Tag Archives: genomics

The gene for hubris

A recent post by Jon Entine on the Forbes website leads with a complimentary citation of my book– and then goes on to undermine its central thesis. He concludes:

Modern eugenic aspirations are not about the draconian top-down measures promoted by the Nazis and their ilk. Instead of being driven by a desire to “improve” the species, new eugenics is driven by our personal desire to be as healthy, intelligent and fit as possible—and for the opportunity of our children to be so as well. And that’s not something that should be dismissed lightly.

Well, first of all, as the recent revelations of coerced sterilization of prisoners in California shows, “draconian, top-down” measures do still occur. Genetics and reproduction are intensely potent, and wherever we find abuse of power we should be alert to the harnessing of biology in the service of tyranny.

Second, there’s more than one kind of tyranny. Besides the tyranny of an absolute ruler, perhaps the two most potent and relevant here are the tyranny of the commons and the tyranny of the marketplace. The fact that they are more subtle makes them in some ways more dangerous. The healthcare industry does much good in the world, but it is naive to treat it as wholly benign.

Further, putting human evolution in the hands of humans, means accepting long-term consequences for short-term goals. The traits we value–health, intelligence, beauty–are the result of the action of many genes interacting with each other and with a dynamic environment. The entire system is contingent, inherently unpredictable. Yet we treat it as simple and deterministic. Until now, technology has been the major obstacle to guiding human evolution. It may be that now the major obstacle is our reasoning ability, our capacity for grasping contingency and probability and change. We’re tinkering with the machinery of a system whose complexity is still unfolding before us. The probability of unforeseen consequences is 100%. The only question is how severe they will be. We will only know in retrospect.

If we now have the tools to meaningfully guide our own evolution–as eugenicists have always wanted to do–we cannot take a blithe and Panglossian attitude. We have to be alert to the risks and take them seriously. That is not traditionally science’s strong suit. The public face of science is sunny, optimistic, fun. It strides boldly into the future, laughing and making striking promises. The industries behind science and health are wealthy and politically powerful. Not everything they do is benign.

To be a critic of that public-relations machine–of hype, in other words–is not to be a critic of health or knowledge or progress. Genetic science has the potential to bring us enormous benefits in health and well-being, and as they do, I stand in line with my fellow humans for my fair share. But that science also carries huge and unforeseeable risks, the root of which, perhaps, is arrogance. It’s one whose consequences are painfully evident in the historical record.


Criminomics: stopping crime before it starts

Criminomics Bears Fruit: 2037 Murder Rate Lowest Since 1964


Dylan looks like any normal six-year-old. He is bright and a little mischievous, has many friends, and is praised by his teachers as a model student. But his normalcy is only skin deep. In his cells lies the DNA of a murderer.

Though Dylan has gene variants that give him a more than 90% chance of premeditated mass murder, he will never commit a crime. Thanks to early intervention by doctors, Dylan’s criminal tendencies were identified before birth. Rather than abort the fetus, however, Dylan’s parents agreed to an intensive program of medication and counseling that will all but ensure that Dylan will lead a happy, normal, peaceful life.

Dylan is one of the success stories of the Criminal Genome Project, or CGP, the effort to sequence the complete set of genes involved in murder and other antisocial behaviors. The controversial science on which this project is based—criminomics—is winning converts, now that the latest crime figures are in. Last year, the annual murder rates in 8 American cities dropped to double digits for the first time since the middle of the twentieth century. In Washington, DC, only 90 people died by gunshot last year, down from 103 in 2036. Experts attribute the drop to criminopathy, a medical and public-health approach to crime based on criminomics. The criminomic method uses high-speed genome sequencing to to identify criminal tendencies at birth and begin treatment early in life. Clinical trials for criminal-gene therapy, which would eliminate antisocial tendencies permanently, are underway and, though preliminary, are showing promising early results. The first criminopathic patients are just hitting their 20s now—and the peace is deafening.

The CGP is run by Dr. Bart O’Day, a criminomicist at the Baler Agricultural and Behavioral University in the Republic of Texas. O’Day wrote the grant proposal that funded the project after a tragic shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut in 2012 in which 20 children and 6 adults were killed by a lone gunman. Thankfully, such a crime has since become unimaginable, thanks to the efforts of O’Day and his colleagues.

