Author Archives: genotopia

About genotopia

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.

DNA Supplements May Be Secret of Longer, Healthier Life

Tired? Forgetful? Feeling old before your time? Forgetful? Maybe it’s your DNA—or lack of it.

DNA-based alternative medicine is one of the fastest growing health fields today. Combining the marketing strengths of science, health, and religion, it’s no wonder that researchers are stocking the shelves and lining their pockets with a variety of DNA supplements and diagnostics. Here are some of the most exciting products and findings.

Puritans Pride DNA Supplements May Be Secret of Longer, Healthier LifeA diet rich in DNA—and its molecular cousin, RNA—is correlated with improved performance across a wide range of activities, both physical and mental, and could help stave off the effects of aging. Results of a bold new study from Kashkow University’s School of DNA and Medicine, expected to begin next year, were announced yesterday. They have been called a “breakthrough” and a “game-changer” by some of the leading scientists on the proposed study.

Dr. Cyrus Tosine, a lead researcher on the study, said that supplemental DNA and RNA could be of particular benefit to patients suffering from low energy, poor muscular strength and stamina, pain and stiffness in the joints, forgetfulness, and an inability to concen

The general result should come as no surprise, Tosine says. “DNA and RNA operate at the core of life,” he notes. “Supplemental RNA and DNA promote cellular integrity.” Independent research does confirm that the absence of RNA and DNA negatively affects cells’ ability to survive, which could be considered a form of integrity. Further, Tosine pointed out, nucleic acid activity is halted by cell death. “And when your cells die, you die,” he observed. DNA, he concludes, is related to aging. “QED.”

The research uses a sophisticated new analytical technique called “meta-meta-analysis,” which pools the results of many studies that pool the results of many studies. This gives the method such great statistical power that it can find a correlation between any two variables. Thus, it is already possible to say with confidence that DNA intake is positively correlated with all major indicators of health—and negatively correlated with a variety of diseases.

The research was hailed by the plastic surgeon Dr. Vincent C. Giampapa, M.D., F.A.C.S., one of the most prominent members of this exciting new field. “DNA is our life source,” he confirmed.
Recognizing a potential market in anxious new mothers and covering both the scientific and religious bases, one company is developing a line of infant probiotics called “DNA Miracles.” Their advantage, she says, is that “with DNA Miracles Probiotics Extra, you can rest easy knowing that you’re providing your child one of the most complete children’s probiotic and prebiotic formulas on the market today.”

Magnum DNA DNA Supplements May Be Secret of Longer, Healthier LifeAthletes, too, are recognizing the benefits of upping their intake of what double helix co-discoverer Francis Crick called the “secret of life.” DNA is being mixed with branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)—some of the building blocks of protein—to create potent muscle-building supplements. An Australian company offers a patented “coded DNA amino acid BCAA,” which contains “the perfect coded DNA amino acid sequence.” The sequence, of course, is not only proprietary but classified, lest it fall into the hands of an evil mastermind determined to clone a race of LeBron Jameses crossed with Olga Korbuts.
DNA Repair Cream DNA Supplements May Be Secret of Longer, Healthier Life

Other work centers on DNA repair, a well-established field of science. Dr. Giampapa, M.D., F.A.C.S., is author of over 700 studies showing the benefits of improving DNA with his patent formulas. “Just improving a small percentage of our total DNA can make a major difference in the quality of our health, well being and longevity.” Dr. Giampapa, M.D., F.A.C.S. says. Science is still learning how small a percentage can make a major difference, and what in the name of Watson and Crick “improving” your DNA could mean.

Where does it come from?

Not all DNA is created equal. Some of the highest quality DNA is extracted from freeze-dried lamb placenta, say some experts. Dr. Rad Bitchen, of Woohoo Pharmaceuticals, explains: “Studies have supported that sheep placenta is one of the richest source of nutrients.” Two capsules of their DNA/RNA supplement contain over five miles of nucleic acid—500 times the recommended daily allowance, set last week by Bitchen himself.

wohoo lamb placenta dna e1396366055653 DNA Supplements May Be Secret of Longer, Healthier LifeAnimal rights’ groups, however, have protested the freeze-drying of lambs. A spokesorganism for PETNA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Nucleic Acids) notes that even in a wool coat, the young ovines must get the shivers during the process.

