On city life, the history of science, and the genetics of race

BAM! A sharp thud on our little back deck about a yard from me the other day. I looked and saw a brick, lobbed over the fence by three kids in the alley. I yelled an obscenity and dashed for the gate. The kids took off and I gave chase, barefoot, indifferent to the shards of back-alley glass. The boys were young—between 9 and 12—brown-skinned. They outran me easily after a couple of blocks. But I got close enough to get a good look. They were clean and well-groomed. Nice-looking kids. They probably had moms who would give them a licking if they knew what their boys had done. Fortunately, no damage was done. I didn’t get a concussion or a bone bruise. It didn’t total my laptop. It didn’t shatter a window. The event was not serious in the wider scheme of city crime. But it was an invasion, a violation. It pissed me off and I thought about it the rest of the day. I weighed their crime as racially motivated. They were black and I am white and they probably wouldn’t have thrown that brick into a black family’s yard. Then I thought about it as motivated by class. Houses in our neighborhood are modest, but probably by those boys’ standards we are wealthy. I thought about how much violence lay behind the gesture. The beefy white cop who took my statement told me to dispose of the brick safely (lest it explode?) and suggested I work in a safer place than my back deck. The brick remains, as a reminder, and I continue to write in the garden. I will not be cowed by a nine-year-old. In the end, I concluded that class was more important than race—and mischief more important than class. The incident was the more troubling because two days earlier, I had also been writing outside when helicopters began circling. We live near a hospital with a Medevac, and traffic copters occasionally make a few passes when there’s a jam or an accident on a nearby artery, so a couple of minutes of their drone is normal. But these persisted, and then I saw that they were black police choppers. A few minutes later, a woman ran up our small one-way street screaming and wailing into her cell phone. We thought we heard her scream, “My baby!”

I checked the Baltimore PD Twitter feed and my heart sank:

Shooting. 3600 block Old York Road. Adult female and juvenile reported to be shot.

It was about five blocks from my house, across the busy thoroughfare marking my neighborhood from the friendly but sketchier one to the east. It’s not “The Wire” sketchy. Just a lower-middle-class neighborhood, mostly black, higher-than-average unemployment rate, lots of families and low-budget hipsters. Shootings are rare there, and broad-daylight gunplay is rare anywhere. But this particular afternoon, three-year-old MacKenzie Elliot was playing on the porch. Caught a stray bullet. Was dead by sundown. The piece I was trying to write that weekend was a review of several books, on genetic and cultural theories of race. One is Nicolas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance, which received a satirical review on these pages. It is a pernicious book, a defense of white privilege on biological grounds, cloaked in the same phony tone of reason that eugenicists and anti-evolutionists have evoked for decades: I just want to talk about this issue. Science has to be able to investigate any question, no matter how unpopular. Help help, the Political Correctness Police are trying to silence me. Blah blah blah.

In the early 1980s, I learned that the nature/nurture controversy was officially over. The Victorian polymath Francis Galton had coined the phrase “nature vs. nurture” a century before.

galton   1893 On city life, the history of science, and the genetics of race

Sir Francis Galton

Everyone knows now that it’s a false dichotomy. Everything interesting is shaped by both genes and environment, and moreover, genes and environment mold one another. The relative influence of genetics on a trait is not fixed; the trait may be primarily genetic under some conditions, primarily environmental under others. Scientists know this. Science journalists know it. Scholars of science know it. We have moved past it. Twenty-first century biology is about the interplay among heredity and environment: gene–gene, gene–environment, and environment-environment interactions.

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“Colonel” Wickliffe Draper

Except it isn’t. Why else do we still have books like Wade’s? If anyone ought to be up on the latest findings in genetics it ought to be him, a long-time reporter on the genetics beat for the New York Times. Yet instead of providing a fair survey of the field as he was trained, he chose to be persuaded by a narrow slice of work that continues a long-discredited scientific tradition. One focusing on the biological race concept and its supposed connections with intelligence, sexuality and other tinderbox issues. As Sussman shows, much of this research is sponsored by the blatantly white-supremacist Pioneer Fund. When it comes to those qualities we think of as quintessentially human, the basic question of nature or nurture seems independent of the state of scientific knowledge. The question returns with force whenever the trait is morally charged. Sexuality. Violence. Intelligence. Race.

