TCD school of genetics, autism & homeopathy

“We thought genetic research was going to change our lives but it has turned out to be a false dawn.”
Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of genetics, University College London.

genes genetics medicine autism

A gene segment

Geneticists Expert on Homeopathy!

Isn’t it wonderful the highlight of a TCD Smurfit School of Genetics student’s career is to focus on homeopathy! This without knowing anything about it other than presumption, bias and prejudice. How original!

First, Matthew Carrigan, in his letter to the The Irish Times, digs up some obscure, irrelevant data from the US:

(March 1 2013) Sir, – The assertion by the registered homeopath Sheelagh Behan (February 26th) that homeopathy has been shown to be effective in clinical trials is so demonstrably incorrect that I am reminded of the famous quotation from Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it”.

Donald Clarke (Opinion, February 23rd) was entirely correct to be disparaging of homeopathy, and his assertions were supported by almost all major medical bodies in the world.

The National Institutes of Health in the United States makes the case clear ( with two devastating points: “There is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition” and “Several key concepts of homeopathy are inconsistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics”.

In other words, not only is homeopathy ineffective, it flies in the face of everything we know about the physical world. Irish patients deserve treatments supported by facts, not by magic and wishful thinking. – Yours, etc,

PhD Student,
Smurfit Institute of Genetics,
Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 2.

And here’s my unpublished reply

Sir, – in his attempt to discredit Homeopathy (Letters, Friday March 1), Matthew Carrigan (Smurfit School of Genetics, TCD) quotes the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. and almost all medical bodies in the world, even though his quote from Upton Sinclair applies to his own school also; “their wages depend upon it” (Wellcome, etc.).

The first “devastating” point against Homeopathy, he claims, is that there is little (implying there must be some!) evidence homeopathy is effective for any specific condition. Of course there isn’t. Homeopathy doesn’t treat specific conditions – it never did and never will – and on rational and empirically verified grounds refutes the idea. Allopathic (conventional) doctors treat specifics which is one reason they cure nothing, not even the common cold, and admit as much.

His second point is that Homeopathy is at odds with several fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics. Sadly most scientists are not trained to think, otherwise Mr Carrigan would realise that Homeopathy is medicine and chemistry and physics are not, so cannot be compared.

If Homeopathy (which means Like Cures Like, a law of cure discovered by Dr Hahnemann) is wrong, why does medicine employ it: radiation causes cancer but is used to treat cancer; Epilem is used for epilepsy but causes it; Tamoxifen is used to treat cancer but causes it, etc?

In the meantime I won’t hold my breath waiting for genetics to cure us. To quote Professor Steve Jones: “It’s contribution to medicine over the last decade has been disappointing.”

Genetics, Autism and Homeopathy

Then we get one of his colleagues, Dr Kevin Mitchell, writing about autism in which he steps outside of his scientific boundary to comment about homeopathy. Yes, speaking for homeopaths! While I largely agree with him, he does make a typical unthinking man’s comment that homeopathy can’t help autism.

Since it’s beginning, no homeopath has treated any disease name, as I’ve pointed out, and consequently no homeopath claims to treat autism. That doesn’t mean homeopathy cannot help, cure or make a big difference to a person with autism because it certainly can as shown in February 2016, by Dr Jonathan Hardy, at the annual conference for vets who practice homeopathy. Yes, by a doctor, someone who actually treats illness and understands medicine. Dr Hardy presented the video case of a 3 year-old girl who, after one treatment, could communicate with eye-to-eye contact at the first follow up visit, a month after the first prescription.

Dr Jan Scholten has postulated a hypothesis about autism and confirmed it in his practice, as has the Swiss consultant paediatrician and homeopath Dr Heiner Frei (click here His book and dvd are more informative). Their positive results show we are not determined by our genes. Unlike homeopathy, medicine has no hypothesis and nothing verified, so even at this fundamental level homeopathy is more scientific.

Dr Mitchell unwittingly points to the reason homeopathy is a better approach than any other, including genetics. He says, “In a subset of cases…” The truth is, like all illnesses/disorders/syndromes, there are thousands of “subsets” because no two people are the same, regardless of someone putting a label on a set or subset of symptoms. Medicine likes to label sets of symptoms, not because it is scientific or rational to do so, but purely because it is convenient. “We have a disease and we (conveniently) have 3 medicines for this disease,” is the medical attitude, despite the plethora of variations in symptoms. Treating everyone the same will never cure. Homeopathy is successful because every person is treated individually as well as homeopathically – as proven in theory and practice by Samuel Hahnemann.

In a subsequent article on autism by Dr Mitchell (“Research shows autism spectrum disorders are largely genetic”), the title of which hints at something else which could be worth considering in the genetics and neuroscience departments at Trinity. His use of “autism spectrum” and “largely genetic” suggest there’s a lot more to these disease labels than even geneticists and neuro-scientists can say. Since they don’t fully know what autism is or what the “real” cause is, how can they decide who can and can’t treat it?