“It was an obvious thing to do,” O’Day said. “In the years just before the CGP, we had sequenced the cancer genome, the influenza genome, the pseudome, the schizome, and the retardome. The criminome was just lying in wait for us. So the science was there. All we needed was the motivation.”

In fact, the motivation had been there for 150 years. In the 1870s, the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso defined a “criminal type,” characterized by distinctive facial features and, ironically, the excessive use of tattooing, which he used in one of the first systematic attempts to prevent crime by biological methods.[1] About the same time, the Victorian polymath Francis Galton developed “composite photography,” in which he superimposed images of faces as a means of identifying the “criminal type.” “If criminals are found to have certain special types of features, that certain personal peculiarities distinguish those who commit certain classes of crime,” observed Edmund DuCane, one of the leading criminologists of Victorian England, “the tendency to crime is in those persons born or bred in them, and either they are incurable or the tendency can only be checked by taking them in hand at the earliest periods of life.”[2]

With the creation of the science of genetics after the turn of the last century, vaguenesses such as “inborn tendencies” and “heredity” hardened into “genes.” In 1914, the American psychologist Henry H. Goddard wrote, “The criminal is not born; he is made.” Goddard traced criminality to mental retardation, or “feeble-mindedness,” in the term of the day. By compassionately treating feeble-mindedness, Goddard believed one could prevent crime. The feeble-minded type, Goddard wrote, was “misunderstood and mistreated, driven into criminality for which he is well fitted by nature. It is hereditary feeble-mindedness not hereditary criminality that accounts for the conditions.”[3] Goddard believed he had found a single Mendelian gene for feeble-mindedness. By breeding it out of the population, he thought he could eliminate crime, as well as poverty, prostitution, and much illness. Though the feeblemindedness gene has been discredited, Goddard’s belief that crime is a genetic disease rather than a perverse exercise of free will has transformed our criminal justice system.

The decisive step was in reframing crime in terms of public health rather than justice. In the early1990s, the National Institute of Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health (today subsumed under the National Institute of Genomics) undertook a massive Violence Initiative based on similar principles. It pursued a public health approach to urban crime, which, proponents recognized, was based on biology (and therefore, ultimately, genes).[4] Uncontroversial at first, liberal opposition to the effort mounted, ultimately leading to the canceling of a scientific conference on genetic factors in crime in 1992.[5] This first Violence Initiative died a rather brutal and noisy death. Yet work on the biological basis of crime continued apace. In 1995, a Danish twin study identified the first crime gene, and more were identified shortly after the turn of the century.

But it was high-speed genome sequencing, combined with sophisticated methods of correlating complex behaviors with DNA sequence, that finally provided the technological breakthrough to stop crime before it starts. After the 2012 school shooting, it took a full year for O’Day’s team to sequence the criminal genome (today it could be done in an afternoon). But in 2014, they published paper describing 112 gene variants that together account for more than 99% of predisposition to murder. The genes were patented and licensed to pharmaceutical companies, and seven new targeted therapies were quickly added to the standard psychiatric armamentarium of anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. The federal Violence Initiative was reinstated in 2015 as the Institute of Crime Prevention (ICM), a branch of the National Institutes of Mental Health.

The first mandatory screening for criminal tendencies was put in place in Washington, DC, in 2018. Other states quickly followed; today, only West Dakota and North Virginia lack screening laws. Convicted murderers were the first to be screened. The ICM then tied crime screening to the back-to-school vaccination requirements for students in secondary and primary schools. Most states now test babies at birth, with blood from the standard heel-stick. Babies born with greater than 50% chance of committing murder have their standard RFID chips, implanted in every child at birth, encoded with the designation “Precrim.”

Individuals identified as precriminal are placed under the care of a criminopathic physician, assigned a health care worker, and given criminal prophylaxis: a treatment regimen tailored to their genetic and environmental circumstances. In all cases, this involves a combination of medications and counseling designed to maintain equanimity, promote sociality, and minimize the risk of triggers, including certain music and video games. Teachers and the parents of friends can discretely scan the child and take steps to minimize conflict and quickly intervene should violence erupt. Most states now prohibit the guardians of precrims from keeping firearms in their homes. NRA members oppose such bans, pointing out that since precrims can be dosed so as to ensure docility with a wide margin of safety, prohibiting guns in precrim homes is overkill.

