Great Delusions: James Watson

In an interview, James D. Watson, co-discovery of the structure of DNA, said

Some day a child is going to sue its parents for being born. They will say, My life is so awful with these terrible genetic defects.

(Quoted by Richard Bentall in Doctoring the Mind.) Watson is implying that genetic defects matter in the big picture of human impairment. They don’t. Changes over time in disease incidence, migration studies (in all instances I know of, the disease profile of the migrating group changes to match the place where they live), powerful nutritional effects (e.g., Weston Price) and other evidence of environmental potency show that all major diseases (heart disease, cancer, depression, obesity, plague, tuberculosis, smallpox, etc.) are mostly caused by the environment, in the sense that environmental changes could greatly reduce their incidence. Genes are a distraction. (To say that major diseases are also “caused” by genes in the sense that genes affect environmental potency is to miss the point that we want to reduce the diseases — want to reduce obesity for example — so it is the environmental lever that matters. If a child could eliminate its obesity by changing its environment, it would not sue its parents.) If Watson was unaware of that, okay. But for him to claim the opposite is a great — and I am afraid profoundly self-serving — delusion.

As I blogged, Aaron Blaisdell had a certifiably “genetic” disease. The chromosome involved had been identified. It turned out to be under nutritional control. When he improved his diet, it vanished. Calling it “genetic” seriously distracted from learning how to eliminate it, it turned out. Another example of how “genetic” problems are not what they seem — impossible to change — is provided by lactose intolerance. The rate of lactose intolerance varies greatly from group to group. (I thank Phil Price for the link.) It is rare in Sweden, common in Asia, including China. I assume these differences reflect genetic differences. Yet Beijing supermarkets have aisles full of milk products. How can that be? Because the aisles are full of yogurt. Yogurt bacteria digest the lactose. So lactose intolerance is not a big deal. You can still drink milk, after it has been predigested by bacteria.

The dreams of geneticists.


3 Replies to “Great Delusions: James Watson”

  1. Perhaps other context was not included in the above quote but I certainly did not take the quote to mean the diseases of civilization (obesity, atherosclerosis, diabetes, etc.) As a mother of a child with a congenital heart defect, I took it to mean congenital defects. As his grandmother has the exact same heart defect but to a lesser degree, we know it’s genetic. He has had two heart surgeries in his life so far and will have more through his life. The treatment for the defect sucks and has cognitive impact. He knows it. We see it. It sucks.

    While researching the genetic cause of the heart defect, we’ve engaged in conversations with genetics doctors who’ve led us to believe that congenital structural defects as well as childhood onset cancers are almost always genetically based (teratogenic agents, notwithstanding.) Parents of children suffering childhood cancers and heart defects know that the cures, while heroic, have life long cognitive effects that are not cured by environmental factors. Chemotherapy and heart-lung bypass have real excitotoxic impact on the rapidly developing pediatric neurons. It sucks. The irretrievable loss of the child’s full cognitive potential is heart breaking for a parent. The cost of treating or maintaining the life of human with an impactful genetic defect is great.

    It has become my goal to discover the genetic defect that causes the heart defect. I want my progeny to have the option to fix this problem. If we can fix the genetic defect but don’t, the child should sue.

    1. Cindy, thanks for the informative comment. Watson said similar things many times, in contexts where it was clear he believes that genetic diseases are a big contributor to human disability and disease. Based on comments like his, vast amounts of research money have gone to study “the genetic basis” of this or that big health problem — even obesity!

      Your particular case is an example of what I am talking about. Perhaps I am mistaken, but based on what you have written, neither you nor anyone you talked to seems have understood that a “genetic” congenital defect in a child may be caused by the child’s mom’s environment, such as her prenatal diet. (I’m not surprised “genetic doctors” would fail to understand it. It would make them less important.) As you may know, there is plenty of evidence that prenatal nutrition can have lifelong effects — e.g., increasing the rate of heart disease. Perhaps those life-long effects are produced by structural changes in the fetus. Due to genetics, some babies will be more susceptible than others to imperfect prenatal nutrition. You can read about this in a book called Mothers, Babies, and Health in Later Life by D. J. B. Barker. Of course the mom’s nutrition is a thousand or million times easier to modify than the mom’s genes. You might want to consider prenatal-nutrition causality given that you “want [your] progeny to have the option to fix this problem.”

  2. I have a 2 generational example of environment affecting the genetic status. I have enlarged vertebrae in my back – the result of genetic translocation error. My daughter has a gigantic finger – likewise from a translocation error. However, belatedly, we found that we are a family of coeliacs. My own mother developed problems in late age, I was obviously always coeliac (always ill) but not diagnosed till 58. I feel there is a good chance that our poor nutritional systems affected the respective pregnancies. With knowledge and luck, my daughter will not pass on any disability!

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