More Than Genes: What Science Can Tell Us About Toxic Chemicals, Development, and the Risk to Our Children

More Than Genes: What Science Can Tell Us About Toxic Chemicals, Development, and the Risk to Our Children

by Dan Agin
     
 

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We are all shaped by our genetic inheritance and by the environment we live in. Indeed, the argument about which of these two forces, nature or nurture, predominates has been raging for decades. But what about our very first environment—the prenatal world where we exist for nine months between conception and birth and where we are more vulnerable than at any

Overview

We are all shaped by our genetic inheritance and by the environment we live in. Indeed, the argument about which of these two forces, nature or nurture, predominates has been raging for decades. But what about our very first environment—the prenatal world where we exist for nine months between conception and birth and where we are more vulnerable than at any other point in our lives?
In More Than Genes, Dan Agin marshals new scientific evidence to argue that the fetal environment can be just as crucial as genetic hard-wiring or even later environment in determining our intelligence and behavior. Stress during pregnancy, for example, puts women at far greater risk of bearing children prone to anxiety disorders. Nutritional deprivation during early fetal development may elevate the risk of late onset schizophrenia. And exposure to a whole host of environmental toxins—methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, pesticides, ionizing radiation, and most especially lead—as well as maternal use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, or cocaine can have impacts ranging from mild cognitive impairment to ADHD, autism, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders. Agin argues as well that differences in IQ among racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups are far more attributable to higher levels of stress and chemical toxicity in inner cities—which seep into the prenatal environment and compromise the health of the fetus—than to genetic inheritance. The good news is that the prenatal environment is malleable, and Agin suggests that if we can abandon the naive idea of "immaculate gestation," we can begin to protect fetal development properly.
Cogently argued, thoroughly researched, and accessibly written, More Than Genes challenges many long-held assumptions and represents a huge step forward in our understanding of the origins of human intelligence and behavior.

Editorial Reviews

Doody's Review Service
Reviewer: Luis F. Escobar, MD, MS (St. Vincent Hospital and Health Care Center)
Description: The author presents his perspective on how the evolution of our species has led to social organization that may be harmful to our own future and health in this book. It is a compilation of selective scientific evidence with significant personal input from the author.
Purpose: The author sets out to expose how environmental hazards interact with human biology, with the suggestion that socioeconomic stratification may have an influence on genetic behavior and gene expression. The book represents a tremendous effort by the author, compiling an impressive amount of information and reviewing an extensive number of scientific papers that suggest mechanisms by which the environment affects human life and gene expression. Unfortunately, in his attempt to translate scientific evidence into popular science, the author conveys an alarmist sense of our inability to control our environment, detailing a problem but providing no solutions. The objectives are interesting, but the book does not provide new or relevant information to those in the field of genetics or to the public. We all recognize now that societal environmental problems affect our health and the future of our species. We may even make this a topic of family conversation with our academically oriented relatives, during which one might suggest solutions to a complex problem of this magnitude.
Audience: The author dedicates his book to the toxicologists and pediatricians who guard the future of our species, but he does not specify who his audience is. It seems to be written with the general public in mind.
Features: The author presents his perspective on how self-destructive humans have become. In the chapter, "The Richness of Our Ignorance," he indicates "the psychological destinies of children in America are often shaped and mangled by man-made environmental effects that begin not with birth but with conception." He raises questions about the effect of pollution on babies, and provides provocative perspectives on "culture, poverty, and fetal destruction." A good number of references are provided at the end to substantiate the author's point.
Assessment: Based on traditional academic thinking, the scientific merit of this book is limited. It is a provocative compilation of ideas substantiated by academic papers. However, it presents a naive perspective of biology without clearly connecting true biological cellular human mechanisms to the gross observations.
From the Publisher
"Agin marshals the scientific data to build an impressive case for his perspective, particularly regarding developmental problems in American babies compared with those in the rest of the world—it is frightening and deserves widespread attention."—Publishers Weekly

