Ruminations

Genetic Explanations: The Most Dangerous Game

I'm still entranced by the idea that we have just 19,000 genes (fewer than a nematode). Interspersed with vast "epigenetic" regions, formerly believed to be "junk DNA," but now thought to hold thousands of genes that while never coded, these genes still play some important role in the production of proteins, and subsequently in our lives and our health. Amazingly, 8 percent of our DNA is not even our own, but instead the leftovers of various viruses, which began ingratiating themselves into our being long before humans walked the earth, back to when our earliest mammalian ancestors were fighting off ancient diseases. 

Each of these stunning realities resonated deeply with me, but they served less to ignite my passion for genetic research, and more to prompt my interest in the tumultuousness of this particular field of research. Before I took a course in genetics last year, I had a very pop culture perspective of the field. I believed that many human behaviors could be linked to a genetic trait, but I learned that there are almost no firmly established connections between human behavior and a single gene, or even a constellation of genes. While geneticists are optimistic positivists and believe they will one day crack our chromosomal code, almost all will readily admit that they have been disappointed by the lackluster results of their research.

When it comes to disease, all of the "big ticket items," or obvious mutations and bad-luck combinations of genes that cause major illness, have been discovered. What remains are mysteries and minutia, like the giant, clouded question mark of diabetes, made murky by numerous intermediary sociocultural factors, or strange "orphan" diseases that affect so few people cases, making cases difficult to find and funding impossible to attract. 

The story is a bit different when it comes to behavior. Because no definitive conclusions have been drawn about even the biggest of big ticket items (say, a genetic component to crime), everything is up for study. There is no limit to the number of subjects to which one can turn. However, the work can feel impossible. While the line between a disease and a gene is often dark and decipherable, the line between human behavior and a gene is not so readily tracked, prone to fading and unexpected reroutes. I often wondered, sitting in class, listening to my professor lecture on the few answers and seemingly limitless questions of behavioral research, if perhaps we are searching for something that doesn't exist. Surely it should be easier to find the Holy Grail than this. 

But the real trouble comes with media reports on a newly discovered Holy Grail every day. (To be fair, the media is itself misled by overzealous social science researchers, who often draw genetic conclusions despite having no formal education in gene science.) Just this morning, I awoke to an article from The Economist on a "disturbing study of the link between incomes and criminal behaviour." The study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, states that there is, indeed, a connection between poverty and crime, just like everyone thought. However, it seems that even when a family's income increases, rates of crime amongst adolescents in the family remain the same. The Economist goes on to edify the reader about two possible conclusions drawn from this research: that family culture is "sticky," or that

Genes which predispose to criminal behaviour (several studies suggest such genes exist) are more common at the bottom of society than at the top, perhaps because the lack of impulse-control they engender also tends to reduce someone’s earning capacity.
— The Economist

I was stunned by this statement, which completely undermines the bulk of the scientific consensus that a "crime gene" does not actually exist. But I remain shocked, hours later, by the irrationality and insensitivity of the argument that not only does a crime gene exist, and exist primarily within poor families, but it serves to keep poor people poor. Such a statement promotes the faulty logic of genetic determinism, disabling populations by suggesting they cannot rise above their current situation, for their ancestral sins sit so snug in the spiral of their chromosomes.

And, perhaps most importantly in the context of this blog piece, it also extends genetic concepts far beyond their rightful scope (at this point in time, anyway, for who knows what the rapidly evolving field will know tomorrow, next year, or in the next decade?). Such a statement, and thousands of them are made everyday, by the Times and the Economist, by my neighbor and my best friend, stretches the principles of genetics so thin, I fear they cannot help but snap back with a snarl. 

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