Epigenetic Effects of Malnutrition?

Some years ago, I heard a tale of prison violence. Or rather, I heard of a prison that become much less violent after a seemingly trivial change: a more nutritious diet.

My first thought was that this seemed counterintuitive. I would have guessed that better nourished people are much more capable of being violent. So clearly there was an important principle at work that I had failed to understand.
Why would better food suddenly and dramatically cause a bunch of people with histories of violence to be less violent than before? Why with all these people crammed together, sharing the same space, would their habits ever change?

I think this problem must have simmered on a very far back burner until I started reading about epigenetics, the way environmental circumstances change how genes are expressed. I kept reading about all these creatures that undergo abrupt changes based on what is going on around them. Alpha males of various species go through visible physical changes to signal dominance as soon as they assume power. Certain hermaphroditic species change gender in response to their reproductive needs.

So why ought not human gene expression also be highly dependent on the circumstances of the environment? Surely this might explain the dramatic changes in behavior such as a sudden decrease in patterns of violent behavior.

After thinking about it a bit, I started to perceive patterns that seemed to make a lot more sense.

-What does a properly nourished person gain from behaving violently towards other people? Very little in proportion to the risks involved. Thus one might expect their body to shift hormones and activate instinctive protocols to discourage violence.

-If malnourished, perhaps the body perceives the threat of scarcity and starvation. Hormonal profile changes to encourage violent, selfish behavior. Instincts drive the individual to competition before cooperation.

Though few people actually starve in industrialized societies, millions starve for quality nutrients. Like a thirsty shipwreck survivor surrounded by ocean water, 1st world citizens often binge on empty calories only to find their cravings remain unabated.
Even in the midst of abundance, then, might their bodies perceive scarcity and shift survival strategy accordingly?
Might this help explain the seemingly illogical aggressive zero sum behavior that has become prevalent in industrialized nations?

When elderly people describe a more benevolent world in their youth, have they fallen victim to wishful nostalgia as we so often assume, or do they perceive very real epigenetic differences in the population?

Another thought in this vein: I’ve long been fascinated by the Weston A. Price foundation.
This is not to say I believe in or follow everything they say any more than I do a doctor’s advice just because of his big shot credentials…
But this organization’s analysis of diet, nutrition, and its link to the nature of human societies makes by far the most sense. The ever changing “food pyramid” promoted by “official” sources and the diet “plans” of profiteering health gurus are sad jokes in comparison to these people’s insights.

In their materials they make some important connections between malnutrition early in life and later developments.
It is already well known that children that are starved early on experience stunted growth, both physically and mentally.
But since Weston A. Price was a dentist, he looked at people’s teeth wherever in the world he went. He found that poorly formed teeth and facial structure had a high correlation with the prevalence of modern industrial diets, especially those in which children were deprived of vitamin A rich foods.

This really flipped a switch in my head: I’d grown up surrounded by kids with braces and retainers. It had always been just normal that some people genetically had bad teeth and mouths. No one thought about it.

Yet another aspect of my birth society was turned upside down when I realized that in fact the commonality of crooked teeth might not be normal, but an indicator of malnutrition on a societal, institutional level.
In my time teaching English in South Korea, I quickly saw why there is a prevalent stereotype of nearsighted, bucktoothed Asians. Because it’s true.
Their cuisine includes virtually no foods with vitamin A(Westerners at least have dairy) and both poor bone formation and poor eyesight are classic symptoms of vitamin A deficiency during childhood. Not only did my Korean students have crooked teeth, I’d roughly estimate about a quarter to a third of them were already wearing glasses before the age of 11. And I couldn’t tell how many were wearing contacts.

My point here: If childhood vitamin deficiency has permanent effects on the human body, might it also have permanent effects on an individual’s epigenetically determined behavioral predispositions. If so, might we have a better understanding why agricultural societies that rely on just a few monotonous or nutritionally incomplete staple foods tend to be tumultuous, violent, and selfish far beyond any level that makes sense?
In societies where even kings and millionaires might in some ways be malnourished, might they in part be acting out an instinctual protocol meant for conditions of scarcity?
If the bodies and subconscious instincts of most people perceived abundance, would rates of violence plummet just as in prisons and society as a whole become more cooperative in nature?

A final, and unpleasant speculation for this post:
Might people’s instinctual unfavorable reactions to ‘ugly’ people with poorly formed facial features and teeth go beyond reproductive strategy? Might it also be an inborn defense measure against those who are most likely to be predisposed to desperate measures?

