Thursday, 25 February 2016

Open Letter to Stephen Fry, from Richard Bentall

You may remember Professor Richard Bentall fascinated us all with a research seminar last year - you may be interested in reading an open letter Professor Bentall has sent to Stephen Fry in response to his exploration of manic depression (in the current BBC series on mental health 'In the Mind'). You can find the letter here: 

1 comment:

  1. Bentall's point is well made but I fear it might simply polarize the situation further. Here's what I think when I hear that multiple genes are involved and are represented widely in the population:

    1) The trait is possibly mischaracterised - something Bentall argues for re schizophrenia;
    2) Genes perpetuated in a population are quite likely to be there for reasons of positive selection; hence there are fitness utilities attached;
    3) Many of the genes could be there due to genetic drift, but have critically not been selected against.

    Very few traits are single gene affairs. Huntingdon's disease is associated with triplet replication (CAG repeats on Hp16 if I remember correctly), leading to neurotoxic effects. Complex behavioural phenotypes that don't directly kill you are unlikely to ever be caused like this - polygenic is the case. Finding multiple genes are involved is not without use as it tells you a lot about the population biology.

    But the main thing I think, when I read Bentall is biology is not as he characterizes it. Biologists are interested in a complex set of hierarchically structured systems that calibrate organisms to different aspects of their ecology and at different stages in life history. Genes are essential parts of this story, and key parameter setters that permit evolutionary dynamics; but the kinds of traits he is interested in are always going to involve high level calibration and plastic behavioural repertoires. That an organisms responds to a consistent environment - a stressful, or abusive one for example - in any way, never mind a consistent manner, is indicative of a biological response by definition. Social behaviour is a biological response, etc.

    So, in making arguments about crass drug interventions - and I share his concerns here - Bentall is not really criticizing biological explanations, just hasty work.