We saw how Dr. James V. Neel’s thrifty gene hypothesis led to much speculation and inspired other researchers to rethink some of their ideas, and also how the theory gained unsavory political dimensions.
Neel’s original ideas were upheld by nutritionist Andrew Prentice, who wrote a lively response to the “drifty gene hypothesis” proposed by biologist John Speakman which, among other things, did not see obesity as having any selective advantage, ever. Their competing arguments were published together in the International Journal of Obesity in November 2008. There have been at least four “waves” of genome-wide studies concentrating on obesity, so it’s not as if the idea of genetic responsibility is absurd.
So, the “drifty gene hypothesis” drew some attention, and at the same time, the “thrifty phenotype” idea also sounded likely. Type II diabetes grew more prevalent and revealed that multiple genes and body systems are involved in the disease.
Childhood obesity points the way
An article by Robert H. Lustig, M.D., and Ram Weiss, M.D., noted that the association between obesity and genetics stemmed from two distinct lines of investigation, “the discoveries of monogenic disorders of the energy balance pathway […] and studies of specific racial and ethnic groups, in which obesity seems to segregate…,” and went on to say,
These observations are combined with an attractive theory on the natural selection of individuals in response to drastic environmental/ecologic pressure (i.e., famine), termed the thrifty gene hypothesis, to yield a very strong driving force for the elucidation of specific genetic loci in the pathogenesis of obesity. However, the rapid timescale of the increased prevalence of childhood obesity cannot possibly reflect a population genetic change. Therefore, the current model is that obesity is a result of gene-environment interactions…
Although widely contested, the thrifty gene concept has refused to lie down and die. Its 80-year history was traced in a thesis written earlier this year by Grayson James Hughes of the University of Arizona, who found that although the thrifty gene hypothesis does not exactly align with what has since been discovered about type II diabetes, the theory has nevertheless provided important insights, and informed many aspects of research into the disease. He says,
The review ends with the more promising idea of the thrifty phenotype, originally proposed by Barker and Hales and with the increased levels of type II diabetes still present in modern society… New avenues of research into childhood environment showed evidence for a thrifty phenotype hypothesis that has garnered more evidence and support in recent years.
Only three months ago a thesis paper was published with the title, “Immorality of the Thrifty Gene: moral and epistemic applications of genetic paleofantasies in weight-focused behavioral therapy.” Author Ana Lucia Battaglino is very interested in how weight-management medicine specialists think about such controversial topics as natural hunger, metabolic homeostasis, and human evolution “in a clinical approach to behavioral intervention called Acceptance-based Behavioral Therapy (ABT).” She asks,
How do clinicians teach patients to respond to their “thrifty genes,” or the human body’s genetic tendency towards fat accumulation? What affective relationships to food, eating, and the human body are invoked by the practices of medically supervised weight loss?
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “The Metabolic Syndrome at the Beginning of the XXI Century,” ScienceDirect.com, 2005
Source: “Disorders of Energy Balance,” ScienceDirect.com, 2008
Source: “The Thrifty Gene Hypotheses: A Total Review,” Arizona.edu, 2022
Source: “Immorality of the Thrifty Gene,” UChicago.edu, 08/23/22
Image by Oak Ridge National Laboratory/CC BY 2.0