Since the 1970s, the brilliant Marxist population geneticist Richard Lewontin has been arguing that the essence of using genetics as a social weapon is equating “genetic” with “unchangeable.” For decades, Lewontin has been pointing out examples of how that’s not true. It’s even less true now, with biotechnology such as prenatal genetic diagnosis and genome editing. ncreasingly, the eugenicists’ dream—the control of human evolution—seems to be coming within our grasp. The new eugenicists want to give individuals the opportunity to make the best baby money can buy. No government control, they insist, no problem: if the free market takes care of it, the ethical problems disappear. Adam Smith’s invisible hand will guide us toward the light. As we take control of our own children’s genomes, the rich white people may have rich white babies, but, once we equalize access to whole genome sequencing, IVF, and prenatal genetic diagnosis, then poor black couples can have,…um…the smartest little black babies they can. And so can the Hispanics! And the Catholics who believe procreation shouldn’t require intervention, well they can produce “love children,” just like in GATTACA. It’ll all be fair and market-driven, once we socialize it a little bit.

So why are we even still talking about race and IQ? To Wade and others who say that it is a reasonable scientific question, that proper science has no politics and that the Morality Police have no business blocking scientific progress, I respond: What progress? What benefit? In order to frame this as a scientific question one has to define race, and any definition of race has a moral dimension. There is no way to ask whether racial associations with IQ are “real” without an agenda. The association of race and IQ is a legitimate historical question, but it must be acknowledged that even the most objective historian can only be interested in that question for moral reasons. If the scholarship is good, the agenda will be transparent, evaluable, debatable. But not absent. A good scholar (or reporter) will seriously investigate other viewpoints, present all sides. But he or she will not make pretense to absolute objectivity. The great danger of scientific investigations of questions such as race and IQ is just that pretense.

Science has immense cultural authority—it is the dominant intellectual enterprise of our time. Consider the state of funding or education for “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields versus that for the humanities, social sciences, or arts. A good deal of science’s cultural authority stems from its claims to objectivity. Thus when a scientist investigates race and IQ, or a science journalist writes about it, they can invoke a cultural myth of science as having privileged access to The Truth. Not all do it—those with historical sensitivity recognize and teach the fallibility of science. But it’s common enough, even among experienced science educators and reporters, to be a crucial justification for the scholarly study of science as a social process. Science has a potent Congressional lobby. Like any industry, it needs watchdogs. Science is not just any industry. Aspects of it remain curiosity-driven, independent of the profit motive. It has an aesthetic side that unites it with the arts. And yet, for many types of questions, it provides a pleasingly rigorous set of methods for cutting through bias and pre-expectation. When scientific methods are pitted against superstition, belief, and prejudice, I side with science every time.

But when you study a lot of science; when you examine it over broad swaths of geography and time, rather than focusing on one particular tiny corner of it; when you study the trajectories of science; when you study the impact of science; when you examine the relationship of science to other cultural enterprises; you find that scientific truth is always contextual. The science of any given day is always superseded by the science of tomorrow. Despite popular myth, science does not find absolute Truth. “Science erases what was formerly true,” wrote the author John McPhee. When I was in college, brain-cell formation stopped shortly after birth. The inheritance of acquired characteristics was debunked nonsense. Genes were fixed and static. Humans had about 100,000 of them. IQ did not change over one’s lifetime. There were nine planets in our solar system. All of that was scientifically proven. None of it is true any more. Only a scientist ignorant of history can be confident that what she knows now will still be true a generation hence.

