Ah, the Chopra simply won’t leave me alone. This tw**t to me was sent by a friend:
At first I just laughed at Chopra’s hysterical pleas for me to read his stuff. And I vowed not to do it. “Self directed biological transformation”? What is that? But then curiosity got the better of me, and I read the damn piece, but for the same reason that you sniff the milk in the fridge though you already know it’s gone sour. And, sure enough, Chopra’s milk was bad.
The piece is dreadful and dire, requiring doses of Pepto-Bismol to get it down. It’s so full of misrepresentations, bad science, and feel-good woo that it completely belies Chopra’s claim that he’s promoting real science. And it shows that “scientific credentials” mean nothing when you’ve been corrupted by the cash that rains upon you when you push woo and pseudoscience.
What mystifies me is that this article is co-written with Rudolph Tanzi, a neuroscientist at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital, described in the article as “Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit and Vice-Chair of the Department of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. Co author with Deepak Chopra, Super Brain.” Why would a respectable scientist lend his name to such twaddle?
Okay, on to the critique. And if you’re reading this, Deepak, be informed that I am not going to read anything you write any more, ever. So stop tweeting me to read your pieces, and read this one. Fair is fair. As you said in your apology video to Dawkins two years ago, “I’m 65 years old, and I need at this time to listen to my worst critics without being personally offended.”
The misrepresentation starts with the title, “You will transform your own biology.” (I’m not going to link to it as these people don’t deserve the hits. If you wish to read it, see the link it Chopra’s post.) That’s a deepity, for of course we know that “you” (i.e., your unique genetic endowment and environments you experience) can transform your biology. If you eat a lot, you’ll get fat, and maybe sick. If you work out with weights, you’ll get stronger muscles. And if you’re subjected to the pseudoscience of Chopra on a daily basis, you may be thrown into a permanent state of rage and despair.
But that’s not what Chopra and Tanzi mean. One thing that can’t happen, but is implied by the authors as the New Paradigm, is that your thoughts can influence your biology. If you’re a determinist, which most of us are, then your “thoughts” are themselves the inevitable consequences of your genes and environment—your biology—and can’t be willed independently of those factors. We have no real “choice,” in the dualistic sense, about what we think and do. So if you get calmer because you do yoga, that decision came purely from your biology, not from a little homunculus who says, “Do yoga”. (Of course I realize the meditation can have positive effects on your body!) Chopra is a dualist who believes in libertarian free will, which of course violates everything we know about science.
So one on level the claim that we can influence our biology is trivial and well known. How we behave, or what we hear, can surely transform our “biology”. But those transformations are the result of the interaction of our biology and environments, and cannot involve some “free choice” we make about changing our lives.
But the important message, laid out from the beginning, is that you can transform your own genome, and that’s simply not correct. Here’s how Chopra and Tanzi’s article starts (my emphasis):
To date, one of biology’s greatest achievements, mapping the human genome, is only just beginning to translate into medical advances. But in 2014 there will likely be more headlines about another type of study in genetics that is already impacting everyone.
We are referring to a different aspect of our genome which radically revises a model that is decades old, dating back as far as the original discovery of DNA. In the original model, the effects of our genes were considered to be fixed and unchanging, controlling every aspect of our physical makeup, behavior, and susceptibility to disease. Not just eye color, height, and other physical characteristics were predetermined by inherited genes, but perhaps all kinds of behaviors, from criminality to belief in God.
The new model, however, portrays a more fluid, dynamic genome that responds quickly, even instantly, to all that we experience, including how you think, feel, speak, and act. Every day brings new evidence that the mind-body connection reaches right down to the activities of our genes. How this activity changes in response to our life experiences is referred to as “epigenetics”. Regardless of the nature of the genes we inherit from our parents, dynamic change at this level allows us almost unlimited influence on our fate.
Ummm. . . nope. Certainly the DNA sequence we have is inherited, and doesn’t change over our lifetime except for DNA-coded epigenetic modifications of the sequence (as in “parental imprinting” of genes in males versus females), and perhaps a bit of environmental modification (through changes such as methylation) of DNA bases. None of these alterations, however, are capable of being inherited for more than a generation or two. They can’t produce “evolution” that lasts. We know of not a single adaptive change in the genome that was acquired purely from the environment and can be passed on for generation after generation.
The activity of genes, however, can respond very quickly to changes in our environment: bacteria, for instance, can activate genes to break down sugars within minutes after being exposed to those nutrients. When we’re exposed to an antigen protein, we quickly respond by activating those genes producing antibodies that alert our system to the antigen, often leading to attack and destruction of the invading protein, which can be on a virus, bacterium, or any foreign protein that invades our system (that’s what happens when we have an allergic reaction to pollen, for instance). All this is nothing new. But it’s not “epigenetics” in the sense that Chopra and Tanzi mean, which is “changing the structure of your genome.” It’s not even “epigenetics” in the classical sense, which is simply “development”: how the products of your genes interact with your environment to produce your body.
As for giving us “almost unlimited influence on our fate,” that’s not true, either. That influence is severely constrained by our biology and our environments, and we have no ability to “will” (in the dualistic sense) any changes. Our fates are largely determined far in advance of what “decisions” we make, which are themselves determined. Chopra, who believes in dualism, must of course reject this conclusion. If dynamic change due to environment allowed us almost unlimited influence on our fate, identical twins would be much more different from each other than they are. Their morphological similarity shows that such twins have virtually no biological influence over how they look beyond working out or starving themselves. (Presumably some of them would want to look different.) The environment doesn’t play much of a role here; identical twins reared apart still look nearly identical!