Geneticists’ thinking is limited; they take a materialist and biologically reductive approach to the person and illness. Add to this the same tendency in medicine: from originally treating people, their was a shift to treating organs, then micro-organisms, then cells, then genes and in the future it’ll be more reductive with nano-medicine. Do they really believe that by treating less and less they will make a person better? We can ask: is disease in the genes or the person who has the genes?

Here is Dr Mitchell’s letter:

Sir, – Adrienne Murphy (“Autism – it’s not all about genetics”, Health and Family, March 18th, 2014) argues that autism is not primarily a genetic disease, based on her experiences with her own son. While I sympathise with the desire of parents to find causes to explain their children’s illness, they should be cautious of claims that the condition is caused by fluoride in the water, aluminium toxicity, GMOs, vaccines or any other supposed environmental toxins. There is no good evidence to support these claims, which amount to little more than conspiracy theories.

By contrast, the evidence that autism is primarily due to genetic insults is overwhelming. If one of a pair of identical twins is autistic, the chance that the other one will be too is over 80 per cent, while the rate in fraternal twins is less than 20 per cent. Any environmental exposures should not differ across identical versus fraternal twins – what does differ is the degree of genetic similarity. More generally, if you are related to someone with autism, your risk of autism is vastly increased over the population average (unlike adoptive siblings who are at no increased risk, despite sharing the same environment). We now know that the condition can be caused by mutation of any one of several hundred different genes, many involved in how the brain develops. Around a third of cases can currently be diagnosed with a specific genetic condition and that number is increasing rapidly.

In a subset of cases, these conditions are associated with additional problems, including gastrointestinal symptoms. These can sometimes be ameliorated by dietary interventions, which may well affect behaviour and improve quality of life for those patients. That does not mean that nutritionists can cure autism, any more than homeopaths can. – Yours, etc,

KEVIN MITCHELL, PhD Associate Professor of Genetics and Neuroscience, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 2. Mar 20, 2014, Irish Times Link

“Autism is primarily due to genetic insults,” Mitchell tells us. “Primarily” implies there are other causes and “genetic insults” doesn’t tell us what caused the insults, nor why one should react as such to those insults. So if the cause is primarily genetic, one can still ask what caused that cause. There remains a more fundamental cause.

Medicine and Genetics – “Disappointing”

On the contribution of genetics to medicine, we can take a look at the comments of the more open-minded and objective genetics experts. In his article in the Daily Telegraph Professor Steve Jones said a group of “renegade” biologists has turned on their source of funding – such as the Wellcome Trust. The Wellcome Trust also funds the School of Genetics and the Department of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin – their wages “depend on it”, as Carrigan would say.

Prof Jones goes on to say,

The hope was that such conditions (cancer, diabetes, stroke, brain conditions) could be blamed on a small set of common genetic variants. track them down and we would begin to understand what had gone wrong, diagnose patients before symptoms appeared and perhaps even come up with a few cures.

… Just a couple of years ago there was real optimism that a new era of understanding was around the corner. That did not last long, for hubris has been replaced with concern: like Macavity the Mystery Cat, the evidence of genetic inheritance is clear, but genes themselves are just not there.

…The molecular mappers have now used their tape measures on 30,000 people. they find 50 or so different genes associated with being tall or short – but altogether they account for only 1 part in 20 of the variation needed to explain the similarity of children to parents. Macavity has struck and does so again and again.

… To give another example… adult diabetes… 18 different bits of chromosome that light up as culprits but together explain less than 1 part in 20 of the overall inherited liability to diabetes. At any rate as many as 800 different genes may be behind this illness which means their individual value as predictors of risk is tiny.

Most individual genes say so little about the real risk of illness. As a result, the thousands of people who are paying for tests for susceptibility to particular diseases are wasting their money.

… Whatever the panjandrums of science decide to do with their Everest of cash, it is time to turn to one of the few genetical proverbs, for the mountain has laboured and brought forth not much more than a mouse. and what was that adage about throwing good money after bad?

Commenting on Jones’s article, Richard Alleyne and Kate Devlin tell us in “Genetic ‘magic bullet’ cures have proven a ‘false dawn'”: “We are also told there had been too much optimism surrounding research into genes and that there was a danger it had become “largely unfounded”. Again, “Genetics has been a series of revolutions of diminished expectations. It doesn’t look very optimistic,” they conclude.

Quoting Professor Marcus Pembrey, Alleyne and Devlin tell us: “Research has not turned out to be the panacea that it was first hoped.” They further quote another expert in genetics, Professor George Ebers, a professor of clinical neurology at Oxford University, who said, “There has been disappointment in this field.”

