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“Personalized genetics” as an aid to fantasies about oneself

Johns Hopkins history of medicine prof Nathaniel Comfort takes a swipe at the “personalized genetics” fad, exemplified by a genome mapping company called 23andMe:

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.

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.

Most of the genetic “knowledge” promised is simple enough to be carried in the one- and two-syllable words that dominate mass-market media. …

As Comfort notes, it’s interesting that early twentieth century eugenics obsessed about genes in such a way as to deny individuality, but today, the nonsense is “all about me.” Except, of course, it isn’t. It’s really all about the latest self-delusions that all us little me’s will experience when we get the $99 reports. The future itself has yet to be heard from—as always.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

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One Response to “Personalized genetics” as an aid to fantasies about oneself

  1. Heredity is not destiny. I seem to recall having this discussion with Proton a while ago. Genomic medicine promises treatments for diseases based on one’s own DNA, but now scientists are attempting to find genetic causes and cures for human pathology and behavior.

    After ten years of work by six teams of researchers, the gene linked to Huntington’s disease was isolated, although the researchers have no idea how the gene causes the disease. However, reporting on this research, Scientific American quoted Harvard biologist Evan Balaban, who said that it would be “almost infinitely harder to discover genes for behavioral disorders.”

    In fact, research attempting to link specific genes to human behavior has been unsuccessful. For instance, in Psychology Today, a report on efforts to find genetic causes for depression states: “Epidemiologic data on the major mental illnesses make it clear that they can’t be reduced to purely genetic causes.” It thus concludes that only external or social factors can bring about such dramatic changes in such a short time.

    What do these and numerous other studies tell us? While genes may play a role in shaping our personalities, there clearly are other influences. A major factor is our environment, which has undergone radical changes in modern times. The book Boys Will Be Boys observes that it is unlikely that children will develop sound moral principles when they “grow up watching tens of thousands of hours of TV shows and films in which people are assaulted, shot, stabbed, disemboweled, chopped up, skinned, or dismembered, when children grow up listening to music which glorifies rape, suicide, drugs, alcohol, and bigotry.”

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