For a Kinder, Gentler Society
The Missing Gene:
Psychiatry, Heredity, and the Fruitless Search for Genes
  • Jay Joseph
Reviews Table of Contents Introduction «Back
The Missing Gene:. Psychiatry, Heredity, and the Fruitless Search for Genes
Sound Bite
Genetic research in psychiatry has reached the crisis stage due to the continuing failure to identify the genes presumed to “cause” many of today’s most troubling mental disorders. Dr. Joseph presents a clearly argued explanation for this failure, and warns that by focusing on the wrong goal, precious resources are diverted from the search for real causes and treatments.

About the Author

Jay Joseph, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. Since 1998, his articles on genetic research in psychiatry and psychology have appeared in journals such as Developmental Review, The American Journal of Psychology; Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs; Politics and the Life Sciences; The Journal of Mind and Behavior Psychiatric Quarterly; New Ideas in Psychology; and Ethical Human Sciences and Services. He is currently an Associate Editor of Ethical Human Sciences and Services, and an Assessing Editor of The Journal of Mind and Behavior.

About the Book

Genetic research in psychiatry has reached the crisis stage due to the continuing failure to identify the genes presumed to “cause” many of today’s most troubling mental disorders.

Dr. Joseph presents a...

Genetic research in psychiatry has reached the crisis stage due to the continuing failure to identify the genes presumed to “cause” many of today’s most troubling mental disorders.

Dr. Joseph presents a clearly argued explanation for this failure, and warns that by focusing on the wrong goal, precious resources are diverted from the search for real causes and treatments.

We were supposed to have discovered “the genes that cause mental disorders” by now; but we have not. Unfortunately, researchers and reviewers almost never consider the possibility that genes for the major psychiatric conditions have not been identified for one insuperable reason: they do not exist. At bottom, the search for genes in psychiatry is based on the uncritical acceptance of the results of family, twin, and adoption studies. Professionals, students, and the public must be informed that these studies do not provide scientifically acceptable evidence in support of genetics.

What causes psychological distress? Are we shaped primarily by our environment, or by our genes? These very old questions remain controversial. Quantitative genetic tests such as family, twin, and adoption studies have laid the foundations for the current worldwide effort to identify the genes presumed to underlie psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, autism, and so on.

This book argues that molecular genetic researchers take a hard second look at these foundations, which are far weaker than they believe. This book is urgently needed. The results of genetic research have a profound effect on both scientific and public thinking, and on social policy decisions. This book presents an alternative view to the one that currently dominates psychiatry and psychology. The author calls for a paradigm shift in psychiatry away from genetic explanations of mental disorders, and towards a greater understanding of how family, social, and political environments contribute to human psychological distress.

This book is destined to play an important role in this shift. Like The Gene Illusion, it will be a controversial book and is sure to spark intense discussion.


Preface

Jay Joseph’s book represents a rare achievement. Chapter after chapter of impeccable scholarship lead readers through the most detailed critical examination to date of the assumptions, methods, and conclusions of the field of...

Jay Joseph’s book represents a rare achievement. Chapter after chapter of impeccable scholarship lead readers through the most detailed critical examination to date of the assumptions, methods, and conclusions of the field of psychiatric genetics. This is no small feat, given that belief in the genetic origins of mental disorders is one of the most enduring and fervently held among mental health professionals as well as laypersons; and given that a prodigious quantity of studies purporting to demonstrate genetic influences on schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD have appeared over the last half century and more.

The book also serves as an exemplar for critical analysis: studies and methods are scrutinized logically, and the ethical, ideological, and political undercurrents of the whole field are also described. And all of it in plain English! Throughout its pages, part critical analysis and part cultural history, Joseph’s scholarship never ceases to impress, and his unearthing of inconsistencies, contradictions, and fabrications in the writings of some of the field’s leaders makes for fascinating, though at times embarrassing, reading. I felt that all graduate students in the health sciences should read this book if only to understand the topics of conceiving and evaluating scientific studies, especially the fundamental topic of what is needed to reject a null hypothesis.