PETNA and others promote the use of “cruelty-free” DNA. Woohoo’s DNA also contains “marine protein,” which, Bitchen insists, is “like wicked delicious.” He emphasizes that no Marines are harmed in his process. Another company, Anathema Nucleoceuticals, makes a line of DNA-based condiments. Their biggest seller is Guano Butter, made from bat guano and olive oil. Anathema’s literature says it is delicious on whole grain toast or Ak-Mak crackers. Yet some object to DNA collected from any higher animals.

“No nuclear membrane, no problem,” says Ariadne Fishnet, of Portland, Oregon. Fishnet is a freelance farmer of sustainable E. coli, a bacterium normally found in the human gut. Extracting the DNA from bacteria is completely painless, she says, even though it eviscerates the organism. “At first we used only wild-caught bacteria, because that sounded better. But it turned out to be economically unpractical, as well as kind of gross. We have a new model of sustainable bacteria farming. All our bacteria are free-range, non-GMO, and antibiotic-free.”


Swanson RNA DNA DNA Supplements May Be Secret of Longer, Healthier LifeNevertheless, not everyone is convinced of the value of megadoses of DNA. Dr. Ron Swanson, of the University of California at Boulder, believes that prokaryotic nucleic acid is at best worthless and perhaps damaging. “The highest quality DNA comes from steak and cigars,” he says. Further, he continues, it is not the quantity but the “balance” between DNA and RNA that provides the key to health. “Our studies show that RNA/DNA imbalance is the root cause of a variety of symptoms,” he said. “If you feel fatigue, weakness, muscle and joint stiffness, memory loss, or lack of ability to concentrate, restoring the correct balance has been shown absolutely equivocally to sometimes help stuff,” he said.

Drs. Kathleen, Elaine, and Mary, of the Natural Healthcare Ministries Research Center and Salon in Credulity, Wisconsin, believe that massive doses of DNA and RNA constitute a “one size fits all” approach that is out of harmony with what makes us all special. DNA medicine should be personalized, “Because we’re all people,” noted Mary. “Except for the sheep,” Elaine chimed in. “Yea but they’re frozen,” Mary replied. “Shut up,” snapped Elaine.

Kathleen continued, “Homeopathic energy DNA testing is based on the principle that everything in nature, even substances that do not move, gives off energy as a vibration.” Any foreign substance entering the body, she said, may have an irritating effect on the body, “because of the vibrations.” Their method, Sound Therapy On Nucleic acid Energy Depletion (STONED), is to “ test this energy (your DNA) by testing your hair.” They then correct the vibrations using a variety of cellular actualization techniques. They also offer styling and manicures, half off on Tuesday mornings.

In spite—or perhaps because— of its controversial nature, DNA medicine is clearly on the rise. All experts agree on one point: everyone should limit their intake of food that contains no DNA. Examples include processed sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, lard, and Chicken McNuggets.




Three-parent babies and eugenics

My feed is full of stories about “three-parent babies” and whether they are a eugenic threat. Predictably, Art Caplan, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of bioethics, features prominently. A report on CNN quotes him heavily and he wrote an op-ed that was picked up by several news outlets. Caplan, more diplomatic than nuanced, says the technique could be scary if used to create super-babies, but that currently it is a legitimate, strictly therapeutic medical procedure. This middle ground strikes the right chord of concern while basically supporting the biomedical enterprise. And it misses the point.

The procedure combines “traditional” in vitro fertilization with a technique that substitutes mitochondria from one egg into another. Mitochondria, whose role in the cell, crudely, is to provide the energy to carry out metabolic and other processes, have their own little genomes, and mutations in their DNA can lead to a variety of diseases, including various respiratory conditions and muscular dystrophy. The scenario runs something like this: you are a woman who wants to get pregnant. You spit in a cup and get your genome results, and they reveal the presence of mutations in your mitochondria that lead to disease. You go through regular IVF—with one extra step: after your eggs are extracted, their mitochondria are swapped out with “normal” mitochondria from another donor egg. Thus, the eggs used are chimaeras, with your nuclear genome and the other donor’s mitochondria. Those eggs are then fertilized with the sperm of your partner (or the male of your choice), implanted in your womb, and nine months later, out pops little Junior.