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8 responses to “Epigenetic Effects of Malnutrition?

  1. If the body perceives the threat of starvation and becomes aggressive, the prison study indicates that malnourishment itself might be the cause…that nutritional deficiencies physically cause parts of the brain to become less cooperative, right?

    So if a society were to magically become better nourished, has permanent damage already been done by passing down these aggressive genes? Maybe our obese, grease-and-sugar addicted population sort of feeds on itself, causing more violence, more depression, and a generally dysfunctional culture, including (and maybe especially) its leaders.

    I know people who are very careful about what they eat, but it hasn’t made them any smarter, just more self-righteous.

  2. I hardly suppose better food would solve all the world’s problems. At least as much human ambition and aggression is inspired by our reproductive drives. But what if we’re talking a 20-30% decrease of the incidence of certain problems as the prison studies suggest? That’s nothing less than world changing.

    Self-righteous eaters aren’t necessarily healthy. Many of them actively embrace toxic soy byproducts, precisely the stuff that is replacing real food and are very likely abstain from healthy fats. They eat pretty much all the same stuff junk foods are made of, just processed into a form that appeals to their particular demographic.

    Even if a homicidal maniac held in prison becomes 30% less violent, he might still be much more violent than members of the general population. Thus a pretentious person on an improved diet might seem no more agreeable than before.
    The change might not be obvious until you have a large enough sample size.
    Though, my own anecdotal experience does suggest that people who live off of junk food have a distinct appearance(inflamed and puffy) and are indeed more likely to be aggressive, suspicious, and cruel.

    You make a great point to suppose that perhaps humans are genetically programmed to be destructive and uncooperative because of generations of scarcity in which the ruthless were most successful.
    However, societies that become too internally competitive are in danger of being displaced by their more cohesive neighbors. For example: people from cultures that are family oriented, socially conservative, and cooperative who immigrate to wealthy, competition-oriented Western nations. It’s rapidly becoming clear that these people are the future.

    It best makes sense to me if nearly all of us will cooperate or defect based on the circumstances. Consider how even breeds of dog meant specifically for attack can be raised to be sweet natured pets if they’re fed and treated well. They have no reason to develop the aggression that’s in their genes if all their survival needs are properly met.

  3. “Might this help explain the seemingly illogical aggressive zero sum behavior that has become prevalent in industrialized nations?”

    Among blacks.

    Compare OWS mob with post-Katrina New Orleans mob.

    And who, by a grossly wide margin, predominates in prisons?

    Looks like you’re missing a major variable in all your keen analysis. Will you have the balls to account for it?

  4. *Al Gore sigh*
    Do you really think an internet tough guy persona and macho nacho shaming language is going to help you make a point?

    Wouldn’t it be more apt to compare the Japanese tsunami to Hurricane Katrina?

    I really get the impression you came here and decided what the entirety of my views were based on a single most recent post.

    I’ve addressed IQ differences between races and racial differences in other posts, the last few posts even.
    I’ve even considered the genetic differences between different generations of the same race.
    However,
    I don’t go out of my way to be obsessed with race alone. There’s other major variables at work. To be consumed by one issue is to be blinded.

    If that’s the only thing you’re interested in, there’s plenty of sites that focus predominantly on that topic.

  5. “Wouldn’t it be more apt to compare the Japanese tsunami to Hurricane Katrina?”

    I dunno. Did Japs go looting in the tsunami’s wake? I didn’t hear anything. Don’t mind me though; just trying to a score point for our own, if you won’t. Lumping us all together as “violent” may fly at uni, but I hold you, my man, to a much higher standard!

    Disregard the other comment — I didn’t see your earlier mention of Price by name. My mistake.

    • You wanted a peaceful and orderly response to a natural disaster to contrast with the mayhem and looting that followed Katrina, right?

      I was pointing out that the aftermath of the tsunami fits your analogy much better than Occupy.

      I know you’re pointing out that the violence after Katrina was disproportionately, or even predominantly black.

      Perhaps I will start holding you to a higher standard.
      You talk about black people in a post about general populations. Why? What relevant point are you trying to make?
      I expect your comments here to be on topic.
      And I want substance. Don’t spam my posts with a one-liner like you did in the slave-driver article.

      If you must, you might choose to read race into my analogy with the attack dog in this article. I shouldn’t have to point these things out.

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