The Imprinted Brain

How genes set the balance between autism and psychosis

It Ain't Necessarily So!

Things you're liable to read in the DNA Bible contradict ID but endorse the IBT.

Whereas once people looked to divinely authored or authenticated books like the Bible for the ultimate answers to the riddles of life, now we know where they are to be found. Ultimately, the real answers are written in the four bases of our DNA, transcribed from our genes, and expressed in our bodies and brains (above).

Although there are only thought to be about 20,000 genes in all, our genome is some three billion bases long. So huge is its information capacity that, if you used the 64 possible DNA triplet codons that nature uses to encode the 26 letters of the alphabet, the 10 digits, and various shift and punctuation marks, you would have enough room for 4000 copies of the complete works of Shakespeare! Indeed, the late David Jones from whom I am quoting this estimate goes on to speculate about what we might find written there if anyone else had had the idea before we did, adding that “if … the search turns up excerpts from Genesis or the Ten Commandments, the theological implications might be profound. How better could the Creator transmit his word?” (p. 6)

Jones was of course joking, but it is a sober fact that since these tongue-in-cheek words were written, John C. Avise, a distinguished Californian geneticist, has used evidence of what he rightly calls the “morbid anatomy,” “gratuitous genomic complexity,” and “fallible,” “flawed,” “ludicrous,” and “wasteful design,” of the human genome to argue the case against Intelligent Design (ID).

ID is what you might otherwise describe as Creationism Lite, and clearly, if you take the idea of a divine Creator seriously, the hugely redundant, perversely complicated, and mindlessly mechanistic genome poses some very difficult questions for believers. And not just for creationists: if the human genome has indeed supplanted The Bible (or whatever other sacred book you care to choose) as the ultimate authority on the meaning of life, then its interpretation is likely to be as controversial as has been that of the scriptures.

People have often used the Bible as a source of personal divination: for example, in opening it randomly and assuming that the first text your eye falls on is meant for you. Indeed, even such a great intellect as Isaac Newton spent years of his life trying to find hidden truths in the Bible—and in his case, thought he had succeeded when he concluded that the Second Coming would occur in 2060. We’ll see!

Today people use the genome somewhat in this way when they try to discover their risk of contracting particular diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s. And it is commonly—and probably correctly—concluded that the date of your death is also hidden in your DNA in some sense. But such literalism can be dangerous in reading both the Bible and the genome, and whatever criticisms may be made of the imprinted brain theory (IBT), no one can accuse it of being literal in this sense. On the contrary, its great strength is that it takes a view of the genome more comparable to that of modern, scientific biblical scholarship.

One of the findings of such enlightened scriptural criticism that most scandalizes biblical fundamentalists is that different parts of the Bible were written at different times by completely different authors, often with divergent agendas and conflicting views, and here the human genome is no different. Where imprinted genes are concerned (those expressed from only one parent’s copy and a prime example of what Avise has in mind), mothers and fathers have had contradictory things to say, and much the same is true of male versus female genes (those on sex chromosomes) and parent versus offspring (genes with early or late expression).

The result is that, if the human brain is a bit like a space probe or planetary rover built by genes to solve real-time challenges from the environment that they could not foresee, then it is one that was designed by disagreeing designers and built by conflicting contractors—hardly a recipe for straightforward success!

Nevertheless, if and when things do go wrong, knowledge of such problems in the article’s origins will probably go a long way towards explaining—and indeed resolving—them. This has actually been the case with more than one space probe, and if the insights of the imprinted brain theory turn out to be reliable guides to psychiatry, may prove much the same where understanding and rectifying mental illness is concerned.

And at the very least, such an evolutionary and epigenetic approach—one that sees the mind as generated by conflicting genes and discrepant DNA—confounds the genomic literalism that assumes robotic control of behaviour by DNA or thinks that all genes can do it to cause illnesses such as schizophrenia or autism. Instead, the imprinted brain theory sees mental illnesses as deviations from normal mentalizing, ultimately caused by imbalances in the expression of entire classes of genes. And of course, if this is so, then sanity and normality are nothing other than the result of balanced, normal patterns of expression of the very same DNA that causes mental illness.

Christopher Robert Badcock, Ph.D., is author of The Imprinted Brain: how genes set the balance between autism and psychosis. 

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