The Biology of Adversity

A lot is known about the biology of adversity. In societies dominated by the capitalist mode of production, too much of this knowledge is of the kind “What does not kill you makes you stronger” and “In your fight against the world, back the world.”

A recent special edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes a much fuller range of knowledge. Not only do we know that chronic stress caused by social inequity causes chronic illness, we also now know that inequity and the stress, trauma, and toxic assaults that result during early development—both before and after birth—cause permanent physiological changes that increase suffering from a wide variety of health conditions. These conditions range from emotional and psychological problems, physical problems, and cognitive problems.

This science of how children’s lives are ruined both as children and adults and how that is passed down through the generations made me think of the science surrounding anthropogenic climate change. Both consist of honest, well-meaning work by scientists who want to inform public policy that in turn could directly affect what causes a host of miseries.

Some of the obvious implications of climate change science include a halt to burning fossil fuels, promotion of countervailing natural processes such as forests, and protection of the people who will be most affected by climate change. Instead, we have increased oil production, wholesale deforestation, and abandonment of those in need.

It’s the same story with the adversity that immiserates and permanently damages children. The science provides cover for stalling on taking politically unpalatable actions. It makes it look like policy makers are thinking really hard about making life better. What they’re doing is pushing the peas around on their plates, hoping the problem will go away, hoping we and our traumatized children will stop whining.

One of the studies in the Proceedings special edition compares language development among three groups of children from before birth to 30 months. One group of children had mothers who experienced bouts of depression. A second group had mothers who didn’t experience depression. And a third group had mothers who experienced depression and were taking an antidepressant.

Before birth, the fetuses bathed in antidepressants exhibited the least development. After birth, they exhibited the most development. Who knows what they’ll be like when they’re 20, 40, 60, or 80 years old. Who knows what other neurological or other physiological effects the antidepressants will have on their development, adulthood, and old age.

The point here is not just the unknown effect of antidepressants on a developing human, but why the mother is depressed in the first place. No sane person could deny that a woman’s social status and economic circumstances and resulting toxic exposures profoundly affect her emotional state.

The Lancet reported this week that during the Great Recession (that is, starting in 2008), suicides increased at a rate four times the rate for the previous decade. I note that both periods saw an increase in suicides, corresponding to the increasing economic calamity faced by working people.

It’s well known that the economic growth of the last 30 years has been scooped up by the very wealthy. It’s also well known that life is getting worse economically for growing numbers of working people and their children.

It’s not because the rich don’t play fair. They don’t, but that’s not why things have gotten worse. They’ve gotten worse because all major political forces believe that growth for its own sake is the thing that will lift us all. At the core of that faith is the belief that the way to make an economy grow is by redistributing income and wealth upward to the so-called job creators.

A recent study by the International Labour Organization showed that economic growth actually slows down when this strategy is followed. The study also shows that for countries where wages and public spending are increased, growth increased. While I’m not a big fan of the conventional concept of growth, the big shots responsible for running things are deeply committed to an economic fantasy about how to make an economy grow.

This is true of both major political parties. These people are doing the political equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. And while they shuffle around, children are suffering from the biology of adversity, damage that will be with them forever, damage that they will pass on to their children.

To be fair, one party offers more band-aids and drugs than the other, but that doesn’t relieve the adversity nor invest the biology with resilience. What would do that is a minimum wage that’s a living wage, early childhood education, free daycare, single payer health care, elimination of Right to Work laws, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, a National Labor Relations Board that actually supports the rights of workers, and the passage of something like the Green Party’s Green New Deal.

In other words, in your fight against the world, back each other.