Epigenetics Does Not Mean That Thinking Makes It So
You know, I really, really hate the way quacks abuse molecular biology. I know, I know. I’ve said it before, but certain quacks have a way of willfully misunderstanding the latest advances in genomics, molecular biology, and biology in general. Of course, this isn’t limited to just medicine, unfortunately. After all, we have Deepak Chopra and his quantum woo, which abuses physics and quantum theory in the name of “proving” mind-body dualism, a bastardized version of “intelligent design” creationism that is based on Eastern mysticism rather than Christianity, and, of course, a “conscious universe.”
If there’s one thing that the quack world is all about, it’s control. It’s not just control, though, in the sense of taking control of your health in a rational way. Rather, all too often it’s a fantasy world, an infantile wish-fulfillment, in which wishing, if we are to believe some quacks, literally makes it so. What is The Secret, after all, but the very embodiment of this concept, in which, if you think the right thoughts and want something bad enough, somehow the universe will magically grant you what you want? This mindset is embodied in the teachings of various quacks who either imply or state outright that if you just eat the right foods and take the right supplements you will be not just healthy but virtually impervious to disease. This is not a straw man argument. How many times have I shown examples of, for example, antivaccinationists like Bill Maher claiming that disease is not due so much to microbes but to the “terrain” of the body. The not-so-subtle implication is that the reason one gets sick is because of one’s habits. Of course, there are a lot of lifestyle diseases, but the implications goes beyond the sensible, science-based observation that obesity and lack of exercise increase the risk of certain diseases, into the realm of stating that if you just eat the right foods and do the right exercises you’ll never get sick.
Utter nonsense, of course.
There’s also a dark side to this sort of thinking, and that’s the flip side of the argument. If you can nearly completely control the state of your health by what you eat and do, the not-so-subtle implication is that if you get sick it must be your fault. After all, if we have complete control over our health through our lifestyle, then it follows that if you’re sick, you must be doing something wrong.
The latest way that quacks are trying to push the idea that you have near total control over your health is by abusing new findings in epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression or phenotype that are not caused by changes in the underlying gene sequence. Mechanisms by which epigenetics can influence gene expression include chemically modifying DNA in a reversible fashion, such as through methylation, which usually silences gene expression. Modifications of histones, which are the proteins around which DNA is wrapped, can also alter gene expression. It’s a fascinating area of research, because it suggests that gene expression can be altered longer than transiently by environmental influences. Of course, given that organisms and biology are affected by environmental influences, this is almost a trivial observation; the power of epigenetics is that it can explain how such changes in gene expression can come about.