Tag Archives: genes

The history of designer babies

I have a new article up over at Aeon magazine. It’s called “Better Babies: The long and peculiar history of the designer human, from Plato’s citizen breeders to Nobel sperm banks and beyond.”

courtesy Aeon Magazine (www.aeon.co)

After touching upon some of the earliest methods of designing babies, I move through Francis Galton and some of the history of eugenics that should be familiar to Genotopia readers by now. But I take the story up through CRISPR, arguing first that attempts to design our children are all but certain; and second, that they are almost certain to fail. What both the cheerleaders and the hand-wringers fail to take into account is the complexity of the genomics in a species as complex and modulated by culture as ours. Any trait that’s very interesting socially—criminality, sexuality, drug addiction, aggression, etc.—is going to be extraordinarily complex and won’t be reducible to single genes, or even a few.

By all means, new techniques such as CRISPR can and should be applied where they can bring genuine medical benefit. But I caution that high-tech medical benefit comes with social costs—and that high-tech biomedical hype always overreaches real clinical reality.

DNA as Commodity

Here’s a riddle: In the morning I was in the soup. At noon I was in a dish. In the afternoon I was in your gas tank. And at night I am in the bank. What am I?

The answer is DNA. From a natural object emerging, some say, from a primordial soup, to a laboratory object, to a cultural object, it has become data, a special string of computer code endowed with the power to foretell disease, identify criminals, and be leveraged, like software, as a product.

from venturebeat.com

Robert Resta, a genetic counselor and always a reliable source of depressing, ironic, frightening, and amusing stories about heredity and DNA, forwards this piece, by @alexlash, from Xconomy.com on how your DNA is becoming commodified. What’s happening is interesting not for how new it is, but for the way in which the exotic is becoming commonplace. Featuring the San Francisco biotech company Invitae, the piece shows how this small but highly capitalized company is taking on giants such as Illumina, 23andMe, and Myriad in a bid to monetize your sequence—and give you a small cut.

The troubling thing is how commonplace this is all becoming. Nothing Invitae is doing is really new. They want to persuade you to donate your genome to their database, where it can be analyzed to inform you about your health, contribute to research, and be sold to other companies who might use it for anything from curing cancer to targeted advertising. Invitae CEO Randy Scott he is not bringing in new tests–only offering existing ones all in one place, an approach he calls “generic genetics.” (“Generic genomics” would be more accurate–this is about as far from Gregor Mendel as you can get with a double helix.) And he wants to include users in the process, so that if their sequence is bundled into some DNA-based product, you get a tiny royalty. Sort of like allowing ads on your blog.

For some time, historians and sociologists of science have been writing about “biological citizenship,” the idea that we’re coming to base our identity on our biological status rather than our labor. Many people today identify more as a cancer survivor, as living with depression, or as gluten-intolerant than as a carpenter, secretary, or professor.

DNA has been a big part of that shift to biological citizenship. It’s not the only thing, of course, but it’s a big one. DNA, a hypothetical Marxist historian (there are still a few!) might say, came to have “use value.” We hear every day suggestions that our genes make us who we are. Leaving aside for the moment whether they actually do—a challenge for me, as regular readers know—we believe our DNA to be the secret of life. And so, in a sense, it is.

What’s happening now is that use value is being converted into exchange value. DNA is becoming a currency. An investment account we’re all born with. What are you going to do with yours? Hide it under a mattress? Or make it work for you?

One could imagine a day when there’s a new kind of hereditary aristocracy. A group of nouveau riche whose wealth nevertheless was inherited. Those who, through no effort of their own, received a legacy of valuable SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms). But it will take a go-getter to capitalize on that legacy. You’ll have to have ambition, street smarts, and at least a bit of lab smarts.

Marx also said that history was determined by the material reality of the individual. One might now say the molecular reality of the individual. But total self-awareness at the molecular level won’t lead to the end of exploitation of man by man. Indeed, it is only the beginning.

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.

23andMe, myself, and I

Here is the new ad from 23andMe that will begin airing shortly on cable TV*:

Genomics is going mainstream and the best news is first that it’s real simple and second that it’s all about me.

