the genetics myth – from Zeitgeist: Moving Forward

zeitgeistThis is an extended [14min] clip from the excellent movie Zeitgeist: Moving Forward by Peter Joseph .

It includes interviews with people you’ll recognize here – Gabor Maté and Robert Sapolski – plus a couple of new ones Richard Wilkinson and James Gilligan.

The clip is embedded at the foot of the post, as is the  full movie.

It debunks the common misconceptions held around genetics and outlines how genes contribute and help us respond to and survive in, our environment.  There’s a brief  explanation of epigenetics – how genes and environment interplay – especially in relation to chronic illnesses, mental health and addictions, leaving people more disposed to each.

It also sets out how environment begins not when we are born but from when we become a foetus.

This is a stunning piece of work – this clip is 14 mins from an hour long movie, itself only one part of three.

The following is words and images  from the movie:

The Genetics Myth – Zeitgeist 

its geneticRobert Sapolsky:

“One  of the most crazy-making and yet widespread and potentially dangerous notions is ‘oh, that behaviour is genetic’ .

Now what does that mean?

Genetics Myth 2It means all sorts of subtle stuff if you know modern biology but for most people it winds up meaning is a deterministic view of life, one rooted in biology and genetics and ‘genes equal things that can’t be changed’; genes equal things that are inevitable; and that you might as well not waste resources trying to fix; you might as well not put societal energies into trying to improve because it’s inevitable, its unchangeable.

…and that is … sheer nonsense.”

genetics myth 3

Genetics Myth 10Gabor Mate:
“It is widely thought that conditions like ADHD are genetically programmed, conditions like schizophrenia are genetically programmed.

The truth is the opposite:
Nothing is genetically programmed.

There are very rare diseases, I mean a small handful, extremely sparsely represented in the population, that are truly genetically determined.

Most complex conditions might have a pre-disposition that is a genetic component but a predisposition is not the same as a predetermination.

The whole search for diseases ion the genome was doomed to failure before anybody even thought of it because most diseases are not genetically predetermined.

Heart disease, cancers, strokes, rheumatoid conditions, autoimmune conditions in general, mental health conditions, addictions. These are none of them genetically pre-determined.

genetics myth breast cancerBreast cancer, for instance: out of a 100 women with breast cancer only 7 will carry the breast cancer genes – 93 do not.

And out of a 100 women who do have the genes not all of them will get cancer.

genes behaviourRichard Wilkinson: 

“Genes are not just things that make us behave in a particular way regardless of our environment.

Genes give us different ways of responding to environment.

Genetics Myth 7 In fact it looks as if some early childhood influences – the kind of childrearing affect gene expression: actually turning on and off genes to put you on a  different developmental track that may suit the kind of world you’ve got to deal with.

Epigenetic Effect

genetics myth brain changeGabor Mate:
“So for example:  a study done in Montreal with suicide victims looked at eth brains of these people. It turned out that the brains of suicide victims – unusually young adults have been abused as children. The abuse caused a genetic change in the brain that was absent in the brains of people who had not been abused.

genetics myth epigeneticThat’s an epigenetic effect.
Epi means ‘on top of ‘

The epigenetic influence is what happens environmentally to either activate or deactivate certain genes.

genetics myth dunedinJames Gilligan
“In New Zealand there was a study in which thousand of individuals were studied from birth up to their twenties.

What they found was that they could identify a genetic mutation, an abnormal gene which did have some relation to the predisposition to genetics myth predispositoincommit violence but only if the individual had also been subjected to severe child abuse.
In other words a person who had this gene would be no more likely to commit violence than anyone else. and in fact they actually had a lower rate of violence than people with ‘normal’ genes as long as they weren’t abused as children.

genetics myth mouse genetics myth mouse 2Robert Sapolski:
“A great additional example of the way genes are not be all and end all…

Fancy technique where you can take a specific gene out of a mouse and its descendants will not have that gene, you have knocked out that gene.
there’s this gene that codes for a protein that has something to do with learning and memory.

And this fabulous demonstration: knock out that gene and you have a mouse that doesn’t learn as well.

genetics myth mouse3‘Ooh! a genetic basis for intelligence’

What was much less appreciated in that landmark study that got picked up by the media left right and centre, is:  that take those genetically impaired mice and raise them in a much more, enriched stimulating environment than your normal mice in a lab-cage – and they completely overcame that deficit.

genetics myth sapolskiSo when one says in a contemporary sense that ‘this behaviour is genetic’ – to the extent that’s even a valid phrase to use – what you’re saying is that there is a genetic contribution to how this organism responds to environment.

Genes may influence the readiness with which a certain organism will deal with a certain environmental challenge.

genetics myth eugenicsThat’s not the version most people will have in their minds, and not to be too soap-boxy about it but, run with the old version of ‘oh, its genetic’
and … that’s not that far from the history of eugenics and things of that sort.

genetics myth eugenics2Its a widespread misconception and potential a fairly dangerous one.




geneitcs myth cautionJames Gilligan:
“One reason that the sort of biological explanation  for violence – one reason that hypothesis can do harm is potentially dangerous: it’s not just misleading, it can really do harm – is because if you believe that you could very easily say that:
genetics myth nothing we can do
well, there’s nothing we can do to change the predisposition that people have for violence –

all we can do is punish them for becoming violent: lock them up or execute them,

genetics myth punishbut we don’t need to worry about changing the social, environment or the social preconditions that may lead people to become violent because that’s irrelevant.’

its all in the genesGabor Mate:

“The genetic argument allows us the luxury of ignoring past and present historical and social factors. And in the words of Louis Menand who wrote in the New Yorker, very astutely he said:

“It’s all in the genes, an explanation for the way things are that does not threaten the way things are.
Why should someone feel unhappy or engaged in antisocial behavior when that person is living in the freest and most prosperous nation on Earth?
It can’t be the system. There must be a flaw in the wiring somewhere.”

genetics myth gaborWhich is a good way of putting it.