Combined, these methods have proven remarkably effective. Murder rates began dropping as soon as the programs were put in place, but as the first neonatal precrims hit their teens, rates began to plummet. The rates of other violent crimes have also begun to fall, though somewhat more slowly: rapes are down in most states, as are armed robberies and even grafitti and illegal dumping. Scientists at the CGP explain these results by hypothesizing that many criminal behaviors share a common genetic mechanism, possibly related to emotional intelligence.

For all its success, the program has its opponents. Eugene Galton, a member of the Galton dynasty of scientific criminologists, recognizes the benefits of the criminopathy program but thinks the social costs are too high. “Liberty is too high a price to pay for safety,” he says. “We’re ceding our free will to an iatrocracy—a government by the doctors.”

Such philosophical musings carry little weight with inner-city residents who now sleep more peacefully, without the constant pops of gunfire that once punctuated the night. Dylan’s mother sees safety as the best kind of freedom: “I prefer a war with drugs to a War on Drugs,” she says. “I love my son; I’d rather put chemical bars around his mind than steel ones around his body.”

[2] Galton, “Composite portraits,” 143.

[4] Extrapolating slightly from Breggin, Reclaiming our children, p. 52.

[5] New York Times, Sept. 5, 1992, front page. See also Allen, Garland E. “Modern Biological Determinism: The Violence Initiative, the Human Genome Project, and the New Eugenics.” In The Practice of Human Genetics, 1-23, 1999.


New findings suggest scientists not getting smarter

Certain critics of rigid genetic determinism have long believed that the environment plays a major role in shaping intelligence. According to this view, enriched and stimulating surroundings should make one smarter. Playing Bach violin concertos to your fetus, for example, may nudge it toward future feats of fiddling, ingenious engineering, or novel acts of fiction. Although this view has been challenged, it persists in the minds of romantics and parents–two otherwise almost non-overlapping populations.

If environmental richness were actually correlated with intelligence, then those who live and work in the richest environments should be measurably smarter than those not so privileged.  And what environment could be richer than the laboratory? Science is less a profession than a society within our society–a meritocracy based on an economy of ideas. Scientists inhabit a world in which knowledge accretes and credit accrues inexorably, as induction, peer review, and venture capital fuel the engines of discovery and innovation. Science has become the pre-eminent intellectual enterprise of our time–and American science proudly leads the world. The American biomedical laboratory is to the 21st century what the German university was to the 19th; what Dutch painting was to the 17th; the Portuguese sailing ship to the 16th; the Greek Lyceum to the minus 5th.

According to this view, then, scientists should be getting smarter. One might measure this in various ways, but Genotopia, being quantitatively challenged, prefers the more qualitative and subjective measure of whether we are making the same dumb mistakes over and over. So we are asking today: Are scientists repeating past errors and thus sustaining and perhaps compounding errors of ignorance? Are scientists getting smarter?

Yes and no. A pair of articles (12) recently published in the distinguished journal Trends in Genetics slaps a big juicy data point on the graph of scientific intelligence vs. time–and Senator, the trend in genetics is flat. The articles’ author, Gerald Crabtree, examines recent data on the genetics of intelligence. He estimates that, of the 20,000 or so human genes, between 2,000 and 5,000 are involved in intelligence. This, he argues, makes human intelligence surprisingly “fragile.” In a bit of handwaving so vigorous it calls to mind the semaphore version of Wuthering Heights, he asserts that these genes are strung like links in a chain, rather than multiply connected, as nodes of a network. He imagines the genes for intelligence to function like a biochemical pathway, such that any mutation propagates “downstream”, diminishing the final product–the individual’s god-given and apparently irremediable brainpower.


