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 ...
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.
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.)
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.
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.