 On city life, the history of science, and the genetics of race

Parents of the murdered girl

Which brings me back to the murder and the brick. On one level, the shootings a few blocks away were another incident of violence, probably drug-related, in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood. When they catch the bastard that shot that little girl, if they do a DNA test they might find genetic variants that occur with higher frequency in black males than in the population as a whole. If I catch the little punk who nearly beaned me with that brick, should he spit on my clothes and were I to have it analyzed, the lab might find SNPs in his DNA associated with a predisposition to violence. Whether those differences exist are legitimate scientific questions. But they are moot. The only reason to ask them is to prove an innate predisposition that, historically, has tended to foster racism and hinder social change. They may be legitimate scientific questions, but they’re stupid questions, and the motives of anyone who asks them are suspect. It’s not censorship to declare certain inquiries out-of-bounds. And people knowledgeable about science but outside the elite ought to be part of the process. Scholars. Journalists. Technicians. Students. Research funding should be less of a plutocracy, more of a representative democracy, so we can make better decisions about what questions are worth asking. In my case, the right questions are not “What biological differences account for that brick or that murder?” They are, Who is that brick-throwing kid’s mom? Can I, a “rich” white male, win her trust enough for her to let me into her house, to tell her my story in a way she can hear, so that she can discipline her child and get him back on a more positive path? What can we do to take our neighborhoods back, to make them not shooting galleries but communities again? How can we get people to get to know their neighbors, to keep their eyes open, to watch out for each other?

The other night, my wife took me along to an impromptu wake for the murdered girl, a five-minute bike ride away, near where the shootings occurred. In conventional racial terms, the crowd looked like Baltimore: about two-thirds black, one-third white (the latter mostly young), a sprinkling of Asians. But culturally, it was a black event, run by black women. The MC was the head of the neighborhood community association, a black woman. Words were said by the mayor, a state senator, a city councilwoman—all black women—and the governor, a white man. There was a prayer led by Sister Tina, a holy-rolling preacher who could make a middle-aged, over-educated, white atheist’s eyes well with her furious message of love and community. After the prayers and speeches, one young man threw down a Michael Jackson imitation, lip-synching and doing every move in Michael’s bag—full splits, knee-drops, and skids—on the coarse, hot Baltimore asphalt. The crowd whooped its approval. But the power that evening was held by the women. As we got ready to leave, I walked up and introduced myself to a few of those formidable, warm women. I threw my arms around Sister Tina and told her I thought she was amazing. She beamed and said she could see that the light of God was in me, she could see that I understood. And maybe I did. I know too much about evolution to believe in a literal god, but our mutual warmth and shared ideals are real. It may have been a culturally black event, but all were welcome. I understood in a new way how race matters in exactly the ways, to precisely the extent, that we want it to. Searching for the SNPs that make “them” and “us” different, seeking differences in test scores between the mixture of genes and culture Americans call “black” with those we call “white,” divides us. But here in this corner of this city, we have opportunities to celebrate each other’s cultures, and we have opportunities to share each other’s grief. The more I take those opportunities, the less value I see in the sciences of human racial difference.

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Hail Britannia! (Dorkins Reviews Wade)

Editor’s note:
Regular readers of Genotopia will be familiar with Dick Dorkins, a genomicist, faculty member of Kashkow University, and founding President of the Society for the Prevention of Intelligent design, Theology, Or Other Nonsense (SPITOON). Given the forceful nature of some of Dorkins’s opinions, we hesitated when he offered to review this book. But we acceded to his wishes, because we do indeed love our daughter and would, in fact, hate for something to happen to her. One can find a two-part interview with Dorkins here and here

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, by Nicholas Wade (New York: Penguin) 2014, 288 pp.

Dorkins profile pic 150x150 Hail Britannia! (Dorkins Reviews Wade)It really is a bloody shame that India just had yet another free and fair election, because Nicholas Wade’s new book is so bally good it makes me want to dig out the old pith helmet and mustache wax and jolly well troop off and colonize her again. Since I can’t conquer India, I itch to conquer Mrs. Dorkins and spread my genes, via more little Dorkinses. Alas, Wendy says she has a headache (again!), so the next best thing is to dab my favorite plume into grandfather Dorkins’s inkpot and, in my best public-school hand, pen this little squib on behalf of Wade’s latest. Perhaps I can prompt the some of you lot to do your Darwinian duty and either have or not have more children, depending on your race.

