King Gene is dethroned!

June 27, 2011

I still remember the culture shock when I realised that the grand emperor of science, King Gene, was an impostor. The Emperor’s new clothes are non existent. Love live the new King, nutrition and exercise!
There are 3 commonly accepted groups with varying health levels:
1. Superb Health (Phenotype). Unacculturated hunter gatherers.(eg traditional Aborigines, Pacific Islanders). e.g. low level diabetes heart disease.
2. Mediocre Health (Phenotype). Europeans (for the sake of simplicity and because they are the bulk of my practice, and most research data bases)
3. Poor Health (Phenotype). Westernised hunter gatherers (eg most modern Aborigines, Pacific Islanders). e..g. high level diabetes heart disease.

CAN YOU SPOT THE PROBLEM? Groups 1 and 3 are virtually genetically identical, yet we steadfastly hold on to the false premise that these diseases are largely genetic. If groups 1 and 3 are genetically identical, then any differences in diseases CANNOT be largely due to genes, it must be due to other factors such as diet exercise and infective diseases.

There are a few ways of looking at it- all leading to the conclusion that the adoration of the gene is unjustified. The words Darwinian, NeoDarwinian and genetic defect are dropped as self evident. Unfortunately Schopenhauer truth phase 3 (self evident) comes late in every paradigm. When something is self evident, I guess its fair to say that it then becomes intuitive, maybe Schopenhauer could have intuitive as 4th stage of truth. What happens when it reaches its limits and the paradigm fails? It may be that some or all of our assumptions or intuitions are wrong.

Consider the body as a simple house. Everyone who has built or extended a house will know that if a house falls down, it will RARELY be due to bad plans, and often due to faulty building materials, poor workmanship or termites. The body is much the same.

Genes (building plans), Diet (building materials), Exercise (Workmanship), Disease (termites)
Back in the Paleolithic age, this builds beautiful healthy bodies (houses).

One day, we decide to substitute 75% of the building materials with cheap substitutes (bird food)(Neolithic food).

Houses start to fall down all around us (disease, atherosclerosis in Egyptians).

Along comes Superman (Charles Darwin), or the improved new version with added DNA- NeoDarwin.
And of course, the genes get improved, but not the diet (it gets worse), exercise (worse), disease (worse).
So the genes get better again and again, as NeoDarwin is all powerful. We know that, we learnt that in Sunday School or grade 8 science, anyhow we know it’s important. The genes keep getting better. The bodies are still fairly unhealthy, but not as bad as they were before. Each generation, NeoDarwin in his ancient wisdom improves things a little bit.

And then along comes the doctor, and the latest toy, with the best funding stream is, DNA labs. And genetics is still the final frontier of ego confrontation, and confusing and bamboozling people. The Romans called it obscurantism. And there are even a handful of true significant genetic diseases, just to whet our appetite. The doctor keeps searching deeper and deeper in the genes, the defect must be here somewhere. NeoDarwin will be angry if I cannot find them. I must sequence more genes, get more funding. The doctor says, these illnesses must be genetic, they just must be. Nobody will disagree, the doctor sounds so clever, he’s working so hard, just wait a bit longer, the breakthrough is just around the corner. (Sounds suspiciously like the prospectus of every biotech startup investment, but I digress).

But alas, the problem is not with the genes, it is with the diet and exercise. The doctor wants it both ways. NeoDarwin is powerful. Each generation there are LESS AND LESS genes promoting illness, and the role of food and exercise conversely is more dominant as the cause of the remaining individuals with disease. The doctor can’t have NeoDarwin being so powerful IMPROVING GENES, then use NeoDarwin to justify the false belief that DEFECTIVE GENES ARE THE MAIN CAUSE OF DISEASE. Sorry Doc, you can’t have it both ways. Evolution can’t improve the gene pool and simultaneously increase the contribution of genes to disease, the 2 concepts are obviously contrary to each other (dare I say it’s self evident, even intuitive that this is wrong).

So, wearily, we see that the search for genetic roots of disease is a fools errand. Turn the ship around. There are exceptions, worth looking at, but few.
We see Emperor Genes new clothes were just a veil, that we tend to blur the boundary of genotype and phenotype with sloppy thinking. Phenotype is everything, the gene far more perfect than we knew, is no longer the cause of most disease. We built the gene up as the Emperor but really as a villain, only villains cause disease, we were too afraid to realise that. NeoDarwin can keep on his merry way. Return the diet and exercise to normal, there is no incentive to evolve. Back to the building and bodies analogy. The genes building plans are superb. We all have the genes to build skyscrapers, but the building materials are fit for huts, barns, and the odd 3 storey home. The building materials limit our constructions (bodies) not the genes.

The Ancient Egyptians could have designed the Empire State Building, they had the architects and labourers, but not the necessary materials (steel, glass concrete), infrastructure (power, water). We have the genes for the Empire State Building, and all that holds us back is the materials, workmanship and the odd termite.

As Vitamin B12 pioneer Ralph Carmel once quoted the end of Portnoy’s Complaint “Now vee may perhaps to begin”.
Ben Balzer