“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” This quote from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx is exemplified by the story of a Japanese man who was switched at birth from a rich to a poor family, and went on to live a life of deprivation.
The man, whose identity remains unknown, underwent DNA testing to confirm what he had suspected all along. He knew that he didn’t resemble any members of the family that he ended up with due to the mistake of San-Ikukai Hospital in Tokyo. Unfortunately, it was too late by the time he proved it and then successfully sued the hospital. His biological parents had already died and he was a truck driver after struggling his way through 60 years. In contrast, the boy who took his place benefited from growing up in an affluent family, received a private education and ultimately went on to become the head of a corporation.
Marx believed that all men are created equal but that their circumstances and environmental influences determine their destiny. This view was contrary to that of the man who Marx sent the first volume of Das Kapital to. Charles Darwin, whom Marx seemed to admire, most likely believed in the concept of racial inequality. It is presumed that Darwin never read Das Kapital in its entirety.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and we now know that race doesn’t exist. Science has attested to this by reading the human genome. We know that there is not a single absolute genetic difference that divides us humans. We cannot look at a genome and pronounce that this belongs to say an African or a European individual. We know that race is a social construct and not a biologic one.
So is there a scientific explanation of how the environment changes us and makes us unequal? The field of epigenetics seems to have the answer.
Epigenetics is the study of how environmental factors switch genes on and off to alter their expression without changing the genetic structure. The biological mechanisms by which the gene expression is altered include, but are not limited to, DNA methylation, phosphorylation, acetylation, ubiquitination and sumoylation. Environmental influences in early childhood and subsequently throughout life alter gene expression. What we experience, where we live, the people and circumstances that surround us, even our diet and exercise – all of these and many other factors influence the way our genes are expressed. There is also evidence that the modifications that occur at the molecular level through the epigenetic mechanisms are passed down the generations, and interestingly are reversible.
Epigenetics is an evolving science and much remains unexplored. However, it may one day fully explain not only the processes of diseases, like cancer and diabetes, but also traits such as temperament, learning, memory and behaviour. It may also fully explain the differences in physical characteristics such as the colour of our skin and eyes, or our height.
There are interesting laboratory studies that lucidly explain the fundamentals of epigenetics. Experiments have shown that enriching the environment of young rodents in the period immediately after they are born will not only improve their emotional and reproductive behaviour as adults but that these positive effects will also be transmitted to the next generations. Conversely, rodents exposed to early life stresses such as maternal deprivation experience behavioural and emotional disorders in adulthood. The behavioural and emotional disorders are then transmitted across generations. Further, studies have shown that these changes are mediated through the mechanism of DNA methylation.
What will be interesting to learn in the future is if these biochemical changes are preventable even upon exposure, especially the ones that lead to undesirable outcomes. And why a few manage to escape adverse environmental influences and do well while others don’t. These will have implications not only for the prevention of diseases but also our society at large.
The proponents of right-wing economics often highlight the rare examples of individuals who manage to succeed despite coming from adverse or socially disadvantaged backgrounds. However, we know that those cases are not the rule. It is extremely difficult to move across social and economic strata. And we now have a reasonably good scientific explanation for what Marx so eloquently described merely on the basis of his observations of society and intuition.
Unfortunately, organisations like Arogya Bharati have resorted to distorting the science of genetics, population genetics and epigenetics to propagate a racist and false version.
Jay Desai is a neurologist. He tweets @southgujarati.