Author Archives: genotopia

About genotopia

Nathaniel Comfort is a professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at The Johns Hopkins University. From 1997 to 2002, he was on the history faculty at The George Washington University, where he also served as Deputy Director of the Center for History of Recent Science. The Center’s director and founder was Horace Freeland Judson (The Eighth Day of Creation), who, along with John McPhee and Monty Python, Comfort considers among his biggest writing influences. Comfort’s books include The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine (Yale, 2012), The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock’s Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control (Harvard, 2001), and the edited volume, The Panda’s Black Box: Opening Up the Intelligent Design Debate (Johns Hopkins, 2007). In addition to scholarly articles, he has written for Natural History, the New York Times Book Review, National Public Radio, Nature, Science, New Scientist, The Believer, and other publications. Should he expire tomorrow, he would be survived, in decreasing size order, by a son, a wife, a daughter, a dog, a cat, another cat, and still another cat.


Nobel scientist Tim Hunt: female scientists cause trouble for men in labs. English biochemist tells conference women in laboratories ‘fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry’” (The Guardian)

“I did mean the part about having trouble with girls…  I’m really, really sorry I caused any offence, that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually.” (Tim Hunt)


Stockholm, 1983. A certain English scientist whose surname rhymes with…let’s go with a small boat that you pole along the river Cam…is 40 years old. He has received an invitation to the Nobel festivities honoring the geneticist Barbara McClintock, “for her discovery of mobile genetic elements.” He fancies himself a pick-up artist and thinks this will be an excellent place to meet girls. He starts at the top.

Tim Hunt (

BMC: And so, Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen, in conclusion, I wish to thank you and the Swedish people for their many courtesies. I hope I have conveyed some of the joy of the marvelous maize plant and the startling phenomena of the genome that one can discover when one has the time and the solitude to watch and to think. Are there any questions?

TH (aside, to companion): Watch this. Observe the master.

(to McClintock):           Yes, thank you. Before I speak, I’d like to say something: that’s a smashing dress.

BMC:       I hate dresses. They said I had to wear one, so I wore one. My niece found it somewhere near here.

TH:           Ahem, yes, I see. Well, jolly good one on me then!

[You see? She’s falling for me. Works every time.]

What I wanted to say was, all of these elegant trappings notwithstanding, that I find your argument…unconvincing. You haven’t shown any data of any sort that a contemporary biologist would recognize.

BMC:       Are there any questions?

TH:           [Always compliment them, then insult them a little. Never fails. Watch.]

What I mean is, I don’t mean to be indelicate, but what gives you the right to make such claims?

BMC:       What gives me the right, or what basis do I have? Please be clear. Well I can address both. What gives me the right is fifty years of studying genetics and the fact that I’m standing at the Nobel podium. The basis for my claims is my data, which I just reviewed. Weren’t you paying attention? Are there any other questions? Yes, you in the back…

TH:           [Ouuuuch! <grins> God I love older women! They find me irresistible!]


Later, at the Banquet…

TH: (suavely)      Ah! Dr. McClintock!

BMC:       Yes.

TH:           I just wanted to apologize for my remarks at your lecture.

BMC:       Yes.

TH:           I ought not to have been so candid in such a public forum.

BMC:       No.

TH:           I mean, I don’t honestly see what all the fuss is about your work. but I ought not to have said so in front of all of those reporters and, you know, the King and all. I hope I didn’t upset you. I just wanted to be honest.

BMC:       You’re the one who looks foolish. Did I upset you?

TH:           You…me…? I…

BMC:       Your pronouns seem to be functioning normally. But haven’t you any verbs? I would have thought Cambridge would teach you better English.

TH:           Now look here. There’s no call to be insulting.

BMC:       Oh, don’t take me too seriously. Turn sideways. [casts her eyes downward] I’ll give you this: you have a nice tush. [pats it][1]

TH:           WHAT?!? I never!

BMC:       Never? Too bad. Me neither…much. Never had the time. I was just too interested in chromosomes—and the Y is so short and stubby and dull. I do enjoy looking at a good tush, though.

