-known effect that calorie-reduced diets have on lifespans in a lot of species. The original article, by Steve Connor, can be found on AlterNet:

The research is fascinating, as this material so often is. Calorie-restricted diets tend to increase the lifespan of all sorts of organisms, from worms and rats, potentially to humans. As Connor explains in the piece:

The latest study focused on a gene common to nematode worms, mice and humans. When the gene was blocked in the worms, the benefits of a calorie-restricted diet were lost and the worms lived shorter lives. Similarly, when the scientists were able to stimulate the gene they found that they could enhance the longevity of the worms so that their extended lifespans came close to matching those worms on a calorie-restricted diet.

What I find annoying in the story, however, is that the mechanism that is being described is quite complex: a gene is part of a system that causes calorie-restricted diets to increase a whole organism’s lifespan, that is, it is part of a complex interaction that starts with food intake, cycles through whole-organic processes like digestion, which themselves include diverse populations of symbiotic organisms in animals’ digestive tracts, affects cellular-level processes that lead to gene expression, producing some sort of protein (because this is what genes do), that somehow affects some organs or cells in the bodies to generate some sort of effect that changes longevity. In other words, a complicated dynamic, living system, with relationships of cause and effect that stretch from the behavioural (how much one eats) to the genetic, with steps of all sorts of scales in between (and I’m not even trying to describe some of the complications. Far from having found the gene that causes longevity, the scientists are very well aware, and clearly describe, how they are only beginning to scratch the surface in understanding the whole way that restricted diets affect organisms’ lifespans.

Of course, you wouldn’t know this from the initial reports. The discovery is reported as ‘Scientists Have Found the Gene That Decides How Long We Live,’ instead of ‘Scientists Discover Gene That Allows Eating Behavior to Influence Longevity’ or ‘Scientists Create Effect That Mimics Natural Longevity Effects of Restricted Diet’ or ‘Genetic Part of Complex Biological Process May Have Been Isolated’. In other words, yet again, the thrall of the Western journalistic brain to the assumption that the smallest unit must be the ‘cause’, that genes must be an executive ‘blueprint’, is clearly evidenced in this story. The irony, of course, is that facts, data, and loose threads in the story hold out numerous possibilities for these counter-narratives and better understandings.

The implications for applied anthropology are indirect; if we assume that there’s a gene ‘causing’ longevity instead of a complex, multi-scaled process linking, in humans, political-economies of food production and ideologies of diet and body image to all sorts of other processes (such as genetic protein synthesis, psychological processes around food and hunger in individuals, digestive dynamics, all themselves linked to each other), we assume we are looking for a ‘genetic’ way to manipulate the phenomena. Enter the pharmaceutical and biotech companies and cue arguments for extending patent rights over age-old wisdom that moderation in diet, as with many things, leads to better health (because obviously, too-restricted a diet has other well-known negative effects, such as malnutrition and starvation).

A holistic approach to this health effect would recognize that the gene does not ‘cause’ longevity any more than the yeast in a bread recipe is the ingredient that ‘causes’ the bread. In fact, using technological mechanisms to manipulate naturally-occurring biological phenomena should aid us in locating these phenomena, integrating them back into the complex dynamic systems of which they are a part.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 14 May, 2007 10:52 am

    Interesting post Greg. There has also been a recent discussion on SavageMinds about the fate of bio-anthropology, which has inevitably become a discussion of the validity of the four-field structure. This structure is something we only really learn about in the abstract in Australia as most departments teach socio-cultural anthropology only. As a result, I’ve always been a little allergic towards biological anthropology, probably out of a sense that attempts to explain ‘culture’ from these perspectives are reductionist in similar ways to those described in your post.

    I think though that your post shows though that the different ‘fields’ aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive and can have a lot to say to each other. I for one would like to learn more about bio-anthropology so that I’m at broadly familiar with it. There are instances, for example in the case of the concept of ‘race’, where an understanding of the biological data would enhance our ability to participate in public debates on the subject. And in fact, this kind of knowledge is really necessary to be able to make the classic socio-cultural anthropology arguments about ‘race’, i.e. that it is more a socio-cultural construct than a biological entity.

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