Let’s take the most obvious first: the “me” meme. Of course this relates to the company name, but the ad takes me to a new level. It makes “you” your DNA. I give them points for a couple of qualifiers — it “helps” make me who I am, one character says. But the overall message is that you are your genes.

It also exploits the meme of egocentrism. Nearly everything today seems to be all about me. Memoirs are the hottest genre of nonfiction. We have a magazine called “Self.” One of the most common themes on commercial websites is to have a “My [company name]” area, which usually just means they have your personal information to use to sell you more stuff. There’s even a “.me” internet domain, which they advertise “is all about you.” Who isn’t curious about himself? I’m the most interesting topic in the world! And 23andMe will tell me about my true inner nature for just $99.

One element of personalized medicine, then, is narcissism. Another, more noble, element is individuality. No one is more committed to his individuality than I am—but I’m also wary of its dark side: selfishness. I am struck by the single reference to future generations (“what I will pass on to my kids”). Again, this is a two-sided coin. In the Progressive era, the literature on genetic medicine emphasized family and community. There isn’t a hint of that here. On the one hand, then, the ad is free of the eugenic message of controlling human evolution. On the other, it’s relentlessly selfish. Most likely, the reason for staying away from issues such as family, community, and responsibility is that it enables them to steer way wide of abortion. This ad is about me, not my kids and not the future. That’s actually a new and rather radical development in genetics. 

A persistent theme in popular literature from the 19th century to the 21st, is that hereditary information provides certainty. This despite the fact that one of the signal insights from genomics is how uncertain its results are. Genetic medicine today is all about probabilities, and to make informed decisions based on our genetics we have to understand how probability works. The ad works against this principle, promising certainty where there is only chance. “Now, I know” says one woman. No, you don’t. Now, you have a sense of risk—not certainty. This is a dangerous over-simplification.

double helix

Simplified double helix from Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper.

This sense of simplicity is also carried in the graphics. Note how there’s hardly a double helix in it. “Your” DNA is reduced to circles, dots, and lines. They move and whirl entertainingly and there’s just enough suggestion of complexity to carry the message that you can’t understand “you” without them‚ 23andMe. If DNA becomes as central to identity as companies such as 23andMe want to make it, this ad suggests that its iconic image may fade. Even the stripped-down ribbons and bars version is simply too complex for TV.


An early karyogram (of Down syndrome) from the 1960s.

A comprehensive chromosome map from UCSF.

Screen shot from 23andMe commercial. Her “DNA” is those two colorful cylinders by her ear.

Most of the genetic “knowledge” promised is simple enough to be carried in the one- and two-syllable words that dominate mass-market media. Genetic medicine, stuffed as it is with Latinate and Greek words, is a tough sell in that market, but the ad pulls it off. At 0:21 we hear the longest word in the ad: “hemochromatosis.” The speaker pauses after the second syllable, to suggest empathy with viewers who get hung up on such terms. According to the Mayo Clinic website, hemochromatosis is indeed usually inherited, is rarely serious, is most common in men, and is the most common genetic disease in Caucasians. The ad script gives this word to a black man. Thus, one of the ad’s subtle messages is to erase racial differences—even differences supported by scientific evidence. It’s a commonplace in TV ads nowadays to feature men and women of many hues, but the 23andMe ad takes it a step further.

Another theme of the commercial is the way it suggests communities based around biological identities of health and disease. Once, our primary identities were with those who lived near us, or shared our work or hobbies or politics. But politics has become personal, our communities are digital, and our identities center around health. The sociologist Nikolas Rose calls this “biological citizenship.” The 23andMe website features forums where members who share particular mutations or risks can discuss diets, lifestyle habits, child-bearing decisions–or their pets, if they wish. They are communities based around health. The ad sends the message that race, class, and gender are no longer our defining social themes: what matters now is health and disability.

We hear so much about the importance of educating the public about their biology as a key component of contemporary personalized medicine, but in this ad that biology is reduced to bumper-sticker-like phrases about this circle “saying” I will have blue eyes and that line segment “saying” I have a risk of this or that disease. Learning about me will be fun, easy, and inexpensive. Thank goodness I can mail off a C-note, spit in a cup, and in a few weeks get a report that simplifies it all in language I can understand. The ad ends with a rainbow of people chanting “Me. Me. Me.” It’s the “Om” of the 21st century.


