Thursday, 23 June 2011

Selecting disability, naturally

A hundred years ago or so, most of us disabled people wouldn't have had the lives we do today. I know we complain about welfare reform (and we're right to do so) but back then, we'd have been in workhouses. And that's if we were alive at all. Natural selection - evolution - might have had a word to say about our continued existence.
According to Darwin's theory of natural selection, a characteristic (let's say being taller) becomes more or less common in a population depending on whether it makes the individuals with it more reproductively successful or not. That is, if being taller means they have more offspring, the genes that gave rise to that characteristic are passed on to a larger group, and become more common. If they have fewer offspring, they don't.

All very interesting (for sad science geeks like me, anyway). But how does it relate to disability?

Many disabilities are caused, or at least influenced, by genes carried by the individuals concerned. Those genes are as controlled by the rules of natural selection as any others. If the gene for a disability means more offspring, it should become more common, along with the disability. If it means fewer offspring, it should become less common, and ultimately be eliminated from the population. "Fewer offspring" could arise through the individual dying before reproductive age.

However (predictably) it's not always quite as simple as that. Sickle cell anaemia is a genetic blood disorder where the red blood cells take on a sickle shape. This decreases the cells' flexibility and increases the risk of various complications. It occurs most commonly in people (or their descendants) from tropical or sub-tropical regions where malaria is or was common.

Sickle cell is a recessive condition: that is, both parents have to be carriers, and the child has to inherit a copy of the sickle cell gene from each of them. Being a carrier (known as "sickle cell trait") appears to give some protection against malaria. So natural selection seems to have provided a play-off between the parents having protection against malaria, and each of their children having a one in four chance of developing sickle cell disease with its severe complications and likelihood of dying young.

Kin selection is a theory explaining why individuals behave in ways that favour their relatives rather than themselves, even at a cost to their own survival and/or reproduction. The classic example is a beehive, where asexual drones work for the benefit of the all-powerful queen bee. The kin selection theory states that they do this in order to help pass on the queen's genes, which are so close to their own.

People with genes that lead to disability are part of a family. Whether or not they have progeny themselves, others in their family are likely to - and the genes for the disability are quite possibly hidden in their genomes too. As families support each other, they make it more likely that their genes, including "defective" ones, will be passed on.

And, of course, disabled people make many contributions to the humanity-hive. In paid or voluntary work; as children, siblings, lovers, spouses, and parents; as employers (or the reason people are employed); and as friends, giving emotional support. I'm sure you can think of many more.

The genes that code for disabilities may not always be helpful. But I don't think evolution will be eliminating them just yet. Factors like carrier status being beneficial, and kin selection, mean they are neutral at worst in their effect.


  1. I think the most important point to make about natural selection and disability is that evolution requires mutation. If there is no mutation, then the species stagnates and is left extremely vulnerable. Conditions - and not just health conditions, but characteristics like homosexuality - which appear to disadvantage individuals in one way, may advantage families and communities in ways as yet unseen.

    And anyway, natural selection is by definition natural - I'm all for trying to prevent suffering, but if a person exists now, after millions of years of evolution, natural selection has favoured their particular set of characteristics. Really, genetically, you and I must be smashing just to be here in 2011!

  2. Right. Mutation occurs in order to adapt to changes in environment. And as you say, we don't always know how apparent disadvantages may in fact be advantageous to the wider community.

    And we're remarkably smashing, of course! ;-)