Thursday, April 3, 2008

Smelling, Smoking, and Science Fiction

Genetics fascinate me. Do we do what we do because the behavior is programmed into our genes, because we are culturally conditioned, or because we choose to act that way? Any sane answer has to say "All three." But it's the genetic component that interests me.

A new study at Northwestern has demonstrated that people remember odors more specifically, more quickly, and with greater urgency when introduced to the odors in conjunction with electric shocks. This may have been very useful when we were both predators and prey on the savanna; we could sniff trouble coming. Researchers at the Houston Cancer Center have tentatively identified genes which seem connected to a predilection for nicotine addiction. Not only are people with this genetic combination more likely to smoke, if they inherited the genes from both sets of parents, they have an 80% greater chance of contracting lung cancer than do smokers without the gene.

Writers, other studies consistently say, have a greater tendency than the general population to depression, mood lability, and general mental instability (hold the jokes, please). Is this, too, genetic? And taking it a step farther, is there a genetic component to the urge to write itself? If so, it would have to be indirect, since writing is a learned, rather than instinctive, behavior.

But then, so is smoking. We may have genetic predispositions, but we are amazingly adaptable. How else to account for, say, con masquerades?

6 comments:

Luke said...

I read GENOME by Matt Ridley a while back and, while it's amazing how flipping a single switch among countless ones can cause rare and bizarre diseases, genetics hasn't done so well at explaining higher-order behavior.

I wonder... in Franzen's HOW TO BE ALONE he writes about how hardcore readers tend to be more solitary types. I asked a guy at Harvard how he came to be so successful academically and he said because he's so awkward socially.. and he wasn't joking. Could book-learnin' be a byproduct of social dysfunction??

Mike Flynn said...

A new study at Northwestern has demonstrated that people remember odors more specifically, more quickly, and with greater urgency when introduced to the odors in conjunction with electric shocks. This may have been very useful when we were both predators and prey on the savanna; we could sniff trouble coming.

Especially in conjunction with the electric shocks so common on the savanna. |G|

Researchers at the Houston Cancer Center have tentatively identified genes which seem connected to a predilection for nicotine addiction. ...more likely to smoke ... have an 80% greater chance of contracting lung cancer

Further research reveals that people with legs are 80% more likely to contract Broken Leg Syndrome.

I'm with you. What is the borderline between a disposition and a cause? In correlation, X may be correlated with Y because
a) X causes Y
b) Y causes X (the famous "Storks of Oldenburg")
c) X and Y are both caused by Z (the famous correlation between grades in school and salary at work ten years later)
d) Coincidence (the famous correlation between sunspots and the Columbia River salmon run; auto imports in the US and women in the labor force; or between the size of the expanding universe and the size of my suits.)

Statistics. Ya gotta love it.

Nancy Kress said...

Luke-- I've read the Ridley book and it's excellent. As for heavy book reading by the socially solitary -- makes sense to me.

Mike -- You're not being fair. I said "...have an 80% greater chance of contracting lung cancer than do other smokers" -- you left off the last four words in making your "legs" analogy!

Mike Flynn said...

Mike -- You're not being fair. I said "...have an 80% greater chance of contracting lung cancer than do other smokers" -- you left off the last four words in making your "legs" analogy!

I suppose what I had in mind was the distinction between genetics-as-cause and genetics-as-enabler. There is always the danger that genetic markers can be used as a priori discriminators. There was a gene once identified as the "aggression gene" and people who possessed it were said to be "more likely" to be aggressive. In Britain, IIRC, there was even laws proposed to identified such "at risk" children at a young age - presumably so that we could treat them as potential criminals before they actually became one. (But by thus setting up the expectation, is it the gene or the social context that leads to the aggression??)

I just got off a conference call in which one of the items discussed was Fault Tree Analysis and the idea of joint causes - the "AND" gate in logic. What "causes" the grenade to explode - pulling the pin or releasing the handle? We call them in engineering the enabling cause and the trigger cause. (In another sense, what causes the grenade to explode it the intent to do harm to the enemy in combat - the teleological cause... But I digress.)

So just as a legless man is much less likely to suffer a broken leg - I stipulate that those with "phantom limbs" might suffer "phantom breaks" - so the geneless might be less likely to suffer the effects of nicotine. Thus, the gene is the enabling cause, not the trigger. Those folks with the "aggression" gene did not display the aggression unless raised in dysfunctional situations.

I can see the potential for numerous stories in which enablers and triggers are confused - and only an Aristotelian can sort them out. =G=

The Pondering Tree's Alpha Site said...

During one of my last training exercises with the Army, I spotted an ambush by virtue of catching the scent of GPC cigarettes on one of the members of the ambush squad. There were other indicators (moving bushes, an audible fart, no bird noise, we were moving into a Very Obvious Kill Pocket which the Sergeant failed to identify).

I had enough time to argue with the Sergeant before I got "popped." Sad, because I knew exactly which bush I was going to shoot at.

It is a funny thing because my vision is not the best and I have a form of color blindness (not true colorblindness but red-green color deficiency) which makes it difficult to visually detect camouflaged targets. That said, all of the other indicators gave them away.

Respects,
S. F. Murphy

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Might have an oblique connection to this thread...

From AP, in the DAILY NEWS, 4/7/08

A man who received a heart transplant 12 years ago and later married the donor's widow died the same way the donor did, authorities said: of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

No foul play was suspected in 69-year old Sonny Graham's death at his Vilalis, GA home, authorities said.

He was found Tuesday with a shotgun wound to the throat, cops said.

Graham was on the verge of congestive heart failure in 1995 when he got a call that a heart was available in Charleston, SC.

The heart was from Terry Cottle, 33, who had shot himself.

Grateful for his new heart, Graham began writing letters to the donor's family to thank them.

In January 1997, Graham met his donor's widow, Cheryl Cottle, then 28, in Charleston.

"I felt like I had known her for years," Graham told The (Hilton Head) Island Packet for a 2006 story.

In 2001, Graham bought a home for Cottle and her four children in Vidalia.

Three years later, they were married.

(MIKE BACK) I have heard, can't offer any good references, that while not exactly =surpressed= info, but not written in the journals either, transplant doctors know that organ recipients sometimes take upon the characteristics of the donor.

If there's a way to explain that, with our current understanding of biology, please, somebody, clue me in.