Let me begin by stating that I haven’t read such a stirring work since the sixth form, when our English Master (jolly good word, “Master.” Woody.), Old Man Donglethwaite, cracked the whip and put us through our paces on Lord Acton’s History of Freedom and Herbert Spencer’s What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. For what Wade manages in this book is to resurrect bally old triumphalist English history and social Darwinism, girding them with modern-day genomics. One sincerely hopes that modern science can provide those gallant traditions with a foundation strong enough to last.

Wade, a journalist whose previous books include Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors and The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, has composed an argument so elegant, so accessible, so unassailable that it might have been written by Spencer himself—had Spencer known the genetics that supports his ideas. Wade’s fundamental question is not original but rather classic: Why is the West superior to the East—or, god help us, the global South? The truth of this axiom is undeniable: we have the best of everything. The most money, the most freedom, the best science, the neatest gadgets, the finest music and art (never mind Justin Bieber), the strongest militaries, and the most money. Granted, in sports we sometimes lose, and you have to include North America in Europe even though many of the Americans’ achievements are by ethnic Africans and Asians, so it gets a little messy if you examine it too closely. But those are fine points. In the War of the Continents, it’s Europe all the way—and mostly Great Britain—if you look at it right.

Bleeding-hearts such as the anthropologist Jared Diamond have feebly explained the Rise of the West as accidents of geography and climate. Social “scientists” such as Ashley Montagu and the population geneticist Richard Lewontin (honorary social scientist, because he’s so political) have tried miserably to erase the very question of race, as if denying that the term has meaning could make it go away. Burlap-clad, politically-correct academics have even strapped on their Birkenstocks and paraded around the quads, protesting entire fields of inquiry that bear crucially on this question. Only an ideologue would deny the freedom of science to merely ask the question, for example, why white people are smarter than blacks. But Wade—whose peer-reviewed scientific articles have never been called into question—points out that such arguments are disqualified because those wuzzle-headed liberals have an ideology, something that of course has no place in modern science. No, Wade staunchly insists, true science must be blind to values and morals. It must deal exclusively with facts. Wade selects his facts brilliantly, using the latest and best of Western science to explain why Western science is the latest and best. The answer, he courageously concludes, is that we Westerners have better genes.

He argues irrefutably that behavior is shaped by genes, as demonstrated by an Everest of evidence in animals and in humans. Evolution did not stop when the first African hunter-gatherer stepped from his dugout onto the mighty shores of Europe to begin the painful process of civilization; nor did it cease when some enterprising Mesopotamian plucked a leathery handful of wild wheat seeds and poked them purposefully into the Fertile Crescent; nay, nor did it halt even at the coronation of James II in 1633, as he began his campaign to rein in Parliament in the name of liberty. Natural selection is still with us, ruthlessly but efficiently plucking society’s fittest, sweeping the best alleles across the land like so much seed corn. Though it pains one to say it, really it does, the result is that in the genetic lottery some are winners and others are losers. The winners, self-evidently, are those who have been globally dominant these last seven centuries or so: we Westerners, and most especially—here I lower my eyes, reflecting the humility that is my birthright—the British. And, alright, the Americans, who are, or at least were, mostly British. Okay and the Jews. Who, one notes, Britain and America welcomed with open arms after the war, ensconcing them in our finest universities as much as our quotas would allow.

History is not made by individuals, insists Wade. It is made by peoples. Peoples with the finest qualities. Qualities such as patience, thrift, innovation, openness, nonviolence, and civility. Demonstrating those very qualities himself, Wade acknowledges that there have been minor blips along the way, such as colonialism and the Third Reich. One might add slavery, the Columbian Exchange, and the Crusades. But these are mere trifles compared to the wise stewardship with which we have managed the planet over much of the preceding millennium. The practically invisible hand of the free market has brought untold riches to literally hundreds of people worldwide. It has rendered arable vast trackless wastelands of rainforest, making it possible to raise beef cattle for millions of our beloved Big Macs. For much of this period, our oceans and rivers teemed with plump and tasty fishes; likewise the skies with birds and the plains and tundra with wild game. And today, the climate is becoming ever more interesting and will, within a few short decades, bring the luxury and tranquility of coastal life to millions of people now toiling their lives away inland. All this and of course much more constitute the fruits of these peoples. Our peoples. Your peoples. But not their peoples.

