What growing up before the camera in the 7 Up series really means
"You will edit this program as you see fit," says Jackie, the subject of a documentary film series that has attempted to capture her life since she was 7 years old. She is speaking to director Michael Apted. "This one may be the first [film] that's about us rather than about your perception of us." She adds, "I cringe when I watch this program."
In the film, 49 Up (First Run Features), which opens on October 6 and will be released on DVD in November, Jackie's exasperation reflects the sentiment of almost half the 11 subjects who, after four decades of participation, seem to have had enough. The movie is the latest installment of an epic project that catches up with the group—representing Britain's upper and lower classes—every seven years. The result is a chronicle of ordinary lives intended to show that people are the product of the socioeconomic environment into which they are born.
The point appears proved. Only one lower-class subject, a Yorkshire farm boy named Nick, seems to rise to the upper middle class, ending up a physics professor. The other subjects uphold Apted's Law. Jackie, a sassy working-class tot, has become a single mother dependent on family and government for assistance. Andrew, a privileged lad who claimed at 7 to read the Financial Times, is a successful lawyer with a pretty wife and two kids.
Granted, the sample size is small, and as Jackie points out, the results are biased by Apted's editing. Still, it is hard to deny that the series is fascinating as a sociological case study. "I think this film is extremely important," says Nick, who goes on to describe how "emotionally draining and wrenching" it is to be interviewed. If anything, it is this extreme discomfort that assures the audience the subjects are portraying themselves authentically. Even so, John, a wealthy subject who openly states that he participates only to promote his charity, dismisses the series as a form of "real-life television with the added bonus that you can see people grow old, lose their hair, get fat.
"But," he asks, "does it have any value?"
It can be argued that the film has more value than many historically important sociological studies, which often depend on questionnaires that attempt to quantify the unquantifiable and rely on college students as subjects. But if this project is dismissed as an imperfect experiment, as it is by many of its participants, perhaps John's question can be answered in a different way by Neil, the only subject who is unrecognizable when compared with his childhood self. The bright, giggling kid in the first film has unkempt hair and a flat affect in the next. At 28 he is homeless, admitting that he has unspecified problems with mental illness. In later films, we see a fellow subject, Bruce, help him establish a life in London, where Neil begins a career in politics. By 49 Up, Neil seems sharp and respected. Did he recover his life because of the camaraderie, attention, and self-examination he experienced from the feedback loop that was a part of being in the 7 Up series? "I see that life comes once, and it's quite short," he says in this latest film, speaking confidently for the first time since he was 7. "And you have to appreciate what's good in it." —Susan Kruglinski and Jocelyn Selim
See Discover's interview with Michael Apted, director of 49 Up.
Also see Discover's interview with 49 Up "cast member" Nick Hitchon.
A trail of ancient genes
Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, Hero of Socialist Labor and a favorite of Joseph Stalin, rose from poor peasant roots to run the Genetics Institute of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. From 1927 to 1964, his warped ideas dominated Soviet agriculture. On the basis of dubious experiments, Lysenko postulated that plants could pass environmentally-acquired traits to their offspring, a theory discredited by modern science, not least by the discovery of DNA's structure in 1953. Though his crop programs flopped, all those who opposed Lysenko were ostracized or worse: arrested, confined to insane asylums, sentenced to be shot.
Sean B. Carroll, a geneticist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sees disturbing parallels between the denial of science in the Soviet Union and the current climate of ignorance surrounding evolution in the United States. Creationists, for example, claim that evolution is a myth, "devoid of any scientific evidence." Yet as Carroll argues in The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution (W. W. Norton, $25.95) the evidence for evolutionary change is written indelibly into our DNA. As scientists race to decode genomes—not just of humans but of bacteria, yeast, chimps, dogs, whales and plants—the number of DNA sequences available for analysis has grown 40,000-fold in the past 20 years, providing unprecedented insight into billions of years of species evolution.
With fervor and clarity, Carroll amasses a glut of facts to refute the twisted logic of the anti-Darwinist camp. Proponents of intelligent design, for example, argue that some supreme being created the first cell four billion years ago with all of its complex biochemical systems complete, including those that were to be used later, say for blood clotting. This, says Carroll, "is utter nonsense that disregards fundamentals of genetics." The rule is "use it or lose it," and indeed, unused DNA code is eroded by constant mutation. For example, the Antarctic icefish, a pale, near-transparent inhabitant of the frigid South Atlantic Ocean, has not only lost its ancestors' power to make oxygen-binding red hemoglobin (which it does not need in the cold oxygen-rich waters) but the two genes that code for hemoglobin have also gone extinct: one has disappeared, and the other remains as a non-coding "molecular fossil," a useless remnant that hints at past use but still resides in the icefish DNA.
Carroll offers much other DNA evidence for evolution. For example, genes for identical traits in unrelated species have evolved independently and repeatedly, suggesting that natural selection acts in similar ways to produce parallel solutions. Both Antarctic and Arctic fish carry antifreeze proteins in their blood, but the genes that code for them not only differ in sequence but arose at different times, since the North Atlantic froze only 2.5 million years ago and the Southern Ocean 10 to 14 million years ago. Carroll also shows how evolution is ongoing in humans: a mutant gene for sickle cell anemia, which protects against malaria, likely evolved in the past 3,200 to 7,700 years—after humans cleared forests for crops and likely encountered malarial mosquitoes, which breed in open pools.
Knowledge of evolutionary biology is not merely for academic dabblers, argues Carroll. The fossil record is littered with once-successful species driven extinct when circumstances changed. The ice-fish itself, though uniquely adapted to frigid waters, could disappear if, as predicted, the temperature of the Southern Ocean rises over the next century. As Carroll concludes, quoting Sir Peter Medawar, "'the alternative to thinking in evolutionary terms is not to think at all.' That is an alternative our species can no longer afford." —Josie Glausiusz
See Josie Glausiusz's interview with Sean Carroll.