Is this eugenics? Depends on your definition. Susan Solomon, Director of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, says no. She was quoted in the CNN piece saying,

“There is no genetic engineering. It isn’t a slippery slope. It’s a way to allow these families to have healthy children…What we’re doing is, without at all changing the DNA of the mother, just allowing it to grow in an environment that isn’t sick.”

eugenics tree 1921 Three parent babies and eugenics

“Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution”

The eugenic definition I prefer is “the self-direction of human evolution.” I didn’t make this up: I stole it from the slogan of the 1922 Eugenics Congress. It was coined by what Dan Kevles would call “mainline” eugenicists of the Progressive era and it applies well to earlier, pre-Mendelian eugenicists, later, postwar “reform” eugenicists, and quite a bit of medical genetics since the middle of the twentieth century. With all due respect to Dr. Solomon, the “three-parent baby” is  most certainly genetic engineering—it just modifies “cassettes” of genes, if you will, rather than tweaking single genes or nucleotides. It is exactly as eugenic as going through conventional IVF and selecting the traits you want in your offspring.

Cue the theme music from GATTACA.

gattaca still ethan hawke Three parent babies and eugenicsShould we be concerned? Absolutely. Should we condemn the procedure? Not unless we wish to be hypocrites. It is on one level a preventive medical treatment like any other and banning it would deny certain people—admittedly, all of them wealthy enough to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to get pregnant—access to available healthcare. But yes, it certainly is a slippery slope. There simply is no defensible way to draw a hard, bright line between medicine and eugenics. It provides a spectrum, from preventing disease to maximizing health to genetic enhancement. This ambiguity is in the nature of genetic medicine. We are heading down this path and simply digging in our heels will not be productive.

Our genetic future is going to involve learning to keep our footing on some pretty slick hillsides. The only viable way I see to keep techniques such as this from turning into a GATTACA-like way to “accidentally” create a genetically stratified society (where the rich can design their own babies while the poor have genetically impoverished “love children”) is to decide that it is morally wrong to do so.

Science cannot provide a guide to morality any more than it can provide an answer to the question of whether or not there is a god. Some valid questions are just not scientific. The danger, then, is not the application of this or any other specific biomedical technique. It is the false and dangerous belief that science alone can be a guide to civil society. The further science takes us, the more we need the humanities to deepen our understanding of where we are headed.


A Piece of DNA – Olivia Judson

Recommended reading:

Lovely essay from Olivia Judson on the cytosine she came across while sorting through her father’s possessions–part of the original Watson & Crick model that Horace somehow got his hands on, presumably through Crick. I remember hearing from Horace about that cytosine, though I never chanced to see it.

With that model, in a way, DNA became real. It acquired form humans could perceive. It gained a legible structure, it became an image. It took on an identity, on the way to becoming an expression of our own identity.

A Piece of DNA –

It’s no secret: the double helix is 61

“We have found the secret of life!” So Francis Crick exclaimed, bursting into the Eagle pub in Cambridge, exactly sixty-one years ago. He and his partner, James Watson, had just solved the structure of DNA. The only eye-witness account is from the historical farce The Double Helix, written more than a decade after the fact by Crick’s number one fan, Watson. There is much in the book that cannot be taken at face value, as I suggested in my book and in a recent review in Science. But let’s take Watson at his word here. Because whether or not Crick in fact uttered that famous sentence, the anecdote rings true. For one thing, it concisely conveys the thrust of Watson’s career since 1962, the year he, Crick, and Wilkins went to Stockholm. For more than half a century, Watson has been DNA’s chief spokesperson, literary agent, and cheerleader. Whether or not Crick said it, Watson said it, and it’s fair to say that no single person has done more than he to promote the idea that DNA is the secret of life.

Sixty-one years after the double helix turns out to be an interesting moment in the history of heredity. My guess is that the early 21st century will turn out to have been an inflection point. For the last, oh, couple thousand years, “hereditary” has connoted “innate.” It was that part of you that could not be changed. That’s changing, and yet our culture has not yet caught up with DNA science. In 2014, the double helix is simultaneously reinforcing and undermining the idea that your genes are your immutable identity. The meanings of DNA are multiple and sometimes contradictory.