The qualities that have made these developments possible, Wade shows, are probably genetic. At least partly. Wade, a journalist, has for decades covered the genetics beat for a little paper you might have heard of called The New York Times. He has extraordinarily broad secondhand knowledge of the arcane panoply of research coming out of Western laboratories published in English; which is to say, the most important, reliable, cutting-edge, and objective facts in the world. So when he says that the traits that underlie the rise of the West are probably at least partly genetic, you know he has read some papers in reliable major journals that seem to suggest this. In addition, Wade cites a wealth of objective, ideology-free facts by leading thinkers such as Charles Murray (co-author of The Bell Curve), Arthur Jensen—whose bold article of 1969 (pdf) demonstrated that compensatory education must fail, because objective, ideology-free science shows that blacks are simply not as intelligent as whites—and Richard Lynn, a British—note—distinguished psychologist and eugenicist who sits on the board of the objective, ideology-free Pioneer Fund, as well as that of the Pioneer-Funded journal Mankind Quarterly, which soldiers on as an objective, non-ideological stronghold of classical eugenics, social Darwinism, and white supremacy in an academic world that has moved leftward in lockstep, as if manipulated by a socialist puppeteer. Murray’s, Jensen’s, and Lynn’s writings, it must be observed, are controversial, an objective fact that may be partly explained by an occasional propensity toward language that can be taken the wrong way—as racist, social Darwinist, or eugenic. Wade, then, has become a cheerful cheerleader for a network of fearless scholars associated with what some have uncharitably branded “scientific racism,” but which I prefer to call “racial scientism.”

In short, if the West has won—and anyone who says otherwise is asking for a drone strike—it is because we are an intelligent, gentle, open, and creative people, and also because we have, as the Americans would say, a Big Gulp of Whoopass in the cup-holder of our figurative Escalade. Genetics suggests that genes underlie social traits such as intelligence, gentleness, creativity, and whoopass. Western populations must therefore have higher frequencies of the alleles for these traits. And so, little ones, we prevail not because might makes right, but because right makes might. We are on top because this is the natural order of things. As the Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner so aptly put it, “A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be.” One might add that an upper-class Briton running over that drunkard in a mint-condition 1970 Aston Martin is just where he ought to be.

One quibble, to reinforce my objectivity: the book’s only serious problem is the title. This inheritance isn’t troublesome at all. It’s marvelous—for someone with the good taste to be born upper-class, C. of E. (Church of England, sod it), and Oxbridge-bred, like Wade and me, anyway. And yes, you marmots, in fact I was born Oxbridge bred: if five generations of Dorkins Firsts doesn’t breed it into you then epigenetics is a joke. What could be troublesome about my inheritance? I closed the cover of this pioneering work of retrograde science writing with a wink and a plummy little smile, lit my pipe, and reflected on how good it is to be rich, brilliant, tall, and English. On top of the world, dominant in every way that matters, and here not by force but by right, dammit, Mother. Did you hear my fist—beknuckled with a light pelage, masculine but not atavistic—pound my oaken desk? The cats lit’rally jumped off the divan.

 

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News from the front lines of genetic determinism

Oh good lord, is this really necessary? CNet suggests there might be a “gene for” raising your IQ by 6 points  (this is old news, actually). 23andMe had a test for the 6-pt IQ booster on their health panel, before they were forced to take it down.

Meanwhile, Fox News of all places reports on a story that Gerry Nestadt at Johns Hopkins had found a genetic marker for obsessive-compulsive disorder. What even is OCD? We are constantly lowering the bar on pathology—anything that can be treated with a drug or reimbursed with health insurance is legitimately considered a disease under our system. My kid had at least 3 fellow students “with OCD.” This meant that they had 504 plans that gave them extra time on exams and had access to drugs, particularly the scourges of secondary school and college, Ritalin and Adderal.

Whatever social problem we have, it is possible to find a genetic marker that correlates with it. Behavioral genomics is a new form of haruspicy.