Beginning in 1865, the polymath Francis Galton fretted that Englishmen were getting dumber. In his Hereditary Genius (1865) he concluded that “families are apt to become extinct in proportion to their dignity” (p. 140). He believed that “social agencies of an ordinary character, whose influences are little suspected, are at this moment working towards the degradation of human nature,” although he acknowledged that others were working toward its improvement. (1) The former clearly outweighed the latter in the mind of Galton and other Victorians; hence Galton’s “eugenics,” an ingenious scheme for human improvement through the machinations of “existing law and sentiment.” Galton’s eugenics was a system of incentives and penalties for marriage and childbirth, meted out according to his calculations of social worth.This is a familiar argument to students of heredity. The idea that humans are degenerating–especially intellectually–persists independently of how much we know about intelligence and heredity. Which is to say, no matter how smart we get, we persist in believing we are getting dumber.

Galton was just one exponent of the so-called degeneration theory: the counter-intuitive but apparently irresistible idea that technological progress, medical advance, improvements in pedagogy, and civilization en masse in fact are producing the very opposite of what we supposed; namely, they are crippling the body, starving the spirit, and most of all eroding the mind.

The invention of intelligence testing by Alfred Binet just before the turn of the 20th century provided a powerful tool for proving the absurd. Though developed as a diagnostic to identify children who needed a bit of extra help in school–an enriched environment–IQ testing was quickly turned into a fire alarm for degeneration theorists. When the psychologist Robert M. Yerkes administered a version of the test to Army recruits during the first world war, he concluded that better than one in eight of America’s Finest were feebleminded–an inference that is either ridiculous or self-evident, depending on one’s view of the military.

These new ways of quantifying intelligence dovetailed perfectly with the new Mendelian genetics, which was developed beginning in 1900. Eugenics—a rather thin, anemic, blue-blooded affair in Victorian England, matured in Mendelian America into a strapping and cocky young buck, with advocates across the various social and political spectra embracing the notion of hereditary improvement. Eugenics advocates of the Progressive era tended to be intellectual determinists. Feeblemindedness–a catch-all for subnormal intelligence, from the drooling “idiot” to the high-functioning “moron”—was their greatest nightmare. It seemed to be the root of all social problems, from poverty to prostitution to ill health.

And the roots of intelligence were believed to be genetic. In England, Cyril Burt found that Spearman’s g (for “general intelligence”)—a statistical “thing,” derived by factor analysis and believed by Spearman, Burt, and others to be what IQ measures—was fixed and immutable, and (spoiler alert) poor kids were innately stupider than rich kids. In America, the psychologist Henry Goddard, superintendent of the Vineland School for the Feebleminded in New Jersey and the man who had introduced IQ testing to the US, published Feeblemindedness: Its Causes and Consequences in 1914. Synthesizing years of observations and testing of slow children, he suggested–counter to all common sense–that feeblemindedness was due to a single Mendelian recessive gene. This observation was horrifying, because it made intelligence so vulnerable–so “fragile.” A single mutation could turn a normal individual into a feebleminded menace to society.

As Goddard put it in 1920, “The chief determiner of human conduct is the unitary mental process which we call intelligence.” The grade of intelligence for each individual, he said, “is determined by the kind of chromosomes that come together with the union of the germ cells.” Siding with Burt, the experienced psychologist wrote that intelligence was “conditioned by a nervous mechanism that is inborn, and that it was “but little affected by any later influence” other than brain injury or serious disease. He called it “illogical and inefficient” to attempt any educational system without taking this immovable native intelligence into account. (Goddard, Efficiency and Levels of Intelligence, 1920, p 1)

This idea proved so attractive that a generation of otherwise competent and level-headed reserchers and clinicians persisted in believing it, again despite it being as obvious as ever that the intellectual horsepower you put out depends on the quality of the engine parts, the regularity of the maintenance you invest in it, the training of the driver, and the instruments you use to measure it.

The geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller was not obsessed with intelligence, but he was obsessed with genetic degeneration. Trained at the knobby knees of some of the leading eugenicists of the Progressive era, Muller–a fruitfly geneticist by day and a bleeding-heart eugenicist by night–fretted through the 1920s and 1930s about environmental assaults on the gene pool: background solar radiation, radium watch-dials, shoestore X-ray machines, etc. The dropping of the atomic bombs on the Japanese sent him into orbit. In 1946 he won a Nobel prize for his discovery of X-ray-induced mutation, and he used his new fame to launch a new campaign on behalf of genetic degeneration. The presidency of the new American Society of Human Genetics became his bully pulpit, from which he preached nuclear fire and brimstone: our average “load of mutations,” he calculated, was about eight damaged genes–and growing. Crabtree’s argument thus sounds a lot like Muller grafted onto Henry Goddard.