 “We have found the secret of life.” The statement is profound yet untrue. It is a marvelous reflection of one of science’s greatest deadfalls: thinking constantly about a particular mechanism tends to make one think that it’s the key to the universe. It should be self-evident that there is no single secret of life. Heredity is obviously important—evolution can get no traction without it—but the secrets of life include metabolism, self-organization, homeostasis, reproduction, adaptation to the environment, and response to stimuli. DNA is involved in all of those processes, but it’s a mistake to think it fundamental to them. Not a mistake, actually: an artifact.

The double helix reinforced the idea that heredity lies at the heart of life. I’ve written a lot about hereditarianism here, so won’t rehearse those arguments again. Suffice it to remind you that the development of Mendelian genetics after 1900 gave a big boost to hereditarian thought and put fangs on the Progressive era eugenics movement. Eugenics has two central ideas: your genes are the most important determinants in making you who you are; and we must take control of our own evolution. I maintain that the former is wrong and the latter is inevitable.

After the 1962 Nobel Prize to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, the double helix became the emblem of the “new genetics,” or molecular biology. Like Mendelism 60 years before, it prompted a new way of thinking about how to control our evolution. Now that we understand how genes actually work, scientists began to think, we no longer need to rely on crude measures of controlling bodies through marriage restriction and sterilization. We will be able to do it delicately, surgically, through targeted modification of the genes. The year after Watson, Crick, and Wilkins won the Nobel, the polymathic biologist Joshua Lederberg fantasized about just this, and through the 1960s conference after conference debated the scientific, philosophical, and religious problems entailed by the prospect of directly manipulating an individual’s hereditary makeup. Early gene cowboys such as Stanfield Rogers and Martin Cline circumvented both the rules and the principles of research ethics in their zeal to perform “genetic surgery.” In short, as soon as DNA became popularly acknowledged as the secret of life, the nature of heredity began to change. The first cracks appeared in the monolithic concept of heredity as the immutable part of human identity.

Of course, a few cracks in the glaze don’t prevent a pot from being used. DNA science has been enormously productive. The more we study DNA, the more central to life it seems. And it has had fantastic PR. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Watson and others, the elegant twisting ladder of the double helix became the most recognizable scientific image since the Bohr atom. Niels Bohr’s famous image of a nucleus with three orbiting electrons signified not the science of quantum mechanics that it helped launch but the atomic age that began some four decades later. It was the cultural, not the scientific, connotations that gave the image its, pardon the expression, valence. Ditto the double helix. Fantasies about engineering the genome notwithstanding, in the popular imagination DNA became a secular stand-in for the soul: it represented our essence, our identity, our nature.

Since the turn of the century, though, two forces have been working at cross-purposes. On the one hand, biomedicine has become absolutely DNA-centric. Every branch of the life sciences, from paleontology to ecology to cardiology is grounded in the idea that the genes are not just important but fundamental to life. The idea is so entrenched it seems almost ludicrous to question it: life springs from the nucleus. The chromosomes contain the genes that make the proteins that make us who we are. No matter where you start, if you plumb the depths of biological causality, ultimately you arrive at the core of being: the DNA.

And yet. If you press scientists—hell, if you simply read the scientific literature—evidence abounds that that view is dissolving. The DNA is increasingly understood not as the bottom of the causal hierarchy but as a node in a network; dynamic, contingent, and susceptible to influence. It can be read in an almost infinite variety of ways. Its products—proteins and RNA molecules—can undergo modifications that dramatically change their function. At the frontiers now are new techniques such as CRISPR-cas (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, with cas-9 enzyme), which permit the editing of DNA sequence, as a copyeditor might scan a manuscript repairing typos. The first genetic engineering involved the manipulation of whole intact genes from organism to organism. Now the dream is to simply go in and repair—or improve—an individual’s genome, nucleotide by polymorphic nucleotide.