So it seems that another old adage is also applicable here; people in glasshouses… or when they point the finger at homeopaths, they forget there’s three more pointing back at themselves. But their confirmation bias feeds their frenzy of Tweets, which in turn feeds their confirmation bias in a little virtual self-perpetuating merry-go-round.

And a parting shot from Prof Jones: “The real answer to cancer lies in the mind and not the body but when the body rebels the minds of science may – some day – do something to help.

That was in 2009. Now, in 2019, a consultant at Cork University Hospital, Seamus O’Mahony, has written a book, Can Medicine Be Cured? The Corruption of Medicine, detailing the demise of medicine.

Richard Smith, former editor of The BMJ, who reviewed the book for The BMJ, quotes O’Mahony as follows:

Practitioners of genomics promise great benefits for tomorrow (it’s always tomorrow), but the Nobel Laureate and former director of the National Institutes of Health Harold Varmus said that “genomics is a way to do science, not medicine.” Robert Weinberg, a cancer biologist, says that clinical applications from the Human Genome Project “have been modest—very modest compared with the resources invested.”

Dr O’Mahony himself is quoted in the Irish Independent, wherein he confirms the geneticists are still being paid for what they don’t understand:

…The clinical applications from the human genome project have been very few. And even the people who led the project, freely admit that the practical applications have been very disappointing. We’re nearly two decades on from it now and very little has emerged that has been useful to sick people. It’s a way of doing science, not a way of doing medicine.

In an earlier paper entitled “Medical Nemesis 40 years on: the enduring legacy of Ivan Illich” for the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, O’Mahony pessimistically cautioned about genetics’ contribution to medicine:

Genetics has the potential to turn us all into ‘patients’ by identifying our predisposition to various diseases. Guidelines from the European Society of Cardiology on treatment of hypertension and hypercholesterolaemia identified 76% of the adult population of Norway as being at ‘increased risk’.

Again, in 2019, the esteemed physicist Paul Davies, in the preface to his book The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Finally Solving the Mystery of Life, says: “…and John Mattick, the visionary director of the Garvan Institute in Sydney, has taught me that genetics and biology are not done deals.”

To conclude, I’ll give the last word to the grand old lady of British philosophy, Mary Midgley, who published Are You an Illusion in her 95th year. In an interview with Stephen Cave in the Financial Times, Cave writes:

The core of her argument is this: there are different levels of explanation, which we study with different tools and in different contexts. There is, for example, the way a furniture maker studies tables (as solid things on which one can rest a cup) and the way sub-atomic physicists study tables (as collections of atoms that consist mostly of empty space). One is not more “real” than the other. Similarly with our minds: we are now able to study the activity of the neurons that make up our brains; but that does not mean that the things the brain produces – thoughts, memories, a sense of self – are not real.

The position of the neuroscientists is also inconsistent, Midgley argues. Why, if we are on a mission to reduce things to the lowest level, would we talk about brains and cells – surely we must rather talk about atoms or quarks? She posits that we should instead accept the reality of all these different levels. This has the advantage of allowing us to hold on to ideas such as free will, and therefore moral responsibility, as well as permitting us to take subjective feelings seriously.

These are familiar themes in Midgley’s work, as she has for many years criticised the reduction of all knowledge to just one way of seeing the world. No discipline, she rightly says, is a gold-paved path to the truth. But there are also two more surprising undercurrents in this book.

One is her tendency to treat Charles Darwin as akin to a gospel, whose message has been corrupted by the wicked priests of neo-Darwinism such as Richard Dawkins. True to say, Darwin did have an astonishing tendency to be right, but to treat him as such an authority seems out of keeping with Midgley’s warning against mythologising the sciences.

Second, she surprisingly attaches great significance to one particular, rather reductionist, neuroscience theory: that the two hemispheres of our brains have different approaches to the world. Broadly, the left hemisphere is portrayed as logical and detail-focused, whereas the right hemisphere does creativity and the big picture. She suggests that academia, in particular science, is too left-hemisphere-biased, preferring reductionism to holism, and specialisation to synthesis.

Midgley is right, of course, though her theory stands without this pop-neurological support. Over-specialisation is the curse of the thinking classes.

Further Reading
“The genetic ‘cures’ that have proved ‘false dawns’

High-profile claims are occasionally made for genetic cures. Here is a sample of the hopes and the reality of some of them.” Telegraph

For those interested in autism, Dr Mitchell has a subsequent article, co-written with Prof Louise Gallagher of TCD department of Psychiatry, published in The Irish Times.

There are more links and ideas on autistic spectrum on my parenting and education website.

Daily Telegraph, 05/05/14:
“The latest study, published in the journal JAMA, suggests that environmental factors are equally as responsible as genetic factors in autism.”

Obituary of Lorna Wing, the Psychiatrist, who illuminated key aspects of autism and coined the term ‘Asperger syndromecan be read here 

Picture credits
A gene segment: WikiMedia

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