Fate and Free Willy
by Hillel Schwartz

Another, more philosophical, look at the ongoing debate about the relevance of genes affecting obesity. Where will this ultimate Human Genome Project lead us? Will it create another set of parameters by which we come to be ourselves?

With the recent and increasingly frequent announcements of discoveries of genes that control for obesity, I have begun to wonder whether this is good news, bad news, or old news.

For the gay community, claims several years ago to the discovery of a genetic basis to male homosexuality (but not lesbianism) stirred up an ill-defined ambivalence. Was it a relief to be able to point at last to a biological foundation for one's deepest sympathies, or was it a threat to gay culture, suggesting as it did that the creative energies of the gay population were merely gambits to deal with a strictly biological force? On the one hand, gay men had for years been trying to convince straights that the two groups were essentially distinct, and that leading a life as a gay man was much more than a "queer" choice of lifestyles. On the other hand, if homosexuality (male homosexuality) were simply the result of genetic variance, then gay culture, despite its historical richness and an impressively articulate tradition, might appear to be no more than a set of compensatory behaviors.

Compensatory? Yes, because the discovery of a genetic basis to male homosexuality, like the discovery of a genetic basis to schizophrenia or to obesity, is almost always framed as the discovery of an errant, inoperative, or incomplete genetic component. Indeed, genetic research is almost entirely devoted to locating sources for birth defects or chronic illnesses; the rare exception may be research into the genetic bases for longevity, but this too is usually with regard to Alzheimer's Disease or other problems of old age. There are no research centers (are there?) studying the genetic roots of heterosexual preference, Olympic vigor, indomitable courage, maternal perseverance, or logical thinking.

Why not? Because we moderns want our better qualities to be products of our own making, and culturally normative qualities to be taken as pan-human. Obversely, Calvinistic punishment of those predestined to sin is no longer widely popular, however much any of us may be keen for grace. Who can berate someone born to be gay, or schizophrenic, or obese?

Well, there's the trick. Traits with known genetic components are either expressed or not. Genetic counselors inform their clients from the start that genetic abnormalities establish only the disposition toward an illness, and that the best physicians can do is to establish some dubious percentages of risk. Those of a dour and punitive disposition, who wish to hold people responsible for every behavior (so that moral codes operate uniformly, regardless of inheritance), suggest therefore that it may be a person's choices and habits that determine the expression of a genetic abnormality. Couldn't a gay person, if he truly so desired, stick to the straight and narrow? Or a fat person?

The linking of genetic defect to obesity puts the fat man in double jeopardy. Not only must he (the data are far far weaker for fat women) acknowledge that his obesity is itself a defect, he must also struggle unceasingly against an inborn tendency to allow that defect to be expressed. Unlike the gay man, the fat man has fewer closets in which to hide. In our society of eyes trained to take the measure of the body to the inch and visually to weigh bodies to the pound, a fat man's genes are scarcely invisible. Predestined to flab or at least to bulk, he is all the more responsible for using his free will to fight against an inherently unhealthy, unsightly, and reproachful condition. All the more shameful is it when he so obviously loses the battle.

Reaction to such double jeopardy may underlie the current controversy in these pages over "feeding up" fat women. Isn't "feeding up" an assertion of free will in an obstinately reverse direction by systematically furthering the (genetic) tendency toward fat? If large deposits of fat are part of one's lover's constitutional make-up, why not encourage one's lover to be all that she can be? Isn't feeding-up a kind of visible protest against the presumption that thinness is normative? Or does feeding-up represent an ultimate obsequiousness toward the genetic, endorsing the fatedness of our chromosomal life?

I believe, of course, that I have composed this commentary freely, my will asserting itself at every semi-colon. But this essay may simply be a reaction against some genetic imbalance in those who slander fat people and cajole them into programs for weight reduction. Is there some inborn, oxymoronic compulsion on the port of the people of the postmodern world-a world of the fragment and the palimpsest-to want thinness and corporeal transparency to be everything?

Of course, in the largest sense this genetic stuff is old news. Questions of fate and free will have been handled with sophistication for millennia, and the answer has always been morally, politically, and philosophically ambiguous. Even the oracles at Delphi, profiting from a long-standing faith in fate and the goddesses of fortune, refused to prophesy dead ends. They used metaphors and conditionals.

The difference now is that, at this century's and this millennium's tremulous, perhaps fateful, end, more and more people are apt to opt for the unconditional. In some urban slang, "phat" is a compliment, in most places, however, fat is unconditionally "nervous," i.e., bad, and by association so is the fat parson, who has failed to fight off the gene demons.

We might, nonetheless, take to heart the popularity of the film Free Willy, for however childish the premise and plot, here we see the largest of animals-hunted almost to extinction for its fat (its oil and blubber)-depicted as buoyant, frolicsome, intelligent, and deserving of freedom. Children, much less subservient to notions of fate, may be in this context our redemption, at least in so far as they may loosen the bond between fat and fatality.

We must understand that, whenever the Human Genome Project is completed, it will only establish yet another set of parameters by which we come to be ourselves. A map of our genetic structure will eliminate neither hatred nor fear nor our nearly ageless notions of fate and fortune. Whether scientists locate a gene or set of genes somehow determinative of human obesity, the news will always be that we determine what that means and we determine how our cultures will express it. ß

HILLEL SCHWARTZ received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University. He has taught history, religious studies, and dance improvisation at several universities, including the University of California at San Diego. He currently lives and writes in Encinitas, California. His book "Never Satisfied-A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat" is regarded as a milestone in the Size Acceptance movement. Dr. Schwartz' deeply philosophical perusings of size issues are a treat to those who appreciate true brilliance.