The inflection point, then, is the change from thinking of DNA as that which is innate and unchangeable, to precisely that which is changeable. Thanks to the billions of dollars of public and private money poured into high-tech biomedical research, changing the DNA is becoming more practical than changing the environment. It is beginning to seem more feasible to treat obesity by changing the genes (or their products, the proteins) rather than by changing the diet. It is beginning to seem more practical to treat crime by changing the genes rather than address the tangled social problems of the inner cities. DNA can be treated in isolation. It can be controlled. Changing the genes is technically hard but conceptually simple; changing the environment is technically simple but conceptually hard. Humans are better with their hands than their minds.

So here we sit at the crossroads. In the labs, DNA is increasingly manipulable. It has shed its reputation as that-which-cannot-be-changed. But in popular culture, the double helix still stands for innateness. DNA can be edited, but “DNA” remains immutable. Notwithstanding the mountains of evidence that show genes and environment to be interpenetrating and mutually contingent, we continue to fall back on a simplistic nature vs. nurture concept. And so we “blame” our genes for any quality we cannot or will not change.

Museveni and Crick It’s no secret: the double helix is 61


Thus we arrive at last Valentine’s Day (of course), when a savvy PR person released the results of a study suggesting that “a gene for homosexuality” lies on the long arm of the X chromosome. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, may be retrograde but he reads the science news. Having promised to outlaw homosexuality, yesterday he backpedaled, saying he was turning to scientists for guidance . Apparently the Valentine’s gay gene gave him a pang of conscience. He said that if homosexuality is “learned it can be unlearned.” Being straight is, for him, a matter of personal responsibility. However, if anyone can show him a gay gene, he might reconsider signing the bill. If homosexuality is innate, it’s not your fault if you are gay. Ironically, on this Museveni is on the same side as the gay community. From Kampala to the Castro, we persist in thinking that if it’s in your DNA, it’s not a moral issue. I understand the politics of the American gay community’s insistence that gayness is inborn, and perhaps it is indeed the expedient course in this political climate. But in Germany, gays insist that homosexuality is not inborn, because they have a cultural memory of a time when the solution for an innate “pathology” was extermination. The valence of scientific evidence is not inherent; it depends on the time and place.

Gayness is neither a unit character, like white eyes in Drosophila, nor can it be labeled either genetic or learned. Like anything else interesting, it is a graded behavior, sometimes inborn, sometimes learned, the result of a vast constellation of genes and environmental factors whose relative roles are themselves mutually contingent and shifting. You can find dozens of genes that correlate with it, I’m sure. Some will be associated with it in some people in some environments and not in others. It’s a rabbit-hole. In a few years, the correlation of a gene with a behavior might have the opposite connotation: it could imply that there is something you can do about it. “De-programming” is arduous and traumatic; someday, genetic surgery may seem the easiest, most painless course for changing behavior. Will future reactionaries hold people responsible precisely because they have a “gene for” homosexuality, obesity, criminality, promiscuity, or any of the other socially undesirable qualities eugenicists have been trying to genetically eliminate since the early 1900s?

Such is the cultural authority of science today that we believe a scientific justification to be irrefutable. But science, as John McPhee wrote, does not find the truth. Science erases what was formerly true. Every scientific theory ever proposed has been modified, qualified, or discarded. That alone should nullify it as the foundation of laws concerning moral issues. Genetic determinism can provide comfort to those who don’t want to blame themselves (or each other) for a trait, but it doesn’t stand the test. No, the more robust reason not to ban homosexuality is that it doesn’t fucking matter who someone falls in love with. Full stop.

Happy anniversary of the double helix, everyone. Solving the structure was a marvelous intellectual feat. But lawmakers and politicians, keep your hands out of my genes.

Suicide genes? Just kill me now

I’m in the middle of writing a grant, so I’ll have to leave it as an exercise for the reader to think about the implications of genetic profiling of potential suicides, as hinted at in this story over at Forbes. Six genes predict suicides among those with bipolar disorder. As attentive followers will guess, my criticism is not that such correlations are impossible—it’s that they are inevitable.

277px Edouard Manet 059 Suicide genes? Just kill me now

Manet’s The Suicide

Hmm, possibly there’s a future piece on why a conservative money mag seems to be emerging as a bastion of the new genetic determinism…

Your new genetic test results are here!

McSweeney’s is getting into the genetic satire act. Plenty of room, folks, plenty of room. Funny piece:



Genetic determinism: why we never learn—and why it matters

Here it is, 2014, and we have “Is the will to work out genetically determined?,” by Bruce Grierson in Pacific Standard (“The Science of Society”).

