Nature vs nurture? Does it make any difference? When we are all born with what our parents gave us in terms of genes, what room is there for improvement – or to hold up some types of wear and tear? What can and cannot be changed, controlled or improved on after we are born? Well in the relatively new and exciting world of epigenetics, early thought seems to be – quite a lot.
It is not all cut and dry though. Just because we are prone to something that might be considered socially or medically bad, it does not mean it will happen to us – and it is not all down to keeping whatever it is at bay with drugs. Keeping ourselves healthy, strong in body and mind and living in a nurturing environment – it all can more than help our lives to prosper. It’s what we have been hearing for years from practitioners of holistic medicine but without giving way lock, stock and barrel to what is often common sense. Epigenetics research is shining a new light on aspects of our lives that can sometimes be seen to have a fairly ‘immediate’ effect (perhaps only a few months in some instances) on what might be seen as matters of ‘scientific substance’ and it can reach right into the psyche of what makes us who we are to other people. Take away enough of the type of emotional and environmental supports that help us get through a busy week though and for two people who have had exactly the same life up to a given point – it just might work out very differently and it might be because of epigenetics.
Somebody with the MAOA gene variation which leads to low monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A) activity (an enzyme involved in breaking down certain neurotransmitters in the brain) – which can be a contributing factor of aggressive behaviour – may, after a sequence of trying and testing events, end up in prison while somebody nurtured in exactly the same way, with normal MAO-A activity, may be able to avoid the type of conflict that is prosecuted. The case can keep on building – even if somebody is locked up in prison and given ultra-helpful supports as happens in Norway’s Bastoy Open Prison where mostly non-recidivistic inmates live in the equivalent of ‘holiday cottages’ where they watch large screen TVs and are free to roam at will to cottages inhabited by other prisoners, it may not be enough to counteract the urges of the ‘aggressive’ MAOA gene variant. For most of us, contained passive behaviour can be put down to the same type of simple calming or satisfaction that comes from worthwhile endeavours that we happily engage with not because we have to but because we enjoy them. For others it may not work like that and it might be down to otherwise highly intelligent people not adequately understanding enough about what society has decreed is ‘right and wrong’ as nearly all of us would: it could be down to genetic variation.
Epigenetics (epi meaning outside and so not involving changes in the DNA of genes) has gained some traction in recent popular sociology through it being seen as having some influence on whether or not a person may be ‘stuck’ with whatever active DNA traits they get at birth. If we once again use the same two hypothetical people who categorically had the same pleasant life up to a point where conflict directed them in totally different paths (as far as the criminal justice system was concerned) is it a foregone conclusion that the presence of the ‘aggressive’ MAOA gene variant will lead to the exhibiting of some type of antisocial behaviour? According to early epigenetic research the answer appears to be no. One reason for it not becoming a foregone conclusion is the strength of nurturing while somebody is young. We all were sponges of one type or another when we were young but the difference for somebody with the ‘aggressive’ MAOA gene variant is that they need far more nurturing and having a happy childhood is important, if not vital, to stopping the antisocial behaviours associated with this form of MAOA gene. It is not the end of the world to carry this ‘aggressive’ MAOA gene for most people as there is also a degree of control involved and in adulthood people become aware of ‘learned behaviour’ or how to act ‘acceptably’ in social situations (even if it does not happen naturally). The difference is that if somebody falls between a whole bunch of social stools, then the degree of epigenetic certainty odds are shortened and if somebody has the ‘aggressive’ variant of the MAOA gene and has been dealt too many of the wrong cards along the way, then epigenetic research would indicate that they would not need to be influenced by a gang or be coerced too much to act in a wayward way that is less certain as a social outcome for a person with the normal MAOA gene.
It is still all very new as a science and while it might sound like something in the realm of a Huxleyite ‘Brave New World’, it has already started to have an impact on how the State weighs up citizens needs and behaviours. There is one famous legal case where expert testimony on the MAOA gene influenced the outcome of a murder trial in America. On October 13th 2006 Davis Bradley Waldroup Jr. perpetrated a gruesome murder in the Trailer he lived in at Greasy Creek, Tennessee. He was saved from a death sentence by expert trial evidence put on by his defence team – the jury was convinced enough by Dr William Bennett of Vanderbilt University’s Molecular Genetics Laboratory that his abusive childhood and the presence of the ‘aggressive’ variant of the MAOA gene was a causal factor in the committing of the crime.
The MAOA gene’s relevance is not just concerned with the most serious of aggressive outcomes. In milder behavioural forms the switched on gene can be associated with a ‘lack of empathy’ towards others in society. All of us have differing amounts of empathy for different people with varying levels of fatigue or stimulation thresholds but some decisions that we take that affect others, however, can be far more difficult for some than for others. For some people, such decisions – according to epigenetics research – are far less difficult and for a few maybe not registering as difficult at all, even as such decisions may involve close-up sufferer face-time and concern matters which will be catastrophic for their lives. Accepting that some decisions that make a lot of people redundant are completely down to ‘market forces’, the genuine exhibited personal anguish on hearing of the pain of those facing redundancy or some other hardship and the lengths that people may go to in order to mitigate such effects and their recurrence can be very different between decision-makers. It is often something which is in some fields seen as being akin to ‘toughness’ or the facing of ‘reality’ – a ‘downsizing’ following deliberations that have involved ‘risky decisions’ not working out – but how such decisions are followed-through on and their effects managed can in some instances be related to the presence of the ‘aggressive’ MAOA gene variant. It is one factor and by no means a foregone conclusion but should the question be asked – would epigenetics researchers expect that a sample group in certain occupations such as one loosely in the field of ‘casino style financing’ be likely to exhibit a higher present rate of the ‘aggressive’ MAOA gene variant than in an occupation such as nursing? The answer is yes!
The MAOA gene is but one of many genes believed to influence antisocial behaviour and how the now mapped human genome and the knowledge that has been gleaned not just from genetics but also epigenetics can have on our health is still in the scientific starting blocks. The importance of nurture – living in a caring environment and being helped through educational, social and emotional barriers – is beyond doubt but that nurture can in reality sometimes trump nature for those with certain genes is new. Epigenetic researchers not only believe that nurture can be affected by childhood but that just like physical traits such as hair or eyes can skip generations, so can the features of epigenetic switches.
It is not all entirely predictable though but greater knowledge of epigenetic and mutated gene health risks can lead to reduced threats – even very significantly reduced ones for some. It was something actress Angela Jolie weighed up when she underwent preventative surgery and publicised that a simple saliva or blood test was enough to determine whether a woman should undergo further tests for BRCA gene mutation which has a high risk of causing fatal breast or ovarian cancer.
Having otherwise healthy people being more aware of potential physical and mental healthcare issues that can be prevented by epigenetic research is now beginning to be possible. Combined with better lifestyle choices as well as education and socially cradling environments for those with behavioural risks, there are potentially now more tools in the health policy-box for States around the world to tentatively follow the citizens on the jury of the Davis Waldroup murder case in Tennessee to begin to address socially devastating mental health risks as well as also to wrestle with economically expensive pandemics and physical illnesses. It is all food for thought for future informed healthcare planning and for the thinking that will shape new social-environmental paradigms to sustain us well into the future.