TH:           You never fell in love? Say, with a charming professor, aloof yet alluring, with beguiling nostril hair?

BMC:       [snorts] Good one. Maybe you’re all right, Tom.

TH:           Tim. Timothy.

BMC:       Suit yourself. If I may be frank, I could never feel attracted to someone I thought wasn’t as smart as I am. And, well,…

TH:           [stiffens] Really! Now listen, what I need to tell you is this: Your experiments are just so baroque. You practice this old-fashioned style of genetics, your writing’s impenetrable, and your experiments! They’re so complicated—one has to learn half your maize strains and strange chromosome constructions just to grasp your hypothesis! I can’t honestly imagine how the Nobel committee even followed your work, let alone evaluated it. Why don’t you do some molecular experiments? Things become so much simpler!

BMC:       Yes. As I was saying…

TH:           Are you implying that I’m not…???

BMC:       Must I spell it out for you? If you’re not clever enough to grasp what I’m doing, why are you even here? God I hate these stuffed-shirt evenings!

TH:           Now look here, madam!

BMC:       No. You look here, squirt. And be quiet. I don’t mean you any harm—you’re no dumber than most of the other men I’ve spent my career around. But you’re no smarter either. I’ve been listening to you for ten minutes now, and you haven’t said a single intelligent thing. Don’t you ever grow up? There are more interesting punchbowls in this room. And I’ve had plenty of your Australopithecine views. That’s A-U-S…

[At this, TH’s eyes start to well] T-R-A-L-O-P-I-T-H-E-C-I-N-E. There!

BMC:           Gold star. [rolls eyes] Tom, I’m sure what you do is perfectly interesting to someone. And maybe—although of this I’m less certain—what you say, someone finds charming. But with me, neither happens to be the case. Now, about that punch… [walks off]

[Tears stream down TH’s cheeks. He falls to his knees, one arm extended melodramatically in her direction] Barbara! Dr. McClintock! Don’t go! I—I love you!

BMC: [To another, female, guest] My trouble boys is that all they want to talk about is romance and their own feelings. Always falling in love with you and weeping. How do they ever get any science done?


[1] McClintock was known to compliment people—men and women—on their tushes. In the words of a long-time friend, “She just liked tushes.”

An early use of the term “precision medicine”

“Precision medicine” has become a biomedical buzzword, largely replacing “personalized” or “individualized” medicine.  In his 2015 State of the Union Address, President Obama announced a “Precision Medicine Initiative.” I first heard the term in May 2013 as an updating ofThis seems to be about the time its use began to take off. Researching a talk, though, I was surprised to find a much earlier use, from 1979. The sense is the same, but the context very different.

In the first issue of volume 7 of the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, Ling W. Wei, an electrical engineer at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, published an article titled “Scientific advances in acupuncture.”[1] At that time, “alternative” or “comparative” medicine was new enough that he felt the need to define acupuncture as a branch of Chinese traditional medicine. He notes that Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 put acupuncture in the spotlight for Westerners, noting that the scientific community was “aloof and apathetic, if not down right scornful” of the technique. Wei proceeds to evaluate acupuncture as scientific medicine.

There’s much to say about this fascinating paper, but I note here just one passage, on pp. 70-71.

The trend of technological advance in acupuncture holds great promise of promoting medicine in three directions,” he writes. These are what he calls the “three P’s”: preventive medicine, precision medicine, and people medicine.” This is remarkably close to Leroy Hood and colleagues’ “P4” medicine (“personalized, predictive, preventive, participatory”), first discussed in 2010. Wei’s formulation captures all the sense of Hood’s, but more concisely (preventive follows from predictive). But where Hood’s P4 medicine is predicated on reductive genomics, Wei imagines an equally high-tech but image-based approach.

