The Social Life of Genes


Today I was on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show talking about “The Social Life of Genes,” a feature I wrote that will appear appeared in Pacific Standard’s Sept/Oct issue.  

Day by day, week by week, your genes are in a conversation with your social world. Your neighbors, your friends, your family: They don’t just get under your skin, they get into the control rooms of your cells.

It’s in print issues now en route to newsstands and mailboxes, and will be  online on September 3, 2013. It has killer bees, mass kidnappings, a fish that thinks he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, and yet more evidence that you need to forget about nature-versus-nurture and genes-versus-environment and focus on the conversation between the two. That conversation is happening in you, right now. It’s called gene expression. It’s listening particularly closely to what your social life (and you) say about the world.

You can listen to the segment on the Leonard Lopate show here:

Or link to it here:

Cover story at Pacific Standard :

5 responses

  1. David, greetings from a native son of Vermont now located in California. I’ve just finished reading your fascinating article, “The Social Life of Genes.” As a psychologist and contemporary psychoanalyst (non-Freudian), I find the conclusions regarding social isolation to be entirely consistent with my experience as a psychotherapist. Neglect generates a distinct set of problems for a developing child, problems that differ significantly from those of the abused or abused and neglected child. Thank you for bringing attention in this compelling way to the effects of social isolation and neglect. And for the paragraphs at the end that assert how we can use our awareness and behavior to influence and even transform our subjective experience and immunologic health.

  2. David, I just finished reading this fascinating and very well-written piece in my hard copy of PS. I’ve been tracking some of the subtler gene expression/epigenetics work via the good folks at The Nature Institute for years (they tend to stress the rich environment, almost ecosystem, of inter-related communication and effect that appears to drive gene expression; they like to see it as a “dance,” actually citing journal papers that use that word as well in seeking a relevant metaphor). Your article, taking us into a few key labs and recent studies, grounded all that for me in a rich way.

    Also, some of my recent work has involved the very different responses of wind farm neighbors, in dealing with the new noise in their local soundscape; some (small but non-trivial) proportion of those who find the noise displeasing experience a diverse range of acute physical ailments, and/or worsening or new appearance of chronic health issues. This has largely been chalked up to stress (and/or sleep disruption), with some suggesting direct effects due to an unusual sensitivity to infrasound, and others laying the whole of the problems on a “nocebo” effect (ie negative expectations), thus dismissing the issue altogether. But your piece opens a seemingly fruitful door for investigation: there is also a strong element of feeling socially wronged, excluded, ignored, etc. by others in their community. An aspect that may be different than the primarily “isolated” nature of the worst-hit people in the studies you mentioned is the frequent existence of a sub-community of people who share their experiences of negative health effects; I wonder whether there may be a way such reinforcement of negative experience plays into it (a sort of communal reinforcement of the attitudinal piece evoked in the final bit of your conversation over sushi). All that said, the sleep disruption and quality of life impacts triggered by the noise source are not really at question here; but the reasons that some more sensitive subset of population may slide into more acute health effects may well be related to the forces you describe–leading to busy attack dogs with broken leashes.

    Clearly, this could well be the case for many public health issues; I’d be curious to hear of other previous or ongoing studies of these short-term epigenetic factors in health outcomes related to any other triggers. The asthma and HIV studies begin to get at it, but adding the gene expression element via microarray gene expression assays is where it really gets juicy–perhaps Cole’s lit review is the place to start? Any other suggestions are most welcome!

    • Jim, a good place to start is a review Cole wrote in 2009, “Social Regulation of Human Gene Expression,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, v 18, no 3, pp 132-137. It obviously doesn’t cover studies after that, but is the best single overview. You can download a copy at

      Thanks for your note. Your idea that some of the stress shown in the windfarm case might rise from a feeling of being socially wrong, rather than only the noise etc., and thus a feeling of being excluded. I’ve wondered the same thing myself about the millions in the U.S. who have no health insurance or inadequate health insurance. The feeling is of being thrown off a lifeboat. (A very expensive lifeboat.)

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