Conservatives expected human genome research to help prove that nature, not unequal social orders, determines who ends up sick and poor. But our genes have refused to cooperate.
A clinical psychologist noted for his observations on how inequality impacts what’s happening in our heads is now sharing some fascinating insights, based on new research, about how much inequality reflects what’s going on in our genes.
This British clinical psychologist, Oliver James, has written widely over recent years about what he calls “affluenza,” the inequality-induced “virus” that has us placing an ever higher value on money, possessions, and fame.
Affluenza, James has pointed out, varies widely by society. The more unequal a society’s distribution of income and wealth, the more affluenza and the higher the incidence of the mental illnesses that affluenza so reliably engenders.
Apologists for unequal social orders have always, of course, disputed any linkage between mental illness and the economic and social environment. That low-income people suffer depression at double the levels of high-income people, these apologists believe, suggests only that people at the bottom come born into the world with more “personal deficiencies” than people at the top.
“The political right believes that genes largely explain why the poor are poor, as well as twice as likely as the rich to be mentally ill,” as James notes. “To them, the poor are genetic mud, sinking to the bottom of the genetic pool.”
The scientific proof for this sinking, the right exulted a decade ago, would come as “rapid advances in genetics and neuroscience” — the human genome project and all the research around it — revealed the true “story of human nature.”
Human genome research, as political scientist Charles Murray opined for the right-wing American Enterprise Institute ten years ago, “is going to shrink the wiggle-room for certain political positions.”
“I am predicting that the adages of the Right will usually prove to be closer to the mark than the adages of the Left,” Murray wrote, “and that many of the causes of the Left will be revealed as incompatible with the way human beings are wired.”
With more complete genetic information in hand, Murray contended, “it will turn out that the population below the poverty line in the United States has a configuration of the relevant genetic makeup that is significantly different from the configuration of the population above the poverty line.”
In fact, as analyst Oliver James notes in a new analysis, things haven’t turned out that way at all. The “extensive genome searching” since the year 2000 has not revealed any “genetic makeup” that predisposes some people to “success” and wealth and others to ill-health and poverty.
“We now know,” observes James, “that genes play little part in why one sibling, social class, or ethnic group is more likely to suffer mental health problems than another.”
The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry made the exact same point in an editorial earlier this year. Serious science, the editorial stated, now focuses more than ever “on the power of the environment,” and “all but the most dogged of genetic determinists have revised their view.”
“Biological factors do not exist in a vacuum, hermetically sealed off from social and environmental factors,” added North Carolina bioethicist Daniel Goldberg last week in a commentary on the new Oliver James analysis. “So to even try to separate the biological and the social doesn’t make a darn bit of sense.”
So what do we do with our new genetic understandings? How can we build upon what we now know to help fashion more healthy societies? James is suggesting a three-step sequence.
First, the psychologist advises, let’s “create a society in which the maximum opportunity for a mentally healthy, fulfilled life is more important than enriching a tiny minority.” Second, let’s “place meeting the needs of children, especially small ones, ahead of all other priorities.”
And, third, let’s nurture the socio-economic conditions that maximize mental health. Explains James: “That means creating greater economic equality, much more secure working conditions, much greater employment flexibility for parents of small children, and a 35-hour week.”
We have, acknowledges James, “not a chance in hell of any of this happening until politicians understand what the science is telling us.”
The scientists may need to speak louder. And the rest of us? We may need to listen more closely.
Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your email inbox.