Steven Pinker and his Genes

The psychologist gives a brief essay on genetic analysis and the possibility of consumer genomics in the New York Times.  He makes a number of interesting points about such analysis, concerning everything from Brussels sprouts to Jewishness to hair.  But a couple of the points he makes about health markers are worth noting.  First, in response to the idea that knowing your genetic destiny may be a burden, he simply denies it: that’s not how people behave.

As it turns out, we know what happens to people who do get the worst news. According to preliminary findings by the epidemiologist Robert C. Green, they don’t sink into despair or throw themselves off bridges; they handle it perfectly well. This should not be terribly surprising. All of us already live with the knowledge that we have the fatal genetic condition called mortality, and most of us cope using some combination of denial, resignation and religion. 

And, anyway: a destiny isn’t a destiny after all, and the overwhelmingly probabilistic results of a genetic analysis don’t (and oughtn’t) to make all that much difference to how we live: good advice is good advice whatever its provenance.

The two biggest pieces of news I got about my disease risks were a 12.6 percent chance of getting prostate cancer before I turn 80 compared with the average risk for white men of 17.8 percent, and a 26.8 percent chance of getting Type 2 diabetes compared with the average risk of 21.9 percent. Most of the other outcomes involved even smaller departures from the norm. For a blessedly average person like me, it is completely unclear what to do with these odds. A one-in-four chance of developing diabetes should make any prudent person watch his weight and other risk factors. But then so should a one-in-five chance.  (Emphasis mine.)

“Assessing risks from genomic data is not like using a pregnancy-test kit with its bright blue line,” he continues.  “It’s more like writing a term paper on a topic with a huge and chaotic research literature.”  And, optimistically, he concludes that

[m]any of the dystopian fears raised by personal genomics are simply out of touch with the complex and probabilistic nature of genes. Forget about the hyperparents who want to implant math genes in their unborn children, the “Gattaca” corporations that scan people’s DNA to assign them to castes, the employers or suitors who hack into your genome to find out what kind of worker or spouse you’d make. Let them try; they’d be wasting their time.

A lot of what Pinker has to say resonates in a pleasing way with the ideas expressed by Alex Mauron when he talks about the genome as a secular soul.  We like to think that the gene is essentially us – which is why we pay for “diagnostic” tests – although we’re also scared by that same thought, and we like to think that we’re more than just our genes.  We like to think that our genome tells us something deep about “us”, but don’t like to think that at the same time.  And, above all, we’re not very good about the information anyway.

In other words – genes call tell us the answers.  But they’ll only answer the questions we ask – not necessarily the ones we think we’re asking.

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