Sunday, October 26, 2008

Americans' political philosophy to be affected by the obesity epidemic?

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist, has written an intriguing article that connects several dots, creates what she thinks may be a pattern, and asks whether hormonal changes brought about by the fat in an ever-increasing proportion of the population might create a political change in America sometime in about 20 years or so.

The dots? First,
according to a report published last month in the journal Science, strong political views are correlated with distinct physiological responses to startling noises and threatening images. Specifically, the study found that people who support warrantless searches, wiretapping, military spending and so on were also likely to startle at sudden noises and threatening images. Those who support foreign aid, immigration, gun control and the like tended to have much milder responses to the stimuli. (The study only included people who described themselves as having strong political opinions; the physiology of apathy has not been looked at.)
Second, in non-human animals, "the way an individual responds to threat is part of its personality."

Third, "if response to threat is a part of personality, what determines personality?"
Genes play a role. But they are not the whole story. In many animals, personality is also strongly influenced by the early environment. For example, . . . [i]n rats, mice, gerbils and ferrets — all of which have several offspring in each litter — a pup’s position in the uterus will have a lasting effect on its personality. A female mouse who was between two females will be more docile than a female who was between two males. She will also be more attractive to males. Similarly, a male mouse who finds himself between two females will have a higher sex drive than a male who was between two other males. He will also be less likely to help look after the pups, and he’ll have a stronger preference for sweet food. Here again, the reason is hormones. Developing fetuses give them off, so the neighborhood an embryo finds itself in affects which hormones it gets exposed to while it is growing.
Fourth, "Other fetuses aren’t the only source of hormones. The mother is, too."

Fifth, "Human fetuses are also affected by hormones. Indeed, evidence is mounting that humans are affected in much the same way that other animals are. Exposure to estrogen and testosterone affects behavior in adults. And children whose mothers were stressed during pregnancy often have learning problems, and may be more prone to anxiety."

Sixth, "Obese women have different hormonal profiles from women of normal weight. This is, in part, because fat cells themselves release hormones. Some of these affect appetite control and metabolism; others affect blood pressure. Fat cells also release estradiol, a form of estrogen. So when an obese woman becomes pregnant, her fetus is exposed to various 'fat' hormones."

And, then, finally, the conclusion:
In the United States, the obesity epidemic began about 30 years ago. We are now at a point where one third of all pregnant women are obese. Their children will be voting in about 20 years’ time. If an 'obese' environment in the womb has an impact on aspects of personality that affect political views, we may soon be seeing a big shift in the body politic.
Additional references to various scientific papers and studies may be found on the New York Times page on which Judson's paper is featured.

Despite the scientific aura that surrounds Judson's opinion piece, let me encourage you (as always) to read the comments that follow.

I particularly like Elizabeth's counterpoint:
This is the most irresponsible use of biological reductionism I’ve ever seen. It’s just a way of linking two of the author’s prejudices together in a way that penalizes fat people yet again.

Forget the ridiculous idea that fat people make Republicans. It’s far more likely that Republicans make fat people. With their constant stream of subsidies to large scale industrial agriculture, and their refusal to subsidize the production of fruits and vegetables instead of grains, corn, and high-fat meats like beef, the Republicans have created an economic system that makes people obese.

That’s the real criticism that should be made, and it doesn’t take any illogical pseudo-science to arrive at it.
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