The Frontal Cortex

The DNA Age?

These kinds of articles annoy me, especially when they appear on the front page of The New York Times.

Where to begin? Well, there is the utterly banal thesis, neatly summarized by Steven Pinker (in case you didn’t want to wade through The Blank Slate):

“We now have real evidence that some of the variation in personality is inherited,” Dr. Pinker said, “and I think it may be affecting people’s everyday choices.”

This is front page news? Has any serious neuroscientist or geneticist in the last decade really denied that our genes affect, in some dialectical way, our daily decisions? Of course not. The real question is to what extent our genes are modulated by our environment (nature unfolds in the context of nurture and neural plasticity), and I’m afraid this article sheds absolutely no new light on this question. Instead, we get a mishmash of people who want to blame their DNA for bungee jumping, obesity, anorexia and nicotine addictions. It’s worth noting that most, if not all, of the people profiled in the article have not actually tested positive for the genes under consideration. Most of them are like this guy:

In the wake of the recent discovery that millions of people who carry a specific genetic variation are more likely to gain weight, Mike DeWolfe, a computer programmer who considers himself overweight, cannot help wondering if he is one of them. “I really would like to have a test, because it would help reduce my guilt over it,” said Mr. DeWolfe, 38, of Victoria, British Columbia, noting he would also welcome a genetic treatment as an alternative to his constant dieting. “That would make a big difference.”

Sorry, Mike, but that ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. Unfortunately, this reporter doesn’t tell us why. Instead of using the new science of epigenetics or plasticity to rebut these oversimplified views of genes=behavior, the reporter chooses a much easier route. She buries, almost as an aside, her confession that these vivid anecdotes of genetically determined dare-devils and fat people are actually, probably, most likely, make believe.

The public embrace of genetics may be driven as much by wishful thinking as scientific truth. In an age of uncertainty, biology can appear to provide a concrete answer for behavior that is difficult to explain.

Now that strikes me as an interesting idea, how the public has adopted a lazy version of genetic determinism, and how DNA testing companies (several of which pop up in the Google ad space when reading this article) are feeding our appetite for bad science. But instead, the Times has chosen to feed the frenzy, and doesn’t talk to a single scientist who says that no single gene can explain why Jason Dallas likes to go mountain biking or wants to get a motorcycle. Reporters feel the need to get quotes from IDers when talking about Darwin, but apparently the same sense of balance doesn’t hold when talking about genetics.

This story reminds of some old Newsweek cover, back when the Human Genome Project carnival was in full swing, and scientists were “discovering” genes for gayness and God and murderers almost daily. Now science knows better; it’s too bad the NY Times doesn’t.

Comments

  1. #1 Joanne Campbell
    June 15, 2006

    Well said.

  2. #2 JP
    June 16, 2006

    1. I’ll defend the article a little: I think she made it pretty clear she was presenting some recent research, as well as trying to gauge how people react to the knowledge that genes play a role in behavior.

    “While scientists have yet to demonstrate any genetic cause that directly affects such behavior, they have found plausible associations. And for many people, that is all that matters.”

    2. you say this:

    Has any serious neuroscientist or geneticist in the last decade really denied that our genes affect, in some dialectical way, our daily decisions? Of course not. The real question is to what extent our genes are modulated by our environment (nature unfolds in the context of nurture and neural plasticity)

    another real question is which specific genes play a role in specific behaviors and how they play a role. or how those genetic variants have evolved in our evolutionary history. there are plenty of real questions out there.

    you make it sound like once we know the heritability of a trait is 50%, we can move on to looking at gene-environment interactions. but knowing which genes are involved, and their corresponding pathways, is a major step you can’t just skip over.

  3. #3 MBE
    June 16, 2006

    I think you largely missed the point of the article. The point isn’t really whether science knows better, or the NYT knows better – the point is that the public DON’T know better. They are responding to the quickening pace of studies (which are getting more legitimate all the time) reporting links between genes and behavior. They don’t really care about probabilities, epigenetics or GxE interactions. They hear “gene for obesity” and they run with it.

    This article has, I think, put its finger on an important phenomenon. And rather than complain about the NYT reporting on how genetics is actually impacting daily life, we should face up to the massive challenge science faces in teaching the public how genetics actually works.

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