In 1968, the educational psychologist Arthur Jensen produced a 120-page article that asserted that compensatory education–the idea that racial disparities in IQ correlate with opportunities more than innate ability, and accordingly that they can be reduced by enriching the learning environments of those who test low–was futile. Marshaling an impressive battery of data, most of which were derived from Cyril Burt, Jensen insisted that blacks are simply dumber than whites, and (with perhaps just a hint of wistfulness) that Asians are the smartest of all. Jensen may not have been a degenerationist sensu strictu, but his opposition to environmental improvement earns him a data point.

In 1990, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published their infamous book, The Bell Curve. Their brick of a book was a masterly and authoritative rehash of Burt and Jensen, presented artfully on a platter of scientific reason and special pleading for the brand of reactionary politics that is reserved for those who can afford private tutors. They found no fault with either Burt’s data (debate continues, but it has been argued that Burt was a fraud) or his conclusion that IQ tests measure Spearman’s g, that g is strongly inherited, and that it is innate. Oh yes, and that intellectually, whites are a good bit smarter than blacks but slightly dumber than Asians. Since they believed there is nothing we can do about our innate intelligence, our only hope is to “marry up” and try to have smarter children.

The Bell Curve appeared just at the beginning of the Human Genome Project. By 2000 we had a “draft” reference sequence for the human genome, and by 2004 (ck) “the” human genome was declared complete. Since the 1940s, human geneticists had focused on single-gene traits, especially diseases. One problem with Progressive era eugenics, researchers argued, was that they had focused on socially determined and hopelessly complex traits; once they set their sights on more straightforward targets, the science could at last advance.

But once this low-hanging fruit had been plucked, researchers began to address more complex traits once again. Disease susceptibility, multicausal diseases such as obesity, mental disorders, and intelligence returned to the fore. Papers such as Crabtree’s are vastly more sophisticated than Goddard’s tome. The simplistic notion of a single gene for intelligence is long gone; each of Crabtree’s 2,000-5,000 hypothetical intelligence genes hypothetically contributes but a tiny fraction of the overall. If you spit in a cup and send it to the personal genome testing company 23AndMe, they will test your DNA for hundreds of genes, including one that supposedly adds 7 points to your IQ (roughly 6 percent for an IQ of 110).

Thus we are back around to a new version of genes for intelligence. Despite the sophistication and nuance of modern genomic analyses, we end up concluding once again that intelligence is mostly hereditary and therefore also racial, and that it’s declining.

Apart from the oddly repetitious and ad hoc nature of the degeneration argument, what is most disconcerting is this one staring implication: that pointing out degeneration suggests a desire to do something about it. If someone were, say, sitting on the couch and called out, “The kitchen is sure a mess! Look at the plates all stacked there, covered with the remains of breakfast, and ick, flies are starting to gather on the hunks of Jarlsberg and Black Twig apples hardening and browning, respectively, on the cutting board,” you wouldn’t think he was simply making an observation. You’d think he was implying that you should get in there and clean up the damn kitchen. Which would be a dick move, because he’s just sitting there reading the Times, so why the heck doesn’t he do it himself. But the point is, sometimes observation implies action. If you are going to point out that the genome is broken, you must be thinking on some level that we can fix it. Thus, degeneration implies eugenics. Not necessarily the ugly kind of eugenics of coercive sterilization laws and racial extermination. But eugenics in Galton’s original sense of voluntary human hereditary improvement.

And thus, scientists do not appear to be getting any smarter. Despite the enriched environs of the modern biomedical laboratory, with gleaming toys and stimulating colleagues publishing a rich literature that has dismantled the simplistic genetic models and eugenic prejudices of yore, researchers such as Crabtree continue to believe the same old same old: that we’re getting dumber–or in danger of doing so.

In other words, sometimes the data don’t seem to matter. Prejudices and preconceptions leak into the laboratory, particularly on explosive issues such as intelligence and/or race, regardless of how heredity is constructed. Plenty of scientists are plenty smart, of course. But rehashing the degeneracy theory of IQ does not demonstrate it.

Release Mitt Romney’s Genome!