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A Troublesome Book on Inheritance

With organizing a conference this week, I haven’t had time yet to read Nicholas Wade’s new book, A Troublesome Inheritance, but the reviews are kind of stunning. Here’s one from Slate. Basically, genetics has proven that blacks are dumber than whites and whites are dumber than Asians, and those left-wing humanities baddies are trying to suppress these uncomfortable truths.

Oooooh, I haven’t heard such trenchant criticism since…The Bell Curve.

 

51iCoWIekpL. SY344 BO1,204,203,200  A Troublesome Book on Inheritance

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Eugenics Round-up

Some eugenics news items of interest…

In Dissertation Reviews, Alison Bateman-House reviews Bradley Hart’s dissertation (Cambridge, 2011; Richard Evans, advisor) on eugenics in Britain, the U.S., and Germany begs the musical question, “Really? Another dissertation on American, German, and British eugenics? Not clear what’s new here, other than casting the oldest comparison in the history of eugenics in the trendy language of things like “transnational context.” Haven’t read it yet myself, but I am curious about the argument of chapter 2 that of the three nations, only in the US was the eugenics program not derailed by WWI. Is Hart a Rassenhygiene-denier?

If you or someone you love was sterilized under North Carolina’s 1959 “Jolly Bill,” which sought to solve the problem of out-of-wedlock births by sterilization, you have until the end of June to file for compensation under the class-action suit. The Tarheels are sorry, but although the eugenicists were tried, their patience is too. Jolly indeed.

I knew that Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist with some ugly views on race, but I didn’t know that conservatives think I don’t know that. Another thing I didn’t know is that everyone in the Progressive era was racist. Gee, you learn the most interesting facts on teh interwebs! Really, though, can we be a little more careful with our language? It’s one thing to caution against judging historical actors in terms of present-day ethics; it’s another to assert that “Literally everything we have here [in the U.S.] is a result of the less douchebaggy moments of racists.” Because if that’s true, then everything we have here is also a result of the less douchebaggy moments of sexists. Sanger was criticized at the time for her views on race. We can admire Sanger’s courage on sex and gender while criticizing her on race. That’s okay: this is history, not a fairy tale.

Huh. Apparently, the new fad in Hollywood is transhumanism. The Center for Genetics and Society reviews Transcendence, a new film that  addresses issues such as regenerative and synthetic biology, consciousness uploads, and other sci-fi fantasies. Curious about the film–okay, I guess “film” is stretching it–even if it is trashy. Especially if it’s trashy, actually. I’m still uncomfortably on the fence about the linking of creepy things like prenatal genetic diagnosis and eugenics to good clean fun like making yourself into a cat or a lizard. But into the breach we go, it seems. New rule: When Johnny Depp does it, it’s no longer edgy.

cat man %2004 Eugenics Round up

Good clean fun.

 

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DNA Day Hype

Happy DNA Day everyone. On this date in 1953, Nature published four articles on the structure of DNA, including the 800-word, data-free masterpiece by Watson and Crick—but also the work of Rosalind Franklin, Raymond Gosling, and Maurice Wilkins that did actually have data, and without which the first Watson and Crick paper would have been handwaving fluff. The Watson-Crick paper is a rightful classic of the scientific literature, but it’s too easy to forget those who provided the evidence to back them up.

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The MRC Biophysics Unit in 1951, from Paulingblog. Wilkins is scrunched up at the far left. Gosling is on his feet straining his lower back at the right.

To celebrate, the genetic testing company 23andMe posted a DNA Day infographic that is a marvelous inadvertent evidence of genetic oversell. That’s the best kind, because it unself-consciously undermines its own claims.

rosalind franklin DNA Day Hype

An unusual image of Franklin at the microscope, and the familiar portrait, from fantagabriele.blogspot.com.

These claims are about health. Last year, the company was ordered to stop marketing their genomic testing service as a health service and it agreed to stop selling it altogether. It would henceforth focus on the genealogy side of their service. They are evidently sneaking back in, though, with ads—sorry, “infographics”; so much more documentary-like than “advertisements”— like this one.