So, the genetic argument is simply a cop-out which allows us to ignore the social and economic and political factors that, in fact, underlie many troublesome behaviours.’

genetics myth addictionsAddictions are usually considered today to be a drug related issue.

Looking at it more broadly, I define addiction as…

any behaviour that is associated with craving , a temporary relief, and with long-term negative consequences, along with an impairment of control over it.

genetics myth cocaineSo that the person wishes to give up or promises to do so but can’t follow through.

When we understand that we can see that there are many more addictions than those related to drugs...

genetics myth shoppingworkaholism,

addiction to shopping,

the internet,

to video games.

genetics myth moneyThere’s the addiction to power.

People who have power they have power but they want more, and more, and more.

Nothing is ever enough for them.

genetics myth acquisitionAcquisition – corporations that must own more and more and more.

The addiction to oil.


genetics myth oil

Where it leads to wealth and to the products made accessible to us by oil.

Yet look at the negative consequences on the environment: we’re destroying the very Earth that we inhabit for the  sake of that addiction.

Now these addictions are far more devastating in their social consequences than the cocaine or heroin habits of my downtown eastside patients.

Yet they’re rewarded and considered to be respectable.

Genetics Myth 26The tobacco company executive that shows a higher profit will get a much bigger reward.

He doesn’t face any negative consequences legally or otherwise.  In fact he’s a respected member of the board of several other corporations.

But tobacco smoke related diseases kill five and a half million  people around the world every year. In the United States they kill 400,000 people a year. And these people are addicted to what? to Profit.

To such a degree are they addicted that they are in denial about the impact of their activities, which is typical for addicts and that’s considered respectable. It’s considered respectable to be addicted to profit no matter what the cost.

So what is acceptable and what is respectable is highly arbitrary phenomena in our society. And it seems like eth greater the harm, the more respectable the addiction.

myth war on drugsThere’s a general myth that drugs in themselves are addictive.

In fact the War on drugs is predicated on the idea that if you interdict the sources of drugs you can deal with addiction that way.

Genetics Myth 28Now, if you understand addiction in the broader sense, we see that nothing in itself is addictive: no substance by itself is addictive, no behaviour is by itself addictive.


myth alchoholicPeople go shopping without becoming shopaholic, not everybody becomes a food addict, not everyone who drinks a glass of wine becomes an alcoholic.


genetics myth susceptibleThe real issue is:  what makes people susceptible?
Its the combination of a susceptible individual and the potentially addictive substance or behaviour that actually then makes for the full flowering of the addiction.

In short it’s not the drug that’s addictive, it’s a question of eth susceptibility of the individual to being addictive to a particular substance or behaviour.

genetics environmentFor us to understand what makes someone susceptible we have to look at their life experience.

The old idea – its old but still broadly held – that addictions are due to some genetic cause is simply scientifically untenable.

genetics certainWhat the case is actually is that certain life experiences make people susceptible.

Life experiences that not only shape the person’s personality and psychological needs, but also their very brains in certain ways.

Genetics Myth 35And that process begins in utero.

Its been shown for example that if you stress mothers during pregnancy their children are more likely to have traits that predispose them to addictions.
genetics in utero
and that’s because development is shaped by the psychological and social environment. So the biology of human beings is very much affected by life experiences – being in utero.

genetics sapolskyEnvironment does not begin at Birth.

Environment begins as soon as you have an environment. as soon as  you are a foetus you are subject to whatever information is coming to you from your mom’s circulation, hormone levels and nutrients.

genetics hungerGreat landmark example of this, the Dutch Hunger Winter: 1944, Nazi  occupying Holland. For a bunch of reasons they decide to take all the food an divert it to Germany. For three months tens of thousands of people starving to death.

genetics dutch hunger winter foetusWhat the Dutch Hunger Winter Effect is: if you were a second or third trimester foetus during the starvation, your body learned something very unique during that time.


genetics dutch hunger foetus2

As it turns out second, third trimester something that your body is going about trying to learn about the environment is

‘well, how menacing of a place is it? how plentiful, how much nutrients am I getting?

genetics dutch hunger foetus3Be a foetus who’s starving at that time and your body programmes for ever after to be really, really stingy with your sugar and fat and what you do is you store every bit of it.

Be a dutch Hunger Winter foetus and half a century later then, everything else being equal, you are more likely to have high blood sapolski3pressure, obesity or metabolic syndrome.

That is environment coming in – in a very unexpected place.


genetics gaborGabor Mate

You can stress animals in a laboratory when they’re pregnant and their offspring will be more likely to use cocaine and alcohol as adults.

genetics myth bellyYou can stress a human mother, for example in a british study women who were abused during pregnancy, will have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their placenta at birth  – and their children are more likely to have conditions that predispose them to addictions, by age seven or eight.

genetics in utero stressSo, in utero stress already prepares the ground for all  kinds of mental health issues.

[e.g.] In an Israeli study done on children born to mothers who were pregnant prior to the onset of the 1967 war these women were of course very stressed – and their offspring have higher incidence of schizophrenia.

Genetics Myth 35There’s plenty of evidence now that pre-natal effects have a huge impact on a developing human being.”



zeitgeistFull  movie
Zeitgeist – Moving Forward

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