Author Archives: genotopia

About genotopia

Professor at Johns Hopkins University in History of Medicine, with joint appointment in History of Science & Technology. Biomedicine and especially genetic medicine are among the most important and powerful cultural forces in our world today. This blog explores them from a historical and sometimes satirical point of view. My targets are hype, false promises, and hypocrisy, rather than any particular person or institution. Historical origins, cultural context, and humor are all ways of gaining a bit of perspective on the breathless world of biomedicine. Reflection and laughter can only help.

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.

 

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.

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

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.

 

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.

portrait mrc 900w DNA Day Hype

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.

“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.