Tag Archives: number sense

The Media, Genetic Fatalism, and Why It’s Wrong

This week, three articles came out dealing with genetics. These articles deal with the heart of Shane vs. Genetics–are genetics an end-all. Here are the links:

Two of the articles are referencing the same study, but the articles are portrayed in a similar manner.

First, let’s look at the titles. All three make broad implications simply with their headlines. “Even the Long-Lived…” makes it seem like leading a healthy lifestyle has no bearing on how long someone lives. “104-year Old ‘Super Ager’…” references genetics right in the headline, attributing her old age to her genes. “Study: People May Be…” is talking about math instead, but also links math abilities to genetics. If anyone was to look at just the headlines, or skim the articles, the takeaway would be that genetics is of singular importance.

Now, let’s focus on the old age articles. I am not trying to dispute the study that the articles are based on. In fact, I’m sure there are people out there that lucked out as far as genes go. I don’t doubt that some people’s genetics would allow them to live longer or get away with unhealthy behaviors. Everyone knows one of those people who eats whatever they want and doesn’t exercise, and yet never gains a pound. It’s a fact of life. No, my problem with the articles is that both barely reference the rest of us. The CNN article is devoted to how genetics trumps lifestyle in terms of old age for these people, with one paragraph mentioning off-hand how lifestyle is important for the rest of us. The Time article does a better job discuss limitations to the study and concludes with advice to everyone else, promoting healthy living.

The math article is devoted to an idea of inborn “number sense”, which may or may not relate to math achievement later on. Maybe this is the case, maybe it isn’t. My problem is that the article reduces math abilities down to a genetic issue. There is no nurture side in this article, only nature. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers does a nice job of arguing for other factors in math ability than genetics. Certainly putting in lots of work and making a commitment to learning math can allow one to overcome a lack of “number sense”. It boils down to the same problem as the old age articles. Yes, some people do get genetics that allow them to naturally be better at things. But it doesn’t mean that those who aren’t lucky can’t achieve the same thing.

People are already to willing to write themselves off, trapped by their genetics. Articles like these only provide support for their fatalism. Rarely are there articles about someone beating their genetics. It’s just assumed that they didn’t get the ‘bad’ genes. So here’s an example of someone who did.

Jim Fixx. He’s famous for kick-starting the jogging movement in the 1970’s. Fixx was an overweight magazine editor who quit smoking, started jogging, and lost a lot of weight. He wrote a book called The Complete Book of Running. Fixx died at the age of 52–from a heart attack. This seems like a classic example of bad genetics winning, and it has been drawn up that way before. But that doesn’t look deep enough.

Fixx’s father, Calvin, had a heart attack at 35. Calvin Fixx died from a heart attack at 43. Jim lived to 52. He probably could have lived even longer if he would have seen a cardiologist, something he refused to do. Yes, Jim Fixx died earlier than most people–from the same problems that plagued his father. But he changed his lifestyle at 35, got healthier, and managed to add roughly 9 years to his life.

Genetics can be beat. We just have to start looking at it the right way.

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