Here’s where Chopra and Tanzi imply that you can change your genes permanently through will power, implying that such changes involve either 1) alterations in gene expression (which cannot be inherited unless they’re coded in the DNA, in which case the change would be evolutionary, requring many generations) or 2) alterations of the DNA due to epigenetic modification. And the latter type of change is not stably inherited. Whichever alternative Chopra and Tanzi mean—and it’s not clear because they confuse DNA change over generations with changes in gene expression in a single generation—they are floating a kind of Lamarckian inheritance. They argue that your own “will” can change the sequence or expression pattern of your DNA; and those changes, which are adaptive, can be inherited. It’s not 100% clear that this is what they’re saying, for the writing is contradictory and incoherent, but that’s how I read this (my emphasis):
This means that control is being given back to each person; we are no longer seen as puppets of our DNA. The human genome is set to be the stage for future evolution that we ourselves direct, making choice an integral part of genetics. This is in stark contrast to the “biology as destiny” view where genes override choice. Unless decisions, lifestyle, environment, and personal preferences are included, a full picture of the mysteries of our DNA cannot be attained.
The speed and extent of change at the genetic level would astonish researchers even a few years ago. Yoga and meditation, for example, can trigger almost immediate responses in genetic activity. Exercise, a balanced diet, good sleep, and stress reduction – all well-known for improving bodily function – exert beneficial effects via our genes. So the next frontier will be to discover how deep and lasting such changes are, how much control we have over them individually, and how they can be passed on to future generations through so-called “soft inheritance,” in which the parents’ life experiences and behavior directly influence the genome of their offspring (transmitted via the epigenome, which controls how the activities of our genes are turned up and down).
Let me repeat: we have virtually no evidence that an individual’s volition, or its environment, can change the DNA in a way that is inherited for more than a generation or two. And almost all these temporarily inherited epigenetic changes are nonadaptive. We can’t make our genomes instantly “better” by changing our behavior.
According to the authors, though, adaptive, inherited changes quickly arise from our mind and emotions. I suspect Chopra, at least, with his belief in dualism, thinks we can “will” these changes in our DNA structure/gene expression. After a lot of bad biology, their narrative immediately degenerates into the usual blather about consciounesness, self-organization, and so on:
Between any two persons’ genomes there are an average of 3 million differences or mutations. The implications for medicine are major. Only 5 % or less of disease-related mutations are fully penetrant, i.e., guaranteeing a disease when inherited. For the remaining 95%, other genes, lifestyle, and environmental influences also determine disease risk. The mind and emotions directly affect gene activity, and since the mind is the source of a person’s lifestyle and behavior, it directs one’s biological transformations. Self-awareness holds the key to this process of self-transformation. Consciousness is invisibly reaching into the biochemistry of every moment of life. In your body, as in every cell, regulation is holistic, self-generated, self-organizing, and self-directed in concert with consciousness.
Well, what we know is that exercise, diet, meditation, and other environmental interventions can change our physiology. Can those activities change our DNA through epigenetic modification of DNA bases? Probably not, and I don’t know of a single case. And can those hypothetical, environmentally-induced changes be inherited? There’s not a shred of evidence for that. Chopra and Tanzi are suggesting Exciting Possibilities that have no scientific underpinning. This hype, not science. And it’s deeply misleading.
So what we have here is simply rotten science: a conflation between DNA structure and gene activity, compounded with scientific misinformation about epigenetics and the inheritance of acquired characteristics. What this article tells us is—nothing. It’s so badly written, so confusing, that I’m not sure the authors even know what they’re trying to say. Or perhaps they’re deliberately obfuscating the issues to overwhelm the public with their expertise, and making them think that humans can direct their own genetic evolution through our own mental activities. There is nothing in this piece that accurately conveys to the layperson what is really happening in the science of gene regulation. It’s all reminiscent of David Dobbs’s confusion (here and here) about gene regulation, evolution, and genetic accommodation.
The authors go on about consciousness, arguing, correctly, that we don’t understand how it works, but implying that there may be some non-material caustion. They wind up with this this call for “research”:
Many millions of dollars are being spent on the connectome, a complete mapping of the brain. But this will not explain how genes and neural circuits work together to bring us consciousness. Brain and genome maps must be aligned with the fullness of human experience, since what you think, say, and do today shapes your genetic future. Nothing less than the equivalent of a “consciousomeproject” will suffice to serve this loftiest of scientific endeavors.
It would help if they gave some examples of how our volition alone can influence our “genetic future,” but they can’t, for the foundation of their thinking is both muddled and wrong. And of course they have no tangible suggestions about how a “consciosomeproject” would proceed.
If we want to permanently transform our genome in a single generation, the best way to do it is through genetic engineering. That will be possible in humans some day, and isn’t far off. What isn’t possible is to change our genomes by thinking about lotus buds or how we want to be smarter or nicer.
The response I would give Chopra, if I ever read Tw**er and responded, would be this:
@Woomeister I read your piece with Tanzi, and it’s pure garbage, compounded with woo and incoherence. Please read my response at wp.me/ppUXF-qxw #Cosmicderp
By the way, the commenters who know science are severely criticizing this garbage, and Tanzi makes the usual response: “We’re misunderstood!” But they’re not. In further comments Tanzi suggests that we can permanently change our genomes through our activities and thoughts. It still puzzles me why a guy like Tanzi would fall for this New Epigenetics Paradigm in the absence of any supporting evidence.
Meanwhile, Chopra is desperate to get Dawkins to read this, too, again flaunting his co-author’s scientific credentials. My advice to Richard: don’t. But he won’t anyway.