Obesity is in our genes

February 8, 2008
ThoughtForTheDay 20200515 RabbiLordSacks mp3 image 1
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 8th February 2008

Obesity, according to a scientific report published yesterday, is in our genes: the body's genes, not the jeans we can't fit into if we're obese. So, concluded the researchers, the health secretary was wrong to warn parents of overweight children. It isn't the parents who are to blame; it's the genetic lottery.

Well, if it leads us to be more understanding and less judgmental, that's good. The blame game is one of the worst of human habits. The trouble is that attributing human conduct to this or that determinism, doesn't stop us blaming. It merely shifts the blame from something we can control to something we can't, making it even more futile.

The idea that it's all in our genes is new. But the idea that our fate is beyond our control is the oldest of the old. The ancients blamed fate on the stars. Spinoza thought that all human action was determined by necessity not choice. Marx blamed the economic system. Freud blamed our primitive instincts. In America there's even been something called the junk food defence: a lawyer defending a client claimed that he couldn't help what he did because the food he ate played havoc with his brain chemistry. It goes back to the dawn of time. When the first human couple were discovered eating the forbidden fruit, Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and only the poor serpent had no one left to blame.

The trouble with all these theories is not that they are false, but that they're only half true. The other half is about choice and self control. As Harvard neuroscientist Steven Pinker put it: 'Nature does not dictate what we should accept or how we should live', and then added, 'and if my genes don't like it they can go jump in the lake.' Or as Katherine Hepburn majestically said to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, 'Nature is what we were put on earth to rise above.'

'Sin', said God to Cain before he committed his crime, 'is crouching at the door. It longs to have you, but you can conquer it.' So the bad news, and believe me, I know, is that some of us are predisposed to obesity. The good news is that with a little help from our friends, we can beat it. I've just lost a stone after ten years of trying and failing. How? I stopped eating what I liked and started eating what I ought.

It wasn't easy, but then what worth doing is?