But there is of course much more to this book. After reading it, I am convinced that progress in psychiatric genetics can only occur if researchers in this field are compelled, either by their sponsors or by their own scientific integrity, to read and try to refute Jay Joseph’s charge that such profound errors and biases — in design, measurement, interpretation, and reporting — pervade all the foundational twin and adoption studies that we must take seriously his conclusion that genes for psychiatric disorders are unlikely to exist. And, until researchers and apologists publicly tackle all the elements of Joseph’s critique, the reasonable conclusion must be that psychiatric genetics is, through and through, a scientistic, not a scientific enterprise. How else to explain that, with zero direct evidence of genetic influences despite decades of intensive search and with countless failed predictions, the field of psychiatric genetics appears unable to consider that its primary hypotheses may be wrong, or that it simply repeats, mantra style, that the disorders in question are more “complex” than originally anticipated and that future discoveries will confirm this?

Joseph’s relentless deconstruction obviously stands in stark contrast to authoritative textbook accounts of a field that has absorbed the energies of thousands of researchers and spent hundreds of millions of dollars, that is commonly seen as standing on the cutting edge of bioscientific research. And therein lies precisely the value of close and painstaking examinations of evidence that this book offers and that are, sadly, rarely undertaken nowadays. Researchers, clinicians, and students increasingly rely on biased, incomplete secondary sources or renowned scientific personalities to inform themselves on the “science” of psychiatric genetics. And what do these sources tell them? As Joseph documents, quote after authoritative quote repeats or even augments the same errors, all the while citing original studies which have obviously not been consulted. And when an unusual textbook author appears to have been curious enough to read the original reports, even gross biases or errors in these reports are almost never discussed. This way, for example, the identical twin concordance rate for “schizophrenia” continues, religiously, to be reported as 50% or higher when from the less biased studies one should report a 20-22% range.

Joseph’s book illustrates that the conduct of science rests on fragile pillars, continually swayed by strong forces encouraging the preservation of error, bias, and prejudice, rather than the critical examination of received wisdom. Philosopher of science Karl Popper taught that scientific knowledge progresses when scientists devise tests to refute their cherished assumptions, not when they seek confirmatory evidence of their views. From that insightful perspective, critics, often accused of wasting precious resources or “confusing the public,” in contrast to the selfless scientists who “seek to alleviate human suffering,” represent the guarantors of progress when scientific inquiry has stultified understanding. Indeed, Joseph’s illuminating historical chapters on pellagra and polio, and up-to- the-minute chapter on autism, illustrate how the “genetic disorder” concept is likely delaying discovery of the true causes of a condition at the cost of unnecessary suffering. Autism may be the most “biological” of all disorders diagnosed by psychiatrists. Yet, the sway of flawed twin studies — with their discredited assumption that identical and fraternal twins experience similar environments — remains so powerful that, rather than search actively for likely biological environmental factors that would render any possible genetic influence virtually irrelevant, researchers persist on calling autism a “highly heritable genetic disorder.”

As Joseph demonstrates, “Never in the recent history of psychiatry have so many definitive claims been made in support of genetics, in the face of so little evidence, as in the case of autism.” Indeed, after reading this book it is difficult not to substitute a large list of disorders for “autism” in the preceding sentence and still retain its accuracy.

In 1979, in a small classic entitled From Genesis to Genocide, Stephan Chorover argued that theories of human nature and human behavior are very much linked to the control of human behavior. This theme also runs through Jay Joseph’s book. He shows that, hard as some leading psychiatric genetic researchers today try to ignore, distort, and misrepresent the origins and implications of their discipline — eugenics and “racial hygiene” — the removal of undesirable persons, not the alleviation of suffering, has always been a goal of the psychiatric genetics field. Cutting through the hype of hyperbolic statements and promises of the “genomic era” for the “understanding and treatment of mental disorders,” Joseph’s sober account compels us to reconsider afresh just what possible use would be the knowledge on “genetic influence” that researchers are trying so hard, but still failing, to generate? On balance, it is impossible to deny that the impact of the field of psychiatric genetics has been overwhelmingly negative. What precise future does this field promise to us and our descendants?

In our age, when the boundaries between science and marketing have been blurred almost beyond recognition, Jay Joseph has produced a first-rate scientific work and performed an invaluable public service.

David Cohen, PhD
July 17, 2005


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Pages 332
Year: 2005
LC Classification: RC455.4.G4J675
Dewey code: 616.89'042—dc22
BISAC: PSY018000
BISAC: MED107000
BISAC: SCI029000
Soft Cover
ISBN: 978-0-87586-410-5
Price: USD 26.95
Hard Cover
ISBN: 978-0-87586-411-2
Price: USD 34.95
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ISBN: 978-0-87586-412-9
Price: USD 26.95
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