Where’s the Nurture?

Nature versus Nurture is still used to broadly categorize the influences on human development, literally, what make us human. It is a question tied with the past (even back to Shakespeare) when the understanding of the genetic blueprint was vague, a gap we’ve filled in with theory. Nature was what you inherited from your parents and nurture was everything else – total environmental influences.

Greatly impacting the nurture side, epigenetics has changed the way we think about ourselves, our behavior, and our environment. The behavior side was once covered by a psychology often tentative and ineffective. Now it is known that environmental influences impact gene expression in our bodies.

Freud-infiltrated, behavioral theories once centered on sexual phases. We explained all manners of abnormal behavior based on fixations; for example, being stuck in psychosexual stages exercised through general inclinations of the human psyche, namely, the three elements named the id, the ego, and the super-ego.

Lacking an understanding of the body’s developmental makeup, simple theories based on general perception and accompanying speculation ruled the day. The libido is a term used by psychoanalytic theory to describe the energy created by the survival and sexual instincts. According to Sigmund Freud, the libido is part of the id and is the driving force of all behavior.

Libido is expressed based on the stage of development a person is in. According to Freud, children develop through a series of psychosexual stages. For example, an adult who is fixated at the oral stage, normally birth to 1 year, may seek oral stimulation through smoking, drinking, or eating. The identified abnormal behavior would take the nature of issues with dependency or aggression.

You tend to wonder about that “fixation” business, whether it is actually a cultural fascination with sex that has seeped into scientific theory, utilizing prurient interests to grasp attention from scientists. At a time when males dominated the scientific fields, the male sex drive still seemed to govern everyday concerns and the belief that such ungoverned sex-related issues were the cause of hosts of psychological problems was seductive.

Meanwhile, science is vilified, but sex and fear still sell – whether products or agendas. Corporate interests still use sex to sell all products and demagogic political leaders still use survival instincts to peddle fear-based politics: ISIS, Ebola, or ravaging immigrants.

Enter genetic sequencing and its impact on science, especially the biological and social varieties. Consider that DNA and RNA molecules are present in the nucleus of each and every cell in our bodies and are part of the cells’ vital functions. Each cell (varying from a liver, skin or muscle cell) deploys its genome differently. Gene expression comes from within, between, and outside cells, extending from embryonic development through adult life.

Genetic research led to the concept that environmental forces can affect gene behavior, not in terms of gene structure but in terms of their functional transcription. Two basic mechanisms are involved in this process: molecules known as methyl groups latch on to DNA to suppress and silence gene expression; or molecules known as acetyl groups activate and enhance gene expression through histone modification.

Epigenetic mechanisms have consequences in terms of disease and human differences. They have been traced to all manners of human ailments: asthma, PTSD, cancers, clinical depression and mental illnesses. The National Institute of Health (NIH) finances epigenetic studies that have the potential to explain mechanisms of aging and human development, as well as the origins of cancer, heart disease, and mental illness. Some researchers believe that epigenetics may have a greater role than genetics.

Past studies have indicated that DNA damage can also cause epigenetic changes, arising from exposure to damaging chemicals such as benzene, hydroquinone, styrene, carbon tetrachloride and trichloroethylene.

Within 1 kilometer of a fracking gas well, residents had up to twice the rate of health problems compared to those 2 kilometers away or further. Hormone-disrupting chemicals, known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), associated with cancer, infertility and many other health problems, have been found in water samples collected at and near “fracking” sites in Colorado, according to the journal Endocrinology. Aside from common household and industrial chemicals, fracking has its own peculiar list of those used most often, many in the DNA harm category.

Many scientific studies have been conducted to prove environmental epigenetic effects. One especially compelling involved a set of identical twins, one a smoker and living in Fresno, where ambient air pollution is much higher, and the other a non-smoker living in Palo Alto. The former had asthma; the latter did not.

Epigenetic tracing was based on measurements of the Treg function and Foxp3 expression. Asthma is characterized by airway inflammation, wheezing, coughing, and breathlessness due to dysfunctional regulatory T Cells (Treg), normally regulated by the Foxp3 transcription factor.  The asthmatic twin registered a lower Treg function and Foxp3 expression, both problem indicators.

Increasingly such studies have been tied to environmental problems directly connected to activities of mankind and its business extensions. We know that we are negatively altering our world, and global leadership has increasingly failed to address its causes.

American society is beset with problems that knee-jerk, uninformed, and fear-based solutions have heaped on us. A so-called drug war based on punishment not treatment, harsh handling, even de facto execution of the mentally ill, an imprisonment mentality that left us with overflowing prisons, and social policies that desert the impoverished and the needy, shortchanging them in mind and body.

Obviously an effort to discover and then deal with the causes of these conditions is sorely overdue. Scientists have already shown that environmental conditions of the vulnerable can be mitigated by identifying the problems and addressing them through social interventions and epigenetic treatment.

Perhaps more investment in our health is warranted with agencies like the NIH working together with the FDA and the EPA to show, for example, how food additives, pharmaceuticals, and toxins in our air and water impact our health. Much more needs to be done about understanding and solving our problems, not imprisoning them.

James Hoover is a recently retired systems engineer. He has advanced degrees in Economics and English. Prior to his aerospace career, he taught high school, and he has also taught college courses. He recently published a science fiction novel called Extraordinary Visitors and writes political columns on several websites. Read other articles by James.