Preventive medicine, writes Wei, “can be realized only with the availability of a simple, non-invasive and thorough physical check-up method. Like a TV screen, it should be able to expose the whole picture of the body’s condition in various colors and patterns.” He then goes on to imagine much more than a TV screen. “Precision medicine,” he continues, “requires similar methodology and, furthermore, a great analytical power in technology. For example, two common diseases of modern times, headache and hypertension, have many causes and the precise origin of the symptom is sometimes very difficult to diagnose.” Acupuncture can help. “Acu-points can serve as alarming outposts in internal organs when sick.” Merging ancient Chinese medicine with futuristic Western technology, he writes,

“If the electrical signals from 365 or a selected number of acu-points of the whole body are successively stored and then fed to a specially designed TV monitor, the pattern of this “holography” could tell us the whole story of the person’s health condition and thereby reveal not only the precise origin of the current illness but also perhaps some hidden signs of developing symptoms. To make the interpretations more precise, this holographical pattern could be fed to a “diagnostic computer” and let it be compared to thousands of standard patterns (in storage) of established causes. If a match or near-match is found, then the cause is said to be pinpointed. A man could take a “holography” anytime or once a year and the film can be as small as the palm. If in the future every drugstore had a terminal link (perhaps through telephone lines) to a central computer, one could simply insert his holography film into the machine and get an instant print-out telling his health condition. That day is not too far off; because the technology in opto-electronics and computers is almost ready for this “diagnostic automat” to be within reach.

The precision required in acupuncture is obvious and material: you have to put the needles in exactly the right place. It’s rather stunning how close Wei’s vision is to what contemporary precision medicine is aiming at, by very different means.

[1] Wei, L. Y. “Scientific Advance in Acupuncture.” Am J Chin Med 7, no. 1 (Spring 1979): 53-75.

We are the 98%

Check out my new review in Nature’s Spring Books issue. Three books on the genome and junk DNA. Even though it’s a couple of weeks late, it’s full of easter eggs. Highest density of wordplay I’ve ever gotten away with in print. It also contains a serious thesis about how we think about the genome. Enjoy!

Brave Old World

[Edit: I’m going to brazenly steal from my friend Keith and rename this post. Once I slept on it and my rage cooled, it became apparent that “Are you !@#$% me?”, while emotionally totally appropriate, wasn’t the most…precise title in the world.]

Can you believe this? A family correlation taken as a genetic link–for a predisposition to crime. This is so simplistic it’s like 1910 all over again. It’s not back to the future–it’s ahead to the past.

Cesare Lombroso

h/t Alexandra Stern

Professor of Astro-what?

Today, the Library of Congress and NASA announced my new gig for next year, as the Baruch Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology at the LC. From October 2015 through September 2016, I’ll be resident at the Library.

LucyLawlessXenaHandsUpWhy astrobiology? My next project is a biography of DNA. One key part of the book will be the story of how we’ve come to understand the origins of DNA and the origin of life in an RNA world. So I’ll be using the unparalleled resources of the Library to write the history of origins research since the genome project, as well as working on the rest of the book.

Looking forward to joining the excellent people at the Library!

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“Fascist Park” Recreates Thrills of Tyranny’s Golden Age

Imagine going “on safari” across Europe in 1939. Out of a nearby bunker steps none other than Adolf Hitler. He goose-steps in your direction, glowering. His little mustache twitches. Now you must choose: Siegheil! Or run!

In the latest of a new breed of extreme entertainment such as “Tough Mudder,” the biotech company Tyro-Scene has announced that it plans to recreate the twentieth century’s most vile tyrants and let them compete for resources in a naturalistic setting, while paying customers experience an afternoon of terror, repression, and the threat of genocide. Riffing on the iconic dinosaur-cloning movie series, they are calling it “Fascist Park.”

Inspired by current research into the recreation of extinct species such as the Woolly Mammoth, a company spokesman says Tyro-Scene will create scenarios that will enable customers to truly live the worst horrors of the twentieth century, including Nazism, Stalinism, apartheid, and Maoist communism. No one under 18 is permitted, and the experience is not advised for adults with heart conditions or psychological “triggers.”

idi aminFor those up to the challenge, the park promises to get your pulse racing. At any moment, Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, or even Hitler himself may pop out from behind a tree and attempt to oppress or even exterminate you.