Spoiler: No.

The story’s protagonist is a skinny, twitchy mouse named Dean who lives in a cage in a mouse colony at UC Riverside. Dean runs on his exercise wheel incessantly—up to 31 km per night. He is the product of a breeding experiment by the biologist Ted Garland, who selected mice for the tendency to run on a wheel for 70 generations. Garland speculates that Dean is physically addicted to running—that he gets a dopamine surge that he just can’t get enough of.

human hamster wheel Genetic determinism: why we never learn—and why it matters

Addiction theory long ago embraced the idea that behaviors such as exercise, eating, or gambling may have similar effects on the brain as dependence-forming drugs such as heroin or cocaine. I have no beef with that, beyond irritation at the tenuous link between a running captive mouse to a human junkie. What’s troubling here is the genetic determinism. My argument is about language, but it’s more than a linguistic quibble; there are significant social implications to the ways we talk and write about science. Science has the most cultural authority of any enterprise today—certainly more than the humanities or arts!. How we talk about it shapes society. Reducing a complex behavior to a single gene gives us blinders: it tends to turn social problems into molecular ones. As I’ve said before, molecular problems tend to have molecular solutions. The focus on genes and brain “wiring” tends to suggest pharmaceutical therapies.

To illustrate, Grierson writes,

File this question under “Where there’s a cause, there’s a cure.” If scientists crack the genetic code for intrinsic motivation to exercise, then its biochemical signature can, in theory, be synthesized. Why not a pill that would make us want to work out?

I have bigger genes to fry than to quibble over the misuse of “cracking the genetic code,” although it may be indicative of a naiveté about genetics that allows Grierson to swallow Garland’s suggestion about an exercise pill. Grierson continues, quoting Garland,

“One always hates to recommend yet another medication for a substantial fraction of the population,” says Garland, “but Jesus, look at how many people are already on antidepressants. Who’s to say it wouldn’t be a good thing?”

I am. First, Jesus, look at how many people are already on anti-depressants! The fact that we already over-prescribe anti-depressants, anxiolytics, ADHD drugs, statins, steroids, and antibiotics does not constitute an argument for over-prescribing yet another drug. “Bartender, another drink!” “Sir, haven’t you already had too much?” “Y’know, yer right—better make it two.”

Then, what if it doesn’t work as intended? Anatomizing our constitution into “traits” such as the desire to work out is bound to have other effects. Let’s assume Dean is just like a human as far as the presumptive workout gene is concerned. Dean is skinny and twitchy and wants to do nothing but run. Is it because he “wants to exercise” or is it because he is a neurotic mess and he takes out his anxiety on his wheel? Lots of mice in little cages run incessantly—Dean just does it more than most. His impulse to run is connected to myriad variables, genes, brain nuclei, and the reported results say nothing about mechanisms. We now know that the physiological environment influences the genes as much as the genes influence physiological environment. The reductionist logic of genetic determinism, though, promotes thinking in terms of a unidirectional flow of causation, from the “lowest” levels to the “highest.” The more we learn about gene action, the less valid that seems to become as an a priori assumption. The antiquated “master molecule” idea still permeates both science and science writing.

Further, when you try to dissect temperament into discrete behaviors this way, and design drugs that target those behaviors, side effects are sure to be massive. Jesus, look at all those anti-depressants, which decrease libido. Would this workout pill make us neurotic, anxious, jittery? Would we become depressed if we became injured or otherwise missed our workouts? Would it make us want to work out or would it make us want to take up smoking or snort heroin? In the logic of modern pharmacy, the obvious answer to side effects is…more drugs: anti-depressants, anxiolytics, anti-psychotics, etc. A workout pill, then, would mainly benefit the pharmaceutical industry. When a scientist makes a leap from a running mouse to a workout pill, he is floating a business plan, not a healthcare regimen.

