A Mental Health Month Special: The Discovery of Fire, the D4-7 Allele, and Survival

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Let’s start off Mental Health Month the same way "2001: A Space Odyssey" did, with the Dawn of Man:

    In 790,000 BC, give or take a year or two, someone, lets call him Og, left the safety of his cave, ventured out into a burning forest, and brought back a flaming souvenir. A perfectly rational act to Og who could foresee the concept of heat and light and barbecue. Totally crazy to everyone else.

    Crazy people tend to think and act differently, much to the dismay of those around us, but often as a boon to humankind. Peter Whybrow in American Mania: When More is Not Enough discusses a variation in the dopamine 4 receptor gene (the D4-7 allele) which has been linked to novelty-seeking. He cites a University of California study linking the D4-7 allele to prehistoric human migration patterns.

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    Says Dr Whybrow, in regard to the risk-taking and curiosity characteristics of novelty-seeking: “Without such qualities of mind those who first walked toward the Bering straights some twenty thousand years ago would never have discovered the American continent.”

    Indeed, in certain South American Indian tribes, there is a preponderance of this gene whereas in the ones who stayed home back on the African Savannah the “normal” version (D4-4) remains prominent. In some parts of Asia, the D4-7 allele does not exist.

    Thus, a picture begins to emerge, albeit a highly speculative one. First, there is no such thing as a “good” gene or a “bad” gene. The D4-7 gene may be linked to the creative and entrepreneurial spirit, but it has also been associated with antisocial behaviors. So, let’s go back to Og, who discovered fire. This being prehistory, there was no one to record the event. A number of things may have occurred:

    • Og brings back the flaming branch. This frightens the crap out of his cave-mates, who bash him over the head with a rock, thus taking Og and his D4-7 allele out of the local gene pool and incidentally delaying the discovery of fire for another 100,000 years.
    • If Og is smart, he drops his flaming branch and flees for his life, never to return. Perhaps he is accorded a better reception in a more distant tribe, where he is afforded the opportunity to pass on his genes. 
    • This time, Og employs the fright of his cave-mates to his advantage, establishes dominance, and uses his alpha male prerogatives to breed the next generation of psychopaths, who fan out in all directions, subduing their neighbors and discovering new hunting grounds. Perhaps they forget all about fire.
    • Or maybe Og succeeds in sharing his vision of heat and light and barbecue with his cave-mates. Wouldn’t that be a happy ending? 

    Regardless of final outcome, over time the D4-7 allele proves too much of a disadvantage. Even marauding tribes eventually settle down and take up pursuits such as farming and crochet. Those with antisocial behavior and other oddballs are ostracized, forced to take up their wandering anew.

    In a book that came out the same year as Peter Whybrow’s, The Hypomanic Advantage, John Gartner makes a strong case for Christopher Columbus and the original settlers as genetic misfits in need of a new place to call home. These are your inventive and entrepreneurial spirits, he argues, the type who in this modern world chafe against the bit, who quit their jobs and start up their own companies.

  • These are also the types who break the law and get arrested.

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    The take home message: Our illness tends to confer the gift of fire. In the right setting, used wisely, we can illuminate the lives of all those around us. But in the final analysis, we are strangers in a strange land. Too often, through no fault of our own, we get badly burnt. We pick up the pieces and move on.

    Moving, always moving ...

Published On: April 30, 2010