Wednesday, September 18, 2013

I tend, like most people...

...I suppose, to see the universe in terms of black and white rather than in shades of gray. And, lately, I've been telling anyone who will listen that in the debate over Nature vs. Nurture, nature has the upper hand. In fact, I've recently come to the conclusion that an individual's destiny is governed almost solely by nature. See? Black and white. Simple. Problem solved. Next question.

But yesterday my son sent me a link to an article, "The Social Life of Genes," which has given me pause. It reports on some new findings by an entomologist at the University of Illinois named -- get this -- Gene Robinson. (I mean, come on, what are the odds?) According to Robinson's research:

Your DNA is not a blueprint. Day by day, week by week, your genes are in a conversation with your surroundings. Your neighbors, your family, your feelings of loneliness: They don’t just get under your skin, they get into the control rooms of your cells.

So perhaps the universe does come in shades of gray after all, and people are a combination of their genes and their environment. More from the piece (my emphasis):

Changes in gene expression can make you thin, fat, or strikingly different from your supposedly identical twin. When it comes down to it, really, genes don’t make you who you are. Gene expression does. And gene expression varies depending on the life you live.

Robinson, however, suspected that environment could spin the dials on “big sectors of genes, right across the genome”—and that an individual’s social environment might exert a particularly powerful effect. Who you hung out with and how they behaved, in short, could dramatically affect which of your genes spoke up and which stayed quiet—and thus change who you were.

This big something, this startlingly quick gene-expression response to the social world, is a phenomenon we are just beginning to understand. The recent explosion of interest in “epigenetics”—a term literally meaning “around the gene,” and referring to anything that changes a gene’s effect without changing the actual DNA sequence—has tended to focus on the long game of gene-environment interactions: how famine among expectant mothers in the Netherlands during World War II, for instance, affected gene expression and behavior in their children; or how mother rats, by licking and grooming their pups more or less assiduously, can alter the wrappings around their offspring’s DNA in ways that influence how anxious the pups will be for the rest of their lives. The idea that experience can echo in our genes across generations is certainly a powerful one. But to focus only on these narrow, long-reaching effects is to miss much of the action where epigenetic influence and gene activity is concerned. This fresh work by Robinson, Fernald, Clayton, and others—encompassing studies of multiple organisms, from bees and birds to monkeys and humans—suggests something more exciting: that our social lives can change our gene expression with a rapidity, breadth, and depth previously overlooked.

Another researcher, Steve Cole of UCLA, says this may weaken the argument for determinism.

“You can’t change your genes. But if we’re even half right about all this, you can change the way your genes behave—which is almost the same thing. By adjusting your environment you can adjust your gene activity. That’s what we’re doing as we move through life. We’re constantly trying to hunt down that sweet spot between too much challenge and too little.

“That’s a really important part of this: To an extent that immunologists and psychologists rarely appreciate, we are architects of our own experience.

“Two people may share the same environment but not the same experience. The experience is what you make of the environment. We might have much different experiences. And you can shape all this by how you frame things. You can shape both your environment and yourself by how you act. It’s really an opportunity.”

Whaddaya know? Maybe free will isn't an illusion after all.

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