Blame It on the Gene Pool

Identically DifferentBook Review: Identically Different: Why You CAN Change Your Genes

Author: Tim Spector

Publisher: Phoenix / Hachette

Genes had long been considered unchangeable, infallible codes of our physical, mental and emotional destiny, monumental bits of information encoded in us that could not be erased or modified. Then came the nurture-over-nature argument, which set out to prove that a warm, loving environment while growing up could reverse the effects of even the evilest genes. These days, however, a swashbuckling new stream of genetics – epigenetics – has started to display that, in fact, not only can nature be altered by nurture, but that nature actually influences nurture in the first place. One only has to glance at Indian politics to see how, with the stroke of a father’s name on one’s birth certificate, doors open and vice presidencies to ruling parties are handed out – a classic example, if ever, of epigenetical benefits.

A professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College, London, Tim Spector is considered one of the most respected authors of twin studies in the past 20 years. He has been directing the Twins register, the largest in the world, since 1993, and has published over 500 papers on the subject of twins and genetics. His new book, Identically Different, sets out to show that genes aren’t immutable. They do change when forced to adapt – and can be changed at will too. Ultimately however, the gene does prevail and can decide and influence your environment – even that of your grandchildren.

But wait. What does a glamorous new science have to do with Indian politics? Plenty as it turns out. Plush as we are with our own ingenious system of dynastic democracy, it’s easy to see a political family in every chapter of Spector’s best-selling work of non-fiction. Here’s how you do it.

The Mortality Gene

Why do some people pop off by a heart attack at the age of 50, while their twin lives to double of that? Why are certain lifestyle diseases gradually becoming more common than ever even in populations that never had them a few 100 years ago? Epigenetics dissects the major role of minor changes to a pregnant woman’s diet and lifestyle on the generations that follow her – so even tiny tweaks in the mother’s digestive system, such as in the case of famines, will leave her progeny prone to fat-storing tendencies years down the line.

While this amply explains Saif Ali Khan’s heart woes as inherited from dad Pataudi, the nawab-cricketer who had a long history of cardiac ailment, it still does not explain how India’s only woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, who died violently, also had two sons, Sanjay and Rajiv who died equally violent, unnatural deaths. This “ill-fated mortality” tendency is not restricted to Indian politics alone, of course. The all-American Kennedys were equally unlucky when it came to fatal accidents and assassinations (a missing genetic link there?).

So we can hazard that the mortality gene is not to do with lifestyle diseases alone. Perhaps being in politics is an epigenetical marker that tweaks your own fate and decides the fate of your children and grandchildren as well.

Moral of the story: Children of sitting MPs must be wary of becoming sitting ducks.

The Infidelity Gene or Hypersexuality Syndrome

According to the book, infidelity can be passed on from one generation to the other. The gene responsible for infidelity has about 40 per cent heritability in females, similar to the heritability for divorce, which the author says “can be a wanted or unwanted side-effect”. The same goes for sex addiction or the Tiger Woods syndrome. There is a part genetic component involved. It’s not just watching your dad cheat on your mom that makes you subconsciously cheat on your wife, it’s also sometimes encoded in your DNA.

One only has to look as far as Tamil Nadu, to see the value in Spector’s research. Never mind that having two wives, both alive, is illegal in this country. Silly earthly laws don’t apply to demi-gods like the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham patriarch, Karunanidhi. So, we shall overlook the fact that he is cheating on one relationship with the other because both Dayalu and Rajathi are called his wives; how convenient. And we shall also overlook the fact that he had another wife earlier, whose son he cherished for a long time until he realised he had other sons to promote. No, let’s not call it infidelity or hypersexuality or sex addiction or any of those crass human terms. Let’s instead look back a few years and dig up the dirt on MK Stalin, the anointed heir to Karunanidhi’s political throne, who if you remember was embroiled in a rape allegation by a Tamil actress. Perhaps a genetic link there?

Moral of the story: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Uneasy because two birds are in hand but it also wants the one in the bush.

The Happiness Gene

According to the author, there are 12,000 books on Amazon selling “happiness” in their title, most of them claiming to sell you its secret. But going by Spector’s own extensive research, the formula is still elusive. While genes give us “set-points” for levels of contentment in our lives, non-genetic factors such as family and social support are just as important. However, Spector adds, “contentment or happiness is just a figment of our imagination and personality”. They can be predicted by observing the person’s levels of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – all of which are in themselves 50 per cent genetic. Happy people seem to have low scores on neuroticism, high scores on extroversion and conscientiousness, and somewhat high scores on agreeableness and openness.

The father-son Abdullah duo do score rather well on many of those counts (leaving aside the conscientious bit, though). Which may partly explain why – no matter how many people are killed in the state under their wardenship, how many bombs go off and how many people go missing every day – Farooq and Omar continue to smile, Tweet positive affirmations about the situation in Kashmir, and are generally quite happy as long as they are in power. It’s in their genes after all.

Moral of the story: For a super shot of happiness, move to Kashmir. Even if you don’t find happiness, you’ll have super chances of being shot.

Bad Genes

Research finds a clear correlation between childhood abuse and later adult behavioural problems and depression. It also finds a strange but sound genetic link between criminal fathers and sons, and criminal siblings. Thankfully, for all the rest of us, there are epigenetic differences that can sometimes turn one sibling into Abel and the other into Cain, and so having a criminal in the family may not necessarily make you one.

In fact, when superstars Sunil Dutt and Nargis got married and had children, it was assumed the offspring would be paragons of virtue. While father Dutt went on to have a blameless political record and his daughter Priya followed suit, the prodigal son Sanjay got himself embroiled in all sorts of controversies in his lifetime, including having to serve jail time for illegal possession of arms in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case. You can blame papa Dutt for trying to shield his son but you can’t blame him for the guy’s deeds.

Moral of the story: Genes don’t account for everything. They certainly don’t explain why one person can be a media baroness while her brother stays a wannabe actor who specialises in playing low-IQ mutes in daft comedies.

And the Winner Is

As often in life, there are no fixed rules when it comes to human tendencies and no fixed winners in the game of DNA coding. Spector’s book plays up both sides of the argument of genes versus environment in deciding human fates, to the extent of leaving the reader confused about whether to blame one’s mom or that fried momo for that extra kilo put on over the weekend. But the conclusion is more or less clear. Both nature and nurture have tremendous power over our personalities and choices, and in turn, our personalities and choices sow the seeds of how our future generations turn out.

Unfortunately, we’ll maybe never know what kind of genes the progeny of Narendra Modi would have had. An intriguing case study on the heritability of political cunning wasted. Sigh.

First published on Newslaundry.com

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