Wednesday, November 28, 2007

More Speculation on Lincoln's Genetic Defect

Abraham Lincoln, 1865

Yesterday's story about Abraham Lincoln and the rare genetic defect, Men 2B, is alive and well. The story has been picked up in newspapers across the country and around the world.

The Seattle Times simply reprinted the original Washington Post story, as did the Contra Coast TImes in Walut Creek, California, but the story was not limited to the United States. A newspaper out of India ran this story too.

However, the most revealing development in the case of Lincoln's alleged genetic mutation came, once again, from the Washington Post. Dr. Sotos agreed to do an online chat with the newspaper and its readers. It is worth taking a look at.

He fielded a number of questions, but I was particularly interested in a couple of the exchanges:

East Lansing, Mich.: The vast majority of causative mutations (in the RET protooncogene) of MEN 2b are limited. It is not problematic to test tissue samples for such mutations. Rather than pursuing publicity to a speculative theory, why is the proponent of this theory not trying to pursue testing?

John G. Sotos: It is easier for me to write than to test genes. :-)

Seriously, I think most people would agree that it would be irresponsible to run around testing tissues of famous people for all sorts of conditions willy-nilly. It makes more sense to lay out a reasoned justification for testing in each case.

It was not my intention to lay out a justification for testing, but the books will do that as a by-product.

A reader wants to know why Dr. Sotos is offering this theory to the public. Sotos responds with several reasons:

Omaha, Neb.: Most Lincoln scholarship concerns battle plans, interpersonal relationships and election strategies. How would any genetic/biological data impact our understanding of those subjects? I was engaged in a similar study (diagnosing a historical figure with a particular illness) and the question I most commonly encountered was "why bother?" I am curious as to how you address this question. Thanks for your time.

John G. Sotos: The title of the book, "The Physical Lincoln," emphasizes the distinction with "The Mental Lincoln" which, as you note, is the usual focus of Lincoln studies.

There is some crosstalk, certainly, between the physical and the mental. I have not speculated in detail what those areas might have been.

As for the question, why bother? a flip answer would be "Why not?" People are interested in all sorts of things, not all of which affect our day-to-day lives or the stock market.

Although this will be an entertainment for most people, there are exceptions, none of which are compelling alone:

-- Lincoln shines a light on everything he touches, so the publicity around this disease will likely lead to a few people (or their relatives) realizing they have it. This could actually save lives, since early treatment is critically important in MEN2B

-- I think considering the questions of ill health in Presidential candidates, using the Lincoln example, is something that should be done. The Founding Fathers had no idea how to deal with disability, and we still have a way to go in removing that "bug" from our system of government.

-- This sort of discussion can have an effect on young people. A child who gets interested in this might eventually go to medical school and eventually take care of me when I am old and infirm. So, yes, it matters a lot.


Dr. Sotos goes on to explain how his "theory" will change the way we interpret Lincoln. For example:

Richmond, Va.: Lincoln wasn't depressed? Wasn't there like a book and a History Channel special devoted to just that idea?

John G. Sotos: OK, let me tackle the depression issue. There was indeed a book on this. The author finds two major episodes of depression in Lincoln's life.

The first was in connection with the death of Lincoln's near-fiancee, Ann Rutledge. (This is a hugely controversial point with historians -- please don't flame me about it.) Anyway, Lincoln also had malaria at this time. He was taking "heroic" doses of quinine and other medicines. I do not believe it is possible to know how much of his misery at this time was due to malaria, to medicines, or to the death of Rutledge.

The second incident was in connection with his break-up with Mary Todd. This is also controversial.

The additional evidence for depression is Lincoln's apparent sadness at all times. However, many people note that Lincoln could look like the saddest man in the world one moment and be laughing uproariously at a story the next moment. Depressed people do not do this, in general. Their mood is low uninterruptedly.

Now MEN2B enters the picture. Low muscle tone -- a sometime consequence of MEN2B -- can lead to the appearance of a sad face. Recall that a sad face is nothing but a face that has surrendered to gravity -- all the muscles sag -- there is no energy in the face.

I believe, therefore, that Lincoln's mood could not be read from his facial expression. It may well have been true that Lincoln was depressed on occasion, but I do not believe that any instance can be used to support this contention if Lincoln's mood was read from his face. He just wasn't like you and me in that regard.

There are eyewitnesses who say "Lincoln was never quite as sad as he looked." I think that's a very telling statement.

Again, just as the Marfan's folks did in 1991, Dr. Sotos has offered an interesting theory, but has yet to produce any verifiable evidence that Lincoln did indeed have MEN 2B.

I get emails from propoents of such theories quite often. Usually they are angry that their theories have not been accepted. I can only tell them that I have no problem with their hypothesis, but they must show me evidence to support their conclusion. If their evidence is solid, I tell them that scholars will embrace it.

But, of course, evidence is often a hard thing to come by. More times than not, frustrated theorists fall back and entrench themselves behind a wall of faulty logic. "Well," they finally say, "you can't prove Lincoln didn't have this disease!"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm unclear why you say that no evidence has been presented for this new theory. From reading the Post article, it seems that a lot of evidence has been presented. My understanding is that several things about Lincoln match up with this MEN 2B disease. Isn't that evidence? You seem to be confusing evidence with "definitive proof" that might come from a DNA test or autopsy.