Tuesday 1 June 2010

Nature Versus Nurture

Now let me be clear - it wasn't my idea to go to the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival this Bank Holiday. Arty festivals can be precious at the best of times but, whereas a theatre festival (for example) has the merit of providing an opportunity to stage plays, by contrast a literary event doesn't really offer an opportunity to read books - best done at home on the sofa - leaving only the pretentious bits i.e. self-congratulatory mingling and the doubtful thrill of being in the same space as Salman Rushdie or whoever. The only cultural festival which is truly democratic, effortlessly combining high-brow poetic composition with primary school dancing schlock, is the National Eisteddfod. But truthfully I was easily coerced as I have been curious about the Hay fest since it began and so motor into Hay early Monday and walk into the tented field with a rather graceless air of scepticism.

Before I have time to pass judgement I am whisked into a tent to listen to international celebrity and genetics egg-head (and Welshman) Steve Jones whose book "Darwin's Island" I am reading at the moment. Prof Jones is good value, repeating (and simultaneously withdrawing) his thoughtful, academic critique reported last week of fellow geneticist Craig Venter - he called him "a bit of a pr**k" here : the distinguished Professor says that Venter has e-mailed him to say he didn't like the "bit of a" bit, confirming that these guys don't care much what you think of them as long as you don't belittle them, as it were. Anyway, I have grabbed a front seat and get to ask Jones a question on behalf of my blog-readers: "Do you believe that in time we will be able to predict serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia through genetic analysis of individuals or does nurture play a significant part as well as nature?". Jones gives a substantive reply which I will try to paraphrase here...

• Schizophrenia had been identified as a distinct disease since Kraepelin's classification of symptoms

• This sort of approach to mental illness had also led to a more liberal view of mental illness in the context of criminal justice, for example the "McNaughton Rules"

• However, the classification of schizophrenia has over time become much more problematic and therefore . . .

• Though there are clearly genetic links there may be several genes causing several different illnesses

• Somewhat is contrast there has been more solid evidence of simpler genetic connections to bipolar disorder, resulting in credible diagnostic (if not yet preventative) tools

• However, the point about “nature or nurture” (terminology first coined by Shakespeare) is critical in the context of the complex symptoms and behaviours associated with mental illness

• Compare the famous “gay gene” much publicised a couple of years ago. There may well be a gene (or several genes) which link to homosexuality (not a disease of course!) but consider also the environmental factors – Nelson’s Royal Navy took a lenient view of homosexual behaviour once ships had been at sea for several weeks.

Jones’ point is well – if rather colourfully – made. We must surely pursue the study of genetic links to serious mental illness but environmental factors must also be significant. We simply do not know yet whether many people with a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia do not in the event experience symptoms; nor do we know whether some people without any genetic predisposition nevertheless develop such symptoms because of what happens in their life. Incidentally the Shakespeare reference is at Tempest 4.i where Prospero descibes Caliban as "A devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains, / Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost". Meanwhile if you want to know more about treatments for serious mental illness please check out this guide.

I emerge to look at the rest of the festival. Ernest "Modern Parents" drag their bored children around veggie juice emporia and preachy environmental stuff about rain forests and earthworms (what's this got to do with literature?): like those children I crave a sandwich containing red meat, some pop, and wild open spaces so after 30 minutes we set off over the Gospel Pass and picnic at Llanthony Abbey.