For as long as we’ve known about genomes, we’ve been trying to link just about everything we do to a certain sequence of nucleobases, often with mixed results. But even though the most our genes can offer us are an incomplete, basic idea of what may be going on with our bodies and clues about their evolutionary history, it’s not discouraging some researchers into looking at genetic differences in different cultures. For example, what could be the role of OXTR, a gene that acts as a receptor for neurotransmitters triggered by social interaction, in a more formal and tight lipped Korean culture, vs. how it plays out in the behavior of more vent and gossip- tolerant Americans? Since the G variety of OXTR generally tends to be associated with deeper social bonding, if a culture tends to clam up, one would think the people who live in it have fewer versions of this gene, right?
Well, not really, if you go by a recent survey published in PNAS. It’s not that there’s a shortage of the G variety of the OXTR gene, but it’s that those with the G type that tend to be the most hesitant to talk about problems or seek help in Korea, while Americans with the same gene type tended to be more open and willing to consult others. The explanation for the finding is that since the Korean culture is more formal and reserved, opening up could be taken a sign of weakness or a lack of good social graces, hence those who want help suppress their natural urges to open up to others. When that restriction is removed, the G types will happily talk about a vexing problem with family and friends. So what exactly did the study find that was new or surprising? It would seem like a survey confirming the obvious, just with a little genetics inserted into it for good measure. But the study’s write-ups are boasting that it’s actually looking at how genetics and culture interact. Take the reaction of neuroscientist Joan Chao about the survey’s implications…
“This [study] is breaking new ground. It’s one of the first to show that cultural norms themselves are environmental factors that interact with genes. That brings together two branches of science that have a long history of separation. We’re making really important and concrete steps toward bridging [gaps between] culture and biological sciences. That’s going to ultimately pay off in our understanding of physical and mental health factors that we all care about.”
Um, far be it from me to heckle the Dr. Chao, but how exactly does this study determine that culture interacts with genomes? If it did, wouldn’t we expect to find the less social A variant of OXTR in Koreans? It anything, it just shows that people who tend to be most concerned about social bonding in a culture which limits it, try to adhere as closely as possible to the dictated norm. The culture itself has no visible effect on the genomes or gene expression, it simply shows how it affects those who are naturally more social, and how some ideas of how we should interact are at odds with our evolutionary and biological inclinations. Why Dr. Chao would say that we now have proof that culture is mutagenic, I don’t know. Sure, culture could influence long-term genetic trends by dictating the rules for reproduction, as it has done for thousands and thousands of years, but that’s something we already knew and study quite extensively. This survey adds practically nothing to what we know about a culture’s effects on those who live by its customs, and declaring otherwise seems to stretch credulity quite a bit more than I’d feel is warranted considering its results.