Saturday, January 10, 2009

Steven Pinker on Personal Genomics

The Jan 11th edition of the New York Times Magazine has a cover story by my favorite thinker describing his experiences with genome testing, and he finds the same lack of satisfaction that I have.  He coins the term “Geno’s Paradox”, to describe how with genomics it seems that the more you know the less you know.  My experience with the 23andme test is that yes, I’m glad I tested myself, but what did I really learn?  Like Pinker, I find myself using my knowledge of myself to make sense of the test results, rather than the other way around.

Some interesting takeaways from the essay:

  • He didn’t have the guts to test himself for Alzheimer’s.  [unlike me]
  • Although he has the bitterness receptor (unlike me], he still enjoys brocolli and beer.  So what good does the gene do?
  • He’s a libertarian! [like me]
  • The company Counsyl specializes in pre-natal genetic testing, a good idea before you have kids.

He doesn’t use the Taleb term “narrative fallacy”, but that’s what he means when describing the need that people have to explain why they turned out the way they did—even if it’s untrue.

some good quotes:

The most prominent finding of behavioral genetics has been summarized by the psychologist Eric Turkheimer: “The nature-nurture debate is over. . . . All human behavioral traits are heritable.” By this he meant that a substantial fraction of the variation among individuals within a culture can be linked to variation in their genes. Whether you measure intelligence or personality, religiosity or political orientation, television watching or cigarette smoking, the outcome is the same. Identical twins (who share all their genes) are more similar than fraternal twins (who share half their genes that vary among people). Biological siblings (who share half those genes too) are more similar than adopted siblings (who share no more genes than do strangers). And identical twins separated at birth and raised in different adoptive homes (who share their genes but not their environments) are uncannily similar.

[this is obvious to anyone who has children]

Although Pinker is clearly doubtful about the short-term promise of genetics testing, I actually think the situation is even more complicated.  What if much of our “environment” is determined by all those genes from the bacteria inside our bodies, some of which are inherited, some of which just arrives through whatever accidents life presents us.  In that case we’d have something with a genetic component (bacterial genes) combined with an environmental one (how we picked up the bug).  How in the world would you ever be able to analyze that amount of complexity?   But like he says:

Personal genomics is here to stay... People who have grown up with the democratization of information will not tolerate paternalistic regulations that keep them from their own genomes…There are risks of misunderstandings, but there are also risks in much of the flimflam we tolerate in alternative medicine, and in the hunches and folklore that many doctors prefer to evidence-based medicine. And besides, personal genomics is just too much fun.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You might be interested in trying out the (free) program Promethease, which runs your 23andMe data against all the DNA variation data in SNPedia. [Promethease also works on DNA data provided by other companies.]

SNPedia is a wiki intended to grow with the field, driven by user interest. Stephen Pinker's and your comments are especially interesting given what you see in common (or not) as what's of most value in DNA testing both today, and, tomorrow.