Fascist Park will be located on nearly 10,000 desolate acres in southeastern Utah. Efforts are underway to terraform the landscape into regions resembling various tyrannical eco-systems, including central Europe, North Korea, Uganda, Libya, and Siberia. Customers will ride through the region in armored light patrol vehicles equipped with an add-on landmine protection kit and driven by a former Navy SEAL. Further protection will include issuing all customers an AK-47 rifle and requiring them to watch a fifteen-minute safety video before setting out.

The courageous will have opportunities to leave the vehicle and get “up close and personal” with some of history’s most vile human beings. Guests may be interrogated, waterboarded, or shot at. And because they may drive over land mines, pass through mists of chemical or biological weapons, or give chase, they are urged to wear loose, washable clothing and sturdy shoes.

Reanimating the twentieth century’s most fearsome tyrants may seem like mindless entertainment, but it has both scientific and historical value, the company insists.

“By recreating these dictators in a controlled but naturalistic environment, we can study the biological basis of an array of important human traits, from systematic violence to megalomania to a taste for large, dark sunglasses,” the spokesman said. “Understanding how these genes are shaped by the environment is a crucial step toward preventing genocide going forward.”

Indeed, the park will also be available to research teams who wish to study the dictators in their natural habitat. The Canadian anthropologist Woot Derbyshire, often referred to as “the Jane Goodall of messianic assholes,” plans to be first in line. “So far, I’ve had to rely on computer simulations for my work,” he said. “There’s still so much we don’t know about these sons of bitches, from their mating rituals to their grooming habits.”

Behind the scenes, Fascist Park will be an industrial research park. More than one hundred scientists will labor to maintain stocks of fresh dictators; in the wild, they inevitably impinge on one another’s plans for world domination. This leads to thrilling battles, coups, and sabotage—but it also requires regular replacements.

The park plans to open in November, 2018, with a gala opening featuring a simulated Kristallnacht. Tyro-Scene is already thinking about expanding the franchise. Action figures and plush toys are in the works, as well as customized genealogical DNA kits that will allow customers to find out which dictator they are related to. Also planned is a movie tentatively starring Ellen DeGenerate and George Cloney.

Tweeting the life of the mind

Academic colleagues of mine who are only slightly or not at all involved with social media often ask me why I do it, while those of us who are involved often seem to find ourselves defending or proselytizing (see special essay series…). Yet one of the most important reasons for me is that it gets me out of the ivory tower for a bit of fresh air.

My Twitter feed is only maybe 20% historians of science and medicine. I follow and am followed by scientists, journalists, novelists, biotech executives and marketing types. I’m pretty sure my feed has a better racial and gender mix than my university, as well as a wider spectrum of political views and commitments. In short, Twitter broadens me.

Another reason I do it, though, is community service. I think that we who stroll the groves of Academe have a duty to get out and engage with the wider world somehow. One of my colleagues does political work in Latin America. Another raises consciousness about climate change. Yet another helped break the story about North Carolina’s official eugenic sterilization program—a story that led to an official apology from the state and reparations to at least some of the victims’ families. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a place in the Academy for the dreaming scholar, alone with her books, researching esoterica. Supporting the gathering of knowledge for its own sake strikes me as a pretty good use of money. But those of us who are moved to do so can help keep the life of the mind vital and relevant by getting out and getting our hands dirty.

Regular Genotopia readers know that fighting genetic determinism is among my main causes. “Gene-for” explanations have a way of supporting the status quo, reinforcing existing power hierarchies, blaming the victim. When social problems are explained away with genetics, it tends to divert attention from environmental solutions. It lends an aura of power and inevitability to racism, sexism, and homophobia. The genetic determinist says, Black/Hispanic/poor people are innately less intelligent; why bother fixing the schools? Such arguments have been around in almost exactly the same form for a century or more. More data doesn’t seem to make a dent. Among the public, the popularity of genetic determinist thinking stems mainly from our desire for simple explanations and from the cultural authority of science. When scientists do it, it’s mostly because when all you’ve got is a sequencer, everything looks like a gene.