Sociologists say we live in an age of “biological citizenship,” in which our genetic ties are as important as our political ones, and in which communities bound by disease, disability, or allergy can be more close-knit than geographical neighborhoods. In this political season, then, we cannot afford to be ignorant about the biological status of our presidential candidates.

With this in mind, I issue a call for the Romney campaign to release their candidate’s genome sequence. Four years ago, conservatives sought the release of Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Widely perceived by the left as a scam to distract attention from the issues, the tactic nevertheless reflected the right’s alertness to biology as an important factor in fitness for office. They were fighting the wrong battle–the claim was not even 47% true–but genotopia takes the point about biology and politics. We need to know Mr. Romney’s genetic status if he is to be considered for the highest office in the land, that of Tax-Cutter-in-Chief.

As a Mormon, Mr. Romney’s genealogical relationships will surely be thoroughly documented in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. They will reveal many relevant facts about his biological status. For example, his inbreeding coefficient must, as stipulated by a little-known paragraph in the Republican platform, must be at least 0.75 (where 1.0 means you married your clone). Circumstantial evidence is not sufficient when the stakes are this high—we need to see the data.

Modern genome sequencing can also disclose many genetic conditions that could render one unfit for office:

  • In 2008, both embarrassment and campaign donations could have been spared had John McCain’s predisposition to dementia been identified.
  • A late-onset form of dementia known as Reagan’s disease has been shown to arise in the third year of the Presidential term, in afflicted individuals.
  • Ford’s ataxia, a loss of muscular control in the limbs and neck, leads to lack of coordination and often results in injury, often serious but always comical. Most often seen in former athletes who become politicians, it is inherited as a predisposition that is then made patent through lifestyle choices.
  • Genome-wide association studies have also shown high probabilization of destitution in the grammaticalness thingy of the brain—a condition known as Bushism—that could be devastating for the Decider.
  • Recently, single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, or “snips”) have also been identified that show strong (well, okay, weak—but some, definitely some) correlation with proposed genes for politophobia (morbid fear of government) and aeronautaphasia, the inability to grasp aerodynamics.
  • Multiple Spousal Cadillac Syndrome—once thought relatively benign—has now been decisively linked to the tragic and devastating psychiatric condition hyperpecuniphilia, an obsessive-compulsive disorder that in late stages can lead to the afflicted sitting amid giant piles of cash, running coins through his fingers and crying out, “Mine, ha ha! All mine!”

The only way these and countless other politicogenetic disasters can be decisively avoided is by getting Mr. Romney to step up to the plate and spit into the cup. Indeed, the Romney campaign should be anxious to prove their candidate’s biological fitness. A quick-and-dirty genome profile can be had for a few hundred dollars, and a gold-plated whole genome analysis for a few thousand. We should demand that Mr. Romney produce his entire sequence for public scrutiny and haplotype analysis. Remember: should he win in November, Paul Ryan would be just a SNP away from the Oval Office.

Sign me up

Check out the delicious spoof over at The DNA Exchange. It’s a program for the “National Education Conference of the National Society of Genome Service Specialists.” Sponsored by the likes of “UneedaTest, Inc.,” “Twist-of-Fate, Inc.,” and “BraveNew Analytics,” the conference program features panel discussions such as “Clinical trials—a barrier to patient uptake of new genetic tests” and “Fear of genetic disease—your best marketing tool.” Breakout counseling sessions include “How To Appear To Promote Autonomy, Empower Patients, And Seem Non-Directive – But Still Increase Hospital Revenue.”

No conference is complete without awards. This one includes the Huntington Award for most TestAll tests ordered for adult onset diseases in a pediatric setting and the GATTACA award For Strongest Advocate of the TestAll! Really, Really Expanded Newborn Screening Panel.

At day’s end, conferees can hoist a few at the Uneeda Party, “an evening of food, drink, fun, and clever sales pitches” by the sponsor, “not intended to influence your choice of genetic testing laboratory.”

It’s a wonderful send-up of some troubling potential conflicts of interest that may be brewing in the genetic counseling profession. Or is it?

