The 10 percent theory: We’re here, we’re weird, get used to it!
I am not a conspiracy theorist, nor do I believe in numerology or astrology (although I bet on certain "lucky" numbers and read my horoscope every day). However, there are times when patterns emerge from the 24/7 news flow that seem connected to something bigger -- almost cosmic in nature.
To wit, the "one in 10" figure that repeatedly appears in studies on diseases, mental disorders and behavioral problems. I first noticed that recurring statistic in 1988 when I began reading about addictions as part of my own recovery.
Three decades ago, approximately 10 percent of the U.S. population was addicted to alcohol or drugs, according to various sources. Yet despite billions spent on the "War on Drugs" and prevention programs, the percentage of addicts is virtually unchanged. Newsweek's March 3 cover story, "The Hunt for an Addiction Vaccine," notes that "only about one person in 10 who tries an addictive drug actually becomes hooked on it."
Back in my pre-rehab days, I was marketing director for a publishing company located near Greenwich Village in New York. You'd never know it from that trendy section of Manhattan, but gays were considered to be a small minority group. Estimates ranged from just 2 percent all the way up to 10 percent, depending on who did the survey (and who was being honest).
That got me to pondering other similarities between addicts and gays -- the "deviants" from the 90 percent norm. Many alcoholics are perfectionists and control freaks. But they are often creative and imaginative, too. Good liars, in other words, because drunks have to be in order to maintain the facade of being happy and successful. Those same traits were evident in my gay friends. Growing up, we created fantasy worlds out of necessity.
Think about all the writers, artists, great musical talents and fashion designers who were alcoholics, homosexuals or both. If there are genes that predispose one to become an addict or gay, might those same genes have a positive correlation to creativity? Or does creativity develop as a response to being "different" from birth? After all, biology isn't destiny. It's how we make use of our genetic givens -- be they physical or mental -- that determines what kind of person we become.
People who are prone to compulsive, obsessive behavior can put those traits to good use and rise to the top. They become workaholics instead of alcoholics. Likewise for gays who flaunt their outsider status and "make it work" in fashion or the arts, as Tim Gunn on "Project Runway" would say. Conversely, when people are forced to live in denial of who they really are, it's as if they subconsciously want to self-destruct rather than be something they're not.
But that raises another question: Why would genes that result in deadly consequences for addicts and nonreproductive sex for gays be passed on? From an evolutionary viewpoint, there must be a reason for it. If you're religious, the argument would be that God doesn't make mistakes in his designs. So there must be an upside to having these "defective" genes.
A clue might have come from another one-in-10 connection that was discovered in 1997. Scientists found there were gays who seemed to be immune to AIDS. It turned out that people with the HIV resistance gene were direct descendants of survivors of the bubonic plague -- the Black Death. This gene only shows up in about 10 percent of Europeans. Were their ancestors possibly "different" from the rest in some ambiguously gay medieval way?
Other genes that cause diseases have been found to have unexpected benefits as well. The sickle cell anemia gene protects against malaria in people who inherit just one copy of it. The cystic fibrosis gene protects against typhoid fever.
My theory is there will always be one in 10 who carries a genetic mutation that makes a small segment of the population immune to any known or unknown disease. These resistance genes exist to ensure our species survives. In nature's scheme -- or God's design, if you prefer -- there is a method to the genetic madness. It's called diversity.
I believe the same holds true for the role played in society by "mutants." The freaks, geeks, queers, even junkies and former drunks like me might have something beneficial to offer, because we see the world differently from most people. Invention, risk taking and adaptation are survival tactics for outcasts.
Consider the first person who discovered fire or explosives. He was probably one of the 10 percent with the gene that makes them thrill-seekers (and potential criminals). Possibly drunk on fermented fruit, this fool stuck his hand in the fire, or got his head blown off by mixing stuff together just to see what would happen. But I'm guessing a slightly smarter fellow with the same risk-takers gene was standing close by, saw the potential, and got credit for the "accidental" discovery by his ill-fated friend.
I could be descended from either of those guys. In a way, I played with fire, too. But I lived to talk about it only because I was able to get professional help for my alcoholism. That puts me in another one-in-10 group: according to the Newsweek article mentioned earlier, "less than 10 percent who need treatment actually get it."
Until that statistic is improved, the 90 percent who are untreated will continue to languish in prisons or be out on the streets committing crimes to feed their habits.
Rich Figel is a screenwriter and recovering alcoholic who lives in Kailua. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org