And finally, what if it does work as intended? It would be a detriment to society, because, having a pill, it would remove yet another dimension of a healthy lifestyle from the realm of self-discipline, autonomy, and social well-being. It becomes another argument against rebuilding walkable neighborhoods and promoting public transportation and commuting by bicycle. A quarter-mile stroll to an exercise addict would be like a quarter-pill of codeine for a heroin junkie—unsatisfying. Not only is this putative workout pill a long, long stretch and rife with pitfalls, it is not even something worth aspiring to.

And that’s just one article. Scientific American recently ran a piece about how people who lack the “gene for underarm odor” (ABCC11) still buy deodorant (couldn’t possibly have anything to do with culture, could it?). Then there was their jaw-dropping “Jewish gene for intelligence,” which Sci Am had already taken down by the time it appeared in my Google Alert. I’d love to have heard the chewing out someone received for that bone-headed headline. Why do these articles keep appearing?

The best science writers understand and even write about how to avoid determinist language. In 2010, Ed Yong wrote an excellent analysis of how, in the 1990s, the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene became mis- and oversold as “the warrior gene.” What’s wrong with a little harmless sensationalism? Plenty, says Yong. First, catchy names like “warrior gene” are bound to be misleading. They are ways of grabbing the audience, not describing the science, so they oversimplify and distort in a lazy effort to connect with a scientifically unsophisticated audience. Second, there is no such thing as a “gene for” anything interesting. Nature and nurture are inextricable. Third, slangy, catchy phrases like “warrior gene” reinforce stereotypes. The warrior gene was quickly linked to the Maori population of New Zealand. Made sense: “everyone knows” the Maoris are “war-like.” Problem was, the preliminary data didn’t hold up. In The Unnatural Nature of Science, the developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert observed that the essence of science is its ability to show how misleading “common sense” can be. Yet that is an ideal; scientists can be just as pedestrian and banal as the rest of us. Finally, Yong points out that genes do not dictate behavior. They are not mechanical switches that turn complex traits on and off. As sophisticated as modern genomics is, too many of us haven’t moved beyond the simplistic Mendelism that enabled the distinguished psychiatrist Henry H. Goddard to postulate—based on reams of data collected over many years —a single recessive gene for “feeblemindedness.” The best method in the world can’t overcome deeply entrenched preconception. As another fine science writer, David Dobbs, pithily put it in 2010, “Enough with the ‘slut gene’ already…genes ain’t traits.”

As knowledge wends from the lab bench to the public eyeball, genetic determinism seeps in at every stage. In my experience, most scientists working today have at least a reasonably sophisticated understanding of the relationship between genes and behavior. But all too often, sensationalism and increasingly greed induce them to oversell their work, boiling complex behaviors down to single genes and waving their arms about potential therapies. Then, public relations people at universities and research labs are in the business of promoting science, so when writing press releases they strive for hooks that will catch the notice of journalists. The two best hooks in biomedicine, of course, are health and wealth. The journalists, in turn, seek the largest viewership they can, which leads the less scrupulous or less talented to reach for cheap and easy metaphors. And even though many deterministic headlines cap articles that do portray the complexity of gene action, the lay reader is going to take away the message, “It’s all in my genes.”

Genetic determinism, then, is not monocausal. It has many sources, including sensationalism, ambition, poor practice, and the eternal wish for simple solutions to complex problems. Science and journalism are united by a drive toward making the complex simple. That impulse is what makes skillful practioners in either field so impressive. But in clumsier hands, the simple becomes simplistic, and I would argue that this risk is multiplied in journalism about science. Science writing is the delicate art of simplifying the complexity of efforts to simplify nature. This is where the tools of history become complementary to those of science and science journalism. Scientists and science writers strive to take the complex and make it simple. Historians take the deceptively simple and make it complicated. If science and science journalism make maps of the territory, historians are there to move back to the territory, in all its richness—to set the map back in its context.

Studying genetics and popularization over the last century or so has led me to the surprising conclusion that genetic oversell is independent of genetic knowledge. We see the same sorts of articles in 2014 as we saw in 1914. Neither gene mapping nor cloning nor high-throughput sequencing; neither cytogenetics nor pleiotropy nor DNA modification; neither the eugenics movement nor the XYY controversy nor the debacles of early gene therapy—in short, neither methods, nor concepts, nor social lessons—seem to make much of a dent in our preference for simplistic explanations and easy solutions.

Maybe we’re just wired for it.