The Science of Human Perfection

I’ve started a new page–it will stay in the header bar above–for my forthcoming book, The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine, due this summer from Yale University Press. The book is a history of the promises of genetic medicine, from the late 19th through the late 20th centuries. It shows how genetics went from being a backwater of agricultural science to the core of biomedicine. Eugenics, I find, was not a hindrance to genetics going medical, but the vehicle by which it went medical.

I’ve posted a link to the Preface, and will post news about it there as it comes in. Enjoy!

Dorkins Speaks!

After months of emails, instant messages, not-so-instant messages, and dammit-downright-slow messages attempting to get his attention, Genotopia has finally secured an interview with Dick Dorkins, the professional cynic, atheist, and genomics enthusiast. Genotopia readers first met Dorkins when he commented on the discovery of a gene for thalassophilia. Best known for his work with SPITTOON, the Society for the Prevention of Intelligent-design, Theology, or Other Nonsense, Dorkins is also an outspoken advocate for personal genomics, which he champions as the true path to spiritual enlightenment. In this first part of our interview, he tells about “Project Dick,” his effort to sequence his own genome, and the breakthrough technique that has made it possible.


GT: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us.

DD: Don’t be an ass. I’m just banging out ex cathedra ripostes in between doing things that matter.

GT: What matters?

DD: Well I do, for starters. But I’m not doing myself at the moment, if that’s what you’re implying.

GT: What are you doing then?

DD: If you must know, I’m looking at myself.

GT: In the mirror? Doesn’t that make it confusing to type?

DD: Don’t be an ass. Not my image. My self. My true self. My genome.

GT: Ah, your DNA sequence. But wait—your genome famously refused to be sequenced.

DD: That’s right, it did. But I kicked its nucleic butt and now it’s as docile as a retriever.

GT: How did you do that?

DD: Through a breakthrough technology called “nuclear sequencing.” Not as in the cell nucleus. As in Hiro-fucking-shima. You’ve heard of shotgun sequencing?

GT: Sure. Craig Venter’s technique of “blasting” the entire genome into smithereens of DNA, sequencing the fragments with high-powered automated sequencers, and stitching the pieces together using massive computing power. It’s how the Human Genome Project finished early.

DD: You’re not as dumb as you type. Well, as you know, I’ve formed a company to sequence my own genome. We call it “Project Dick.”

GT: Catchy. I like the ambiguity.

DD: I came up with it myself. Anyway, as you say, my genome was impervious to shotgun sequencing. It squinted down the barrel of Venter’s biggest ABI machine, tossed back its head and gave a bitter, defiant laugh: “Hahahaha.” There might even have been an evil “Bwa” at the beginning. We hit it with everything we had and when the smoke cleared my genome was still just sitting there smirking.

GT: Tough. What did you do?

DD: We invented machine-gun sequencing. But still, nothing. My genome wears kevlar nucleus armor. It drives an Armored Personnel Carrier. Not so surprising really, when you consider the individual it encodes. So this brilliant chap we’re collaborating with out at Stanfoo University, Will B. Rich, upped the ante, so to speak, and invented the atom bomb of DNA sequencing.

GT: How does it work?

DD: It literally destroys my DNA, atom by atom, and then reassembles it. The processing power this requires is staggering.

GT: My God.

DD: Not quite. Google.

GT: You hired Google to sequence your DNA?

DD: Hired? Don’t be an ass. Like God, Google is everywhere. We have written code that borrows computing cycles one at a time from every desktop and mobile device on the planet and uses them to assemble the sequence of my genome. In between the “A” and the question mark of your last question, your Android contributed one tiny piece of my genome. Your device is sequencing me. You are sequencing me.

GT: You’re welcome. So in a sense, Google already has all this information—about you, and, theoretically, anyone else—and you are simply tapping in and extracting it? Should we be concerned about this?

DD: Google knows. Google cares.

GT: Dick! What you’re suggesting is the exploitation for personal gain of a giant omniscient, omnipresent, celestial intelligence, privy to our every move and capable of probing into the deepest recesses of our genetic structure–and that moreover, it is in a sense voluntarily created by our desire for communication with our fellow man and our desire for really cool apps! Explain, please!

DD: Can’t. Later, at my leisure, I will try to explain it to you slowly. But it’s time for my cup of special Punjabi aceyjee tea. It has telomere-lengthening properties, don’t you know. So ciao for now.

(Check back later for Part II of our interview!)