Telomeres spell the end of the road for determinism

Friday 14th July 2017

The determinism story so far

In my last blog about determinism I explored why Albert Einstein and many other scientists and philosophers believe that our lives are pre-determined. If this is true then free will does not exist, which is rather frightening.

There is a lot more scientific support for this theory than I originally believed. I almost gave up researching the subject because I became increasingly confused and not a little disheartened. As a last resort I approached the problem from a biological viewpoint. The greatest recent advances are in the field of genetics, and I wondered whether this could shed any light on the problem?

My conclusion was that if determinism did exist then it exerted its effects through our chromosomes and in particular our genes. Sadly there is not much we can do to change our chromosomes, and so if my conclusion was correct it would be a major blow to our delusion of possessing free will.

Tie up your shoelaces

Nobel prizes are not awarded lightly, and so I thought this might be a good place to start looking further. In 2009 the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to a group of researchers who discovered how chromosomes are protected by telomeres. Telomeres are proteins which protect the ends of chromosomes and have been likened to the plastic tips on shoelaces. They prevent the chromosome strands from becoming damaged or unfolding.

On the face of it whilst this is interesting it does not appear to have much to do with determinism. However subsequent research has shown that many diseases are associated with shortened telomeres. They include many cancers. Other lifestyle factors that can shorten telomeres include diets rich in refined sugars, inactivity, smoking, and stress. Whereas Individuals with longer telomeres enjoy better health.

Telomeres give us control of our lives

This is where it starts to get more interesting. Experiments on cancer patients showed positive benefits from lifestyle changes that addressed diet, and included moderate exercise and stress reduction techniques. The stress reduction techniques included mindfulness meditation. A striking finding was that these changes increased telomere length. 

So my initial proposal that if determinism did exist then it exerted its effects through our chromosomes and in particular our genes might have been a lucky guess. I concluded that as there is not much we can do to change our chromosomes we may as well accept our predetermined fate and get on with life. It appears I was wrong and I am mightily relieved that I was.

The research and studies that I have mentioned show something that is truly remarkable. We do have some control over our DNA, and we do not need to accept a fatalistic approach to life. Relatively simple lifestyle changes can have a profound effect on our mental and physical health.

Time for a rethink

So I think Einstein was wrong. If he had known what we know now about DNA, chromosomes, genes, and particularly telomeres I suspect he would have reached a totally different conclusion.

So the message is clear. We have a lot more control over our lives than the determinists given us credit for. It is relatively easy and inexpensive to measure the length of our telomeres.

A more difficult question to answer is whether we want to know, and if we did, what would we do with the answer?