And yet lots of people use this kind of language without having insidious political ideologies. It’s easy, it’s ubiquitous, we’re conditioned to think this way. But when we use determinist language, inadvertently or not, we’re making real social change more difficult. So when I see such language in the popular press or in the scientific literature, I call it out—gently if I think it’s accidental, with a bit of a bite if I don’t.

My daily dose of determinism last Friday was in a piece by the science writer Greg Jenner. If you don’t know him, he does the BBC’s “Horrible Histories” and is the author, most recently, of the brand new book, A Million Years in a Day. He writes about science and history in a jokey, easily accessible way and has a large following, in several different media. The piece, published on his blog and tweeted by @erocdrah, was about the acquisition of language. It brought together data on the evolution of linguistic ability in Homo sapiens and other data on the absence of language in people with autism. I choked on one sentence, fairly far down in the piece, where he discussed evidence from the gene FOXP2, a potent gene that has been implicated in language—it has even been called “the Twitter gene.” Jenner wrote,

“Why can homo sapiens speak so eloquently, yet Neanderthals possibly couldn’t? The likeliest cause is genetics.”

This looked like a job for Anti-Genetic Determinism Man.

I tweeted that I wished he wouldn’t write sentences like that, and followed up with a respectful compliment to show that I wasn’t a troll. What followed was among the most rewarding experiences I’ve had on social media. I’ve storified the conversation:

After this exchange, Jenner sent me a direct message saying that he always wanted to avoid deterministic language and was happy to hear any other suggestions I had for how to improve the piece. I had to sign off for the evening though, and by the time I got back to it he’d already made his own edits. Not only did he change the offending sentence but he added several other tweaks to make sure it was clear that a trait as complex as speech does not—cannot—have a single cause. Here are the key paragraphs:

Why can homo sapiens speak so eloquently, yet Neanderthals possibly couldn’t? One factor is perhaps genetics. In 1990, scientists were introduced to the KE family (a label applied to protect their identity), who were three generations of Londoners struggling with an unusual medical condition. About half of them lacked fine motor control over their facial muscles, lips and tongues – making their speech unintelligibly slurred – and they also found grammar highly problematic. We now know that this family carried a faulty version of a gene called FOXP2 that regulates the expression of other genes, and seems to be crucial to speech. In fact, when given the human version in a recent experiment, the squeaks of mice dropped to a strange baritone sound. Admittedly, it’s not as if the rodents suddenly stood up on their hind legs and quoted the romantic poetry of William Wordsworth, but it’s still remarkable.

Whether a Planet of the Apes scenario of articulate chimps might be theoretically possible seems unlikely, as humans have also evolved descended larynxes and the crucially-positioned hyoid bone, both of which are vital components in producing our array of vocal sounds. But the fact remains that our ability to deliver a Shakespearean soliloquy is, in large part, the by-product of a lovely evolutionary accident. Had another gene mutated instead, you and I might possess glow-in-the-dark skin, or blue nipples as long as our index fingers. But, then again, maybe not. We have to be careful with our desires to apply a simplistic determinism to genetics, no matter how tempting it is to say “this is a gene for *insert thing*…”.

Ain’t that fine? That last sentence almost made me cry—and then I’d have had to dab my eyes with my long blue nipples. The entire piece is here. Afterward, Jenner wrote me to thank me for my comments and said he appreciated my expertise. I took care not to lecture, though, and I hope that the respectful tone I tried to strike helped keep him receptive. Pedantry is endemic among academic faculty and is a real barrier to wider engagement.

So. Thanks to Greg Jenner and all smart, skillful journalists who are receptive to a stuffy old professor. Thanks to the scientists who will talk with a humanist and to the private-sector executives who engage with an idealistic egghead. And thanks to everyone else on social media who use that platform, so crammed with idiocy and hate and bunk, to discuss serious ideas with civility and humor.