It’s Friday, and that means that today I make all the students in my eco-devo class do all the work, while I sit back and observe. It’s too bad I can’t do this every day of the week, but I guess I have to do something now and then to earn my gigantic paycheck. Anyway, on Fridays I pick a paper relevant to the subject of the course, throw it to two student volunteers, and tell them to lead a discussion.
This week the paper is The Jaw Epidemic: Recognition, Origins, Cures, and Prevention by Sandra Kahn, Paul Ehrlich, Marcus Feldman, Robert Sapolsky, and Simon Wong. It’s about the fact that our jaws have been shrinking rapidly in some cultures, and speculating about why. The answer the paper gives is that it’s an epigenetic response to environmental factors, specifically diet but also respiratory phenomena. You might be able to see why this is of interest in an eco-devo class.
Some scholars, although they accept all or some of our narrative, still assert that part of the problem must be genetic or hereditary. They apparently do not realize that, because every attribute of all living organisms must to some degree be traceable to their DNA (or RNA), the statement is nonsensical. Nonetheless, some scientists continue to push partial blame for the epidemic toward genetic evolution while ignoring the etiology of jaw shrinkage and distortion. The success of some clinical techniques to normalize jaw growth in young children and abundant evidence that jaw shrinkage is a factor in both obstructive sleep apnea and the advancement of maxilla and mandible are key treatments, in addition to other surgical techniques. This further makes clear the largely environmental cause of the epidemic.
This confusion over etiology is a possible result of the genetic determinism that is characteristic of much of popular science. For instance, recent genome-wide association studies (GWAS) studies aimed at orofacial issues have been focused on possible genetic factors involved in the variation in the eruption of third molars (wisdom teeth). But they in no way suggest that selection and widespread genomic evolution explain the rarity of impacted third molars in hunter-gatherers compared with their common occurrence in settled or industrialized human populations). Similar problems occur when “racial” differences in the occurrence of jaw-related disease are discussed. For instance, Weinstock and colleagues (2014) found that African-American children were about 20% more susceptible to pediatric obstructive sleep apnea than children of other ethnic groups. But, unhappily, possible key environmental variables such as allergen concentrations at home or the length of nursing were ignored, as were different head shapes in different human groups that could make some more susceptible to the impacts of environmental change. In short, despite the great attention paid to a possible genetic evolutionary cause of the jaw epidemic, precious little evidence of genomic change being a significant factor has been uncovered.
I hope this sparks some good conversation. It’s a bit over-the-top to call it an “epidemic” of jaw shrinkage, but the hyperbole might trigger some arguments.
P.S. Their instructor is no gigachad. I grew up with a horribly crowded mouth with crooked teeth every which way that was treated crudely, by just yanking out a half dozen teeth to make room — we couldn’t afford braces or any finesse. Also, I had painfully impacted wisdom teeth that required an oral surgeon to take a hammer and chisel to my face.