*h/t to Bob Resta for sending the link to the ad, and to Shirley Wu (@shwu) for a tweet that showed me that the hemochromatosis passage was too terse in yesterday’s version. I’d been wanting to add something about biological citizenship and Shirley’s comment suggested a way to do it.




Stop saying “biologically programmed,” goddamit!

Here’s your quick daily dose of biological determinism. This is nice because it combines deterministic thinking about both genes and brains. If this article were a bird it would be a Great Blue Heron–not exactly rare, but impressive nonetheless. I’m going to pick on it, largely because I slept like crap last night and I’m feeling cranky.

US News and World Report asks, “Could a gene help make you obese?” Okay, that right there is either shocking (You mean it’s not just eating too much?) or trivial (No shit. Genes could and indeed do help in making me everything I am).

People who carry two copies of a variant form of the “FTO” gene are more likely to feel hungry soon after eating a meal, because they carry higher levels of the hunger-producing hormone ghrelin in their bloodstream, an international team of scientists found.

Holy crap! There’s a hunger-producing hormone? Bip! Bip! Bip! “Hello, World Health Organization? Yea, look, this is gonna sound crazy, but we can END WORLD HUNGER TOMORROW! Seriously! All we need is four tanker-freighters of anti-ghrelin…”

What’s more, brain scans revealed this double FTO gene variant changes the way in which the brain reacts to food and ghrelin.

Oh god, where’s the Alka-Seltzer? I knew I shouldn’t have had that third plate of deep-fried ghrelin poppers before the game last night. Probably why I slept so crappy…

And now we come to the neuro-determinism part of the post.

People with the double variant displayed different neural responses in the brain region known to regulate appetite and the pleasure/reward center that normally responds to alcohol and recreational drug use.

I don’t have a problem with referencing the nucleus accumbens, the so-called “pleasure center.” That research is decades old. But the phrasing here subtly and repeatedly encourages the crass phrenological misperception that the brain is just a bunch of lumps each dedicated to some 21st century activity, like chugging Jaegermeister, snorting Adderall, and swallowing whole Twinkies. It’s not, people. The genome doesn’t work like that and the brain doesn’t work like that. It seems that way, because we study them by trying to figure out how brains and genes influence stuff we already do. When you look from the bottom up at how they work to produce signals, it turns out to be much more complex and subtle.

“Oh, but Genotopia,” the journalist complains. “I can’t go on about the nucleus accumbens! I know it’s a simplification, but these little short-cuts are necessary in order to write about complex science for wide audiences!”

Okay, whiner, I’ll do it for you. Ta-da:

People with the double variant displayed greater activity in two key brain regions, one involved in creating the sensation of hunger, the other linked to feelings of pleasure.

You see? Easy. A couple of little tweaks and you introduce hints of contingency and inter-connectedness, rather than implying that we’re all made out of Legos. No waffling, and no Latin.

Just so the poor writer doesn’t feel singled out, the scientists do it too. The lead author on the study says,

 “What this study shows us is that individuals with two copies of the obesity-risk FTO variant are biologically programmed to eat more.”

Really? You’re going to go with “biologically programmed”? I thought we got rid of that language just after Jurassic Park. People homozygous for this one variant may well show a statistical correlation with obesity. It may even be legitimate to say they have a predisposition to eat more. But for Mendel’s sake, ban the cyborg-speak, will you?

Okay, I have to get to work, so I’m not going to go through this entire article. But look, this is an increasingly important issue. We are constantly being told how we have to take our healthcare into our own hands. Education is crucial. And the single most important concept in dealing with the really complex systems of the body–the genome, the brain, the immune system–is probability. By 2013, deterministic speech like this is just laziness. Good science writers and careful scientists don’t say this stuff any more. Doing so is a real disservice to a public that is increasingly dependent on translations of science for its understanding of biology and health. Trash those old metaphors, adopt a few new clichés and stock phrases, and we will be a long way toward a healthier understanding of our own bodies.