Sunday, January 23, 2011

Shocking discovery: poverty messes up your head

According to legend (and it's only a legend), the novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were in a bar when the former remarked to the latter: "The rich are different from you and me." To which Hemingway dryly answered: "Yes, they have more money." It is safe to say that the poor have less money, by definition, but the way it makes a difference ... er, differs. According to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, relatively impoverished socio-economic circumstances have a negative effect on the rate at which small children start to realize their genetic potential, as this is manifest in their cognitive development. The environment created by wealth unlocks the genetic contribution to mental capacities; poverty seems to suppress it. As the news items about the study are quick to point out, one in five children in the US lives in poverty, and the country is undergoing a massive economic crisis.

It might be better to pull out a few other wider implications of the research, even if it is only one study. The study is basically saying that poverty strikes human beings at their core: if your mind is not at your core, it is hard to say what is. Poverty appears to literally incapacitate, making us relatively less capable of developing the features that make us persons; the idea that poverty dehumanizes us seems as frightening as the disintegration of personhood involved in late-stage Alzheimer's disease. The problem is, while one in five American children lives in poverty (and this is troubling), the poverty of the majority of children in many countries is far worse. Except for a lucky few, their genetic inheritance gets pretty much laid to waste. How much it is laid to waste has yet to be fully studied. But if the study in Texas is any indication, the impact starts much earlier than previously thought.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Stuart,

My understanding is that a great deal of research documents the effects that deleterious living conditions in early childhood have on health across the lifespan. So I am not certain it is necessary to view this particular study as merely one datum.

Moreover, I'd want to be careful about locating the significance of the evidence regarding early childhood, health, and inequities in terms of its effects on genetic endowment. Although I am quite certain you of all people would not make this mistake, it seems to me to be distressingly common to analyze health in terms of a dichotomous understanding of genes and environment. This dichotomy is specious because of the phenotypic bottleneck, which suggests first that raw genetic information is uninteresting for disease because it necessarily runs through a host of social and environmental factors on its way to expression (and back, given epigenetics).

Thus, I tend to think the evidence suggests that it is deleterious living conditions that are of much greater relative significance in determine patterns of disease and inequities than genetic endowment.

The geneticization of health and disease is a serious problem, IMO, and thus the importance of the studies on early childhood experiences and health really has much more to do with its emphasis on the SDOH and much less to do with its capacity to unlock genetic potential. I am not even sure what this latter finding means since it does little more than restate an obvious fact, that genetic information runs through the phenotypic bottleneck. No?

Hope that makes some sense.

1:48 PM  
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