"Using interesting historical and contemporary examples, Dr. Agin strips away the fallacies of some of the most popular yet unsubstantiated notions regarding both the biological and environmental foundations of human behavior. At the same time, he provides the reader with an understanding of how the environment interacts with the genome from the very moment of conception to influence the developmental processes involved in this most complex structure in nature, the human brain." —Kim N. Dietrich, The University of Cincinnati College of Medicine

"What particularly impresses me is that Dan Agin has achieved the very difficult task of interpreting children's environmental health research for the general reader in a scientifically balanced way. I recommend this book to anyone interested in how the environment affects the health of children." —Jonathan Grigg,, MD, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry

"Refreshingly entertaining, yet hard-hitting and scrupulously honest, this book is as informative as it is a wake-up call about the reckless and thoughtless damage we inflict upon ourselves. It asks whether the womb is a safe place for the human fetus. No, it is not. Is it all genes that make us into what we become? No, it is not. This book is a very convincing exposé of the role of toxins in pre-natal development. But it is more—an outstanding popular science book with a social conscience." —Gisela Kaplan, University of New England, Australia

"Brings together a wide array of material (all thoroughly referenced for the more technically interested reader) which combines to create a very complete picture of developmental and later-life effects of environmental exposures. It demonstrates the importance of changing the too commonly casual approach to fetal and child exposures." —Sally Ann Lederman, Columbia University

"Dan Agin's message is a welcome relief from the bombardment of claims of genetic causes of human behaviour that we have received over recent years from the media and some branches of science." —Lesley J. Rogers, University of New England, Australia; author of Sexing the Brain

"Solidly grounding his argument in the latest research, Agin demonstrates the importance of 'the first environment'—the nine months before birth that can affect the developing fetus in numerous ways that do not become evident till years later. And of particular significance for policy, he shows that the threats to fetal development are considerably greater for the poor, thus converting their social and economic conditions into biological effects with dire consequences for their long term health and cognitive abilities." —Bill Tucker, Rutgers University

Genes aren't destiny. That's the message conveyed by Dan Agin in his new book, More than Genes. Agin argues that the prenatal environment plays as large a role as the genome in shaping who we are and what we are able to achieve. Brain function and behavior are the two aspects of human development most at risk from aberrations of that environment. He reviews the sad history of lead's impact on intelligence and behavioral disorders, and what we have learned from the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. He discusses the more contemporary threats such as endocrine disruptors, and the links between poverty and diminished intellectual potential as well. For those who still remain unaware of how our cavalier attitudes toward environmental pollution have harmed society, Agin's book should awaken their indignation at the forces that allowed it to happen. —Bernard Weiss, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

"It has become a cliché to say that our genes always interact with our environment to produce who we are. Dan Agin takes three giant steps beyond the cliché. First, he reveals the importance of the fetal environment.
Second, he actually traces the web of interactions for the general reader.
Third, he shows how easily the web is altered by environmental toxins, even in minute quantities. More than Genes is fascinating and frightening at the same time." —David Sloan Wilson, Binghamton University; author of Evolution for Everyone

"A provocative compilation of ideas substantiated by academic papers..." — DOODY'S

Publishers Weekly
According to Agin, a molecular geneticist at the University of Chicago (Junk Science), a “silent pandemic” is causing untold damage to babies while they are in the womb. Toxic chemicals in the environment are assaulting developing fetuses, as are substances (such as alcohol and nicotine) ingested by pregnant women and capable of dramatically altering developmental pathways. According to Agin, the role of the intrauterine environment has largely been ignored by scientists who look to genes and a child's postbirth environment to explain behavior issues, mental illness and IQ. He demonstrates, too, that all the fuss about race and IQ is meaningless because the prenatal environment may have a huge role in determining intelligence. Agin is at his most powerful in the final chapter, in which he argues that without good prenatal care, poverty “readily transforms into an inherited disease.” Agin marshals the scientific data to build an impressive case for his perspective, particularly regarding developmental problems in American babies compared with those in the rest of the world—it is frightening and deserves widespread attention. (Nov.)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780195381504
Publisher:
Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
11/02/2009
Pages:
416
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

Dan Agin is Emeritus Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Chicago. The author of Junk Science: How Politicians, Corporations, and Other Hucksters Betray Us, he writes a column on science and politics for The Huffington Post.

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