Your Lying Eyes

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12 December 2005

Germs Not Genes

Popular notions of genes seem to be somewhat perverse. Things like intelligence and behavior, which in the animal world are rather obviously genetically determined, are assumed to be purely environmental in humans; while diseases such as cancer, which make having lots of ancestors kind of hard, are popularly thought to be genetic. A few years back Greg Cochran, the author of the much discussed paper on the genetic basis of Jewish intelligence, proposed that common fatal diseases will eventually found to be caused by pathogens and not coded in our genes.

A new study has just been published suggesting that childhood cancers may be caused by common viruses such as colds and influenza. The researchers analyzed records going back 60 years and found that childhood cancers tended to cluster in time and place much as one would expect with contagious disease. One of the authors stated that some genetic predisposition would be needed for the infection to turn deadly, but it's not clear why he makes this claim - is it implied by the study's findings or just speculation? "The virus would hit this [pre-existing] mutant cell and cause a second mutation, prompting the onset of cancers like leukemia or brain tumors." It doesn't sound like they've got this part worked out real well, so I presume there's still much more to find out - hopefully this study will lead to funding for more such studies.


Blogger gcochran said...

More exactly, I said that any syndrome that materially reduces reproductive fitness in a lot of people and was around in preindustrial times is probably caused by some pathogen. If doesn't affect many people, or hits them so late in life as to have little effect on fitness, it might be something else. If it's only been around 50 years, it might be caused by some new environmental factor.
Childhood cancer is pretty rare, so it wouldn't absolutely have to be caused by pathogens - but some of it might be. I'd say the idea implies that people need to take pathogens more seriously as possible causes of disease. And in common, nonmodern syndromes that really ding fitness, the likely cause.

December 13, 2005 1:40 AM  
Blogger ziel said...

Thanks for the clarification!

December 13, 2005 8:17 AM  

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