I have always had this perception that Gattaca is right around the corner. By the time my generation has children, it should be as easy as going to see a doctor and saying, “Well, you know, Doc, I have had bum knees my whole life. Can you give my boy the right genes so that his knees stay good?”
Kenneth Weiss, the Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology at Penn State, reminded the crowd at 100 Thomas that we are still a long way away from that scenario in a lecture titled “Life’s Little Problem: Determinism vs. Chance in the Complex Ways of Genomes.” If the hallmark of a good lecture is one that leaves the audience with a lot of questions, this man did his job well.
In a way, our understanding of genetics is something like physics prior to the discovery of Newton’s Laws. We have a general idea of how things work, but have only just begun to understand the mechanisms behind it. That’s to be expected; natural selection (the driving force behind evolution) moves on a much slower and grander scale than replicable experiments like the ones you performed in high school physics.
Scientists in the field of genetics and biology are tasked with taking what we know — our DNA — and figuring out how it makes us who we are today. The code is a few letters repeated millions and millions of times, seemingly randomly. There are patterns that show up, but it’s not always clear what they mean.
At times, geneticists must feel like Cypher from The Matrix staring at the monitors. “You get used to it. I don’t even see the code. All I see is blonde, brunette, redhead.”
Here’s what we know: there are dominant genes and recessive genes, but most traits like height or eye color or intelligence are the result of a combination of many genes. Having certain combinations of genes can lead to predicting traits, and having certain traits may be somehow linked to behavior.
Could it be? Is this the key to avoiding all personal responsibility? Sorry I had to hand in my homework late — it’s in my genes. I had better not tell my roommate about this or else he will blame his genes when it comes to his complete and utter inability to load a dishwasher.
Weiss does not put much faith in the use of genes as a predictor of behavior, but the truth is we don’t really know yet. It’s the age-old “determinism vs. chance” debate that has been ongoing since the dawn of man. Darwin thought you could acquire traits over the course of your life and pass them directly down to your offspring (soft inheritance). As it stands, the most accurate predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
As we grow to learn more about genetics, Weiss warns of this potential. One particularly straightforward question asked, “How does the modern study of genetics different from the Nazi eugenics program?” The audience chuckled, but Weiss was serious in his answer. “If you think our society — if you think human beings are all goodie-goodie people, and our society is not prone to being judgmental and refuses to use that data in a discriminatory way, then I think we really need to talk about that,” he said.
How the knowledge will manifest itself in our society is subject to forces beyond any individual’s control. But how about in cases where it applies directly to the lives of regular people? Consider the following:
Genetic counseling is a service offered to patients who want to know the risk of a child inheriting a disease or disorder. Weiss said of the service: buyer beware. This information can potentially lead to some tough choices that may even prevent couples from marrying in the first place.
If you and your spouse were recently expecting and were able to ascertain with 100% certainty that the baby would be cripplingly disabled, what decisions would you have to make? What about if it were 25%? Where is your personal cut-off point for ‘rolling the dice’, if you have one? Genetic counseling has its benefits, too. The use of genetic screening has aided in eliminating Tay-Sach’s disease in American Ashkenazi Jews.
As you can see, this is not a field for those with undeveloped morality. This research leads to tough questions, for which there are no certain answers. There is certainly no shortage of individuals who dedicate their lives to pursuing the greater goal: how did we evolve to become able to think about this in the first place?
This is the second in what will be an ongoing series entitled: Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science 2013. Last weekend’s lecture was titled, “Races, Faces, and Human Genetic Diversity.” Next week’s is titled, “Bringing Genomic Medicine into Focus.” The lectures take place at 11:00 a.m. every Saturday through February 23 in 100 Thomas.