Ninety-one percent of Americans, it trumpets in giant type at the top of the ad, “correctly believe that knowing their genetic information can be helpful in managing their health.” On one level, Well, duh. Everyone knows that some diseases run in families: you don’t have to have a high level of genetic literacy to be aware that knowing whether your mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and aunts have had breast cancer is a pretty useful little medical tidbit. The statement is worded so vaguely as to be meaningless. The remaining nine percent probably have some strongly hereditary learning disability that keeps them from correctly knowing how to feed themselves.

On a second level, though, I’d like to know what percentage of Americans incorrectly believe that knowing their genetic information can be helpful in managing their health. What percentage, for example, think that having one of the BRCA risk-factor alleles means they are going to get breast cancer unless they have a mastectomy? What percentage believe that a 300% increase in risk for an extremely rare disease—from one in 3 million, say, to one in a million—is cause for alarm? What percentage think that the association of a single nucleotide polymorphism with a genetic disease means that biomedicine has the cause—let alone a cure—for that disease? What percentage of Americans, in short, have no understanding of probability, pleiotropy, penetrance, or gene–environment interaction, and yet read ads from companies such as 23andMe and think, “Yee-haw! I can learn what diseases I’m going to get, and which ones not, just by spitting in a cup!”

Watson Crick in office DNA Day Hype

The dynamic duo. From The Sandwalk.

The infomercial continues downward, with more statistics: smaller numbers in smaller type. Thirty-one percent know that genetic testing can “show their body’s ability” to metabolize caffeine, etc. At the bottom, though, the numbers get large again. “People still need a refresher on the basics of genetics,” they say. Forty-nine percent of women “believe their sex chromosome is XY.” Their sex chromosome is XY? What percentage of genetic testing companies employ staffers who can write simply and accurately about genetics? Another statistic: forty-one percent don’t realize DNA is organized into chromosomes.

Finally, in tiny print at the very bottom, they tell us that the survey was conducted on 1000 “nationally representative Americans” by an “independent research firm, Kelton.” Kelton Global is a marketing firm that specializes in repositioning companies that have lost market share or want to break into new markets. Their motto is “helping brands navigate change.” They take surveys, track metrics, re-brand companies, and so forth. Their niche is using numbers to persuade and making statistics say what their clients want them to say.

Let’s make a few postulates for the sake of argument. Let’s say that this is a real sample, designed seriously by people who understand statistics. Let’s say the questions were worded better than this and that those questioned understood what they were being asked. Let’s assume the ad was just badly written. It may be that these are totally unjustified, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for just a moment.

If their numbers are in fact meaningful, what they show is that people are buying the hype about genetic testing without understanding it. How happy should we be that people who don’t know what a chromosome is nevertheless believe that genetic testing can tell them about their health? We’re not talking about informed decision making about subtle and complex data; we’re talking drinking the Kool-Aid. What this ad says, most of all, is that even though officially 23andMe is out of the health-claim game, they are still very interested.

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“Recombinant Gold” teaser

Had a request for a teaser of my recent review of Nic Rasmussen’s Gene Jockeys from Nature (April 10). If you want the whole thing, log in to Nature or shoot me an email.

  In 1969, the molecular biologist Gunther Stent published one of the most spectacularly inaccurate predictions in the history of modern science. In The Coming of the Golden Age: A View of the End of Progress (Natural History Press), he stated his belief that molecular genetics — which had only really been a science for 15 years — had peaked. The “golden age,” he wrote, would be one of modest discovery and waning public interest in science. That year, Jonathan Beckwith isolated the first gene. In 1970, Hamilton Smith found the first site-specific restriction enzyme, which his colleague Daniel Nathans developed into a tool for cutting and pasting DNA. Then, in 1972, Paul Berg spliced a bacterial gene into a virus. With the ability to engineer genes, molecular genetics began in earnest. Never mind the Age of Aquarius; this was the age of recombinant DNA.

In Gene Jockeys, the biologist and science historian Nicolas Rasmussen delicately unravels the tangled fibres of discovery, entrepreneurship and lab life in the first decades of genetic engineering.

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