What is the cultural purpose of schizophrenia genetics?

July 8, 2009

Autism rights advocates don’t like being perceived as a problem that needs to be solved. Here’s how one blogger feels about the quest for a genetic understanding of schizophrenia:

We don’t ask what the genes are that would cause a soldier in captivity to crack under torture. We don’t ask what the genes are that would shut a prisoners lips, and keep that prisoner from squealing on his or her cohorts, in the face of certain death. We don’t look for genes to explain why most people would burn out on the job, in certain lines of work, given enough stress and pressure. We wouldn’t be seeking the genes behind schizophrenia and bipolar disorder if we didn’t feel somehow that the experience of receiving a psychiatric diagnosis had not pushed a segment of the population a wee bit closer to a lower branch on the evolutionary tree than the rest of humanity.

Here’s what I wrote in the comments to my schizophrenia post:

Schizophrenia and autism are burdensome on [our] society[, which is not set up to integrate them]. It would be nice if publicly funded science could help us alleviate those burdens. When science doesn’t “cooperate,” parents say things that can be interpreted as wishing autism would go away. Scientists are then perceived as agents of that wishing away.

I’m positive something like this accounts for some of the shrill discourse around autism — “damn scientists! parents need help!,” and, “damn scientists! auties are people too!” — and I suspect something similar is at work with schizophrenia, where we also have to make hard decisions about how to treat people suffering from the disease.

What do you think?


4 Responses to “What is the cultural purpose of schizophrenia genetics?”

  1. mindfreedomvirginia Says:

    It may help to separate autism from other psychiatric problems. I can’t really comment on that one. As for schizophrenia, there is the feeling in some quarters that it is a condition from which people can recover, and thus it can cease to be a burden. Reintegrating people into society though requires a community effort, and it can’t be left entirely up to institutions. You have to, for one thing, hire people with sketchy work records, and the Americans with Disabilities Act just isn’t serving some of our citizens the way it might be serving them if it were effectively enforced. Enforcing it would constitute a threat to the mental health ghetto, for one thing, and some people are leery about having that happen. Another way of putting this is–who wants people with problems in their backyard, or what would mental health workers do without clients.

  2. Dina Says:

    I am slightly confused. Is the thought that we should not be pursuing the genetics of mental dysfunction?

  3. JR Minkel Says:

    The thought is, why are some of us hung up on whether we are making progress in the genetics of mental dysfunction?

  4. JR Minkel Says:


    It’s no wonder we science journalists tend to stick to these piddly little research studies as the basis for our stories. David Simon was right. Telling a true story is so hard.

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