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Health

Moderate marginal value to genomics

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJune 8, 2011 12:10 PM

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In the comments below when it comes to genomic privacy I expressed a rather carefree attitude toward the future possibilities of dark prediction. Over at FARK.com the comments were rather uniformly alarmed, and influenced by Gattaca. For example: "It's really kind of shocking how accurate Gattaca is turning out to be."

Unfortunately I haven't watched Gattaca.

I read a negative a review when the film came out, and since I don't watch many movies in any case I passed. This I've come to regret because of the influence of the film, whether it was great as a work of art or not, is strong enough today to routinely be referenced. It seems to have pretty good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and it's got some staying power on Google Trends. I keep meaning to watch it on Amazon Instant Video, but then there's the opportunity cost of time. So I did the second best thing, I read the plot summary on Wikipedia. The main thing I took away from reading the plot summary of the world of Gattacais that the power of genetics to predict the future is far greater in that world than it will likely ever be in our own world. Not only that, but the marginal value of genomics in terms of the behavioral predictions which people fear in particular is not going to be that great. By marginal value, I'm alluding to the fact that one of the best guides to how you will turn out is how your parents turn out. We know that much of the variation of many traits like I.Q., height, and personality is heritable variation, in that variation in genes controls much of the variation in the trait in the population. But because much of that variation is dispersed across a wide range of genes simply finding a specific gene is likely to be of little added value. The most efficacious way to be "Gattacaed" is to be profiled by the behavior and morbidity of your family! Genome adds some juice on top of this, but not nearly as much as people fear.* A secondary issue is that this focus on genes neglects the reality of stochastic variation. As long time reader "biologist" likes to point out even inbred C. elegans lines exhibit a lot of variation in trait outcome because you can't just squeeze randomness out of the equation. That's part of the reason biological processes and science is so sloppy in comparison to more deterministic fields like physics. So if you combine the fact that a substantial proportion of behavioral variation is just going to be due to random events because of the nature of the universe (e.g., the sensitivity of biological development to fluctuations in environment), along with the fact that a lot of the predictive value is already there in parental information, then any government or society which fixates on genes to the exclusion of all else is as "reality based" as Soviet Communism. It's going to collapse, or it's already totally crazy and the fixation on genomics is your last worry. I expressed my amusement, frustration, and confusion, at this whole situation to David Dobbs yesterday on twitter. You see, I've been pegged as a "genetic determinist" since the beginning of my blogging. I regularly get caught in the "glass-half-empty" trap which Steven Pinker outlined in the early 2000s whereby asserting that ~50% of the variation of a trait might be controlled by genes gets you tagged as a genetic determinist, even if you are explicit in acknowledging that ~50% of the variation is obviously not controlled by variation of genes. I'm way more open than most people to the importance of biological factors in differences between sexes, and differences between populations and across the populations, as well as biologically encoded "human universals." I really don't stress too much about the fact that people disagree, I suspect I'm right and that we'll know whether I'm right or wrong within the next decade or so because of the likely crystallization of much more expansive data sets of all sorts (genomic, behavioral, social, etc.) which will be mined by powerful analytic tools. But with all that in the rear-view mirror it is really bizarre that I have to keep screaming that

you don't need to stress out about genomics as such.

It's part & parcel of the broader rise of information technology and self-awareness. It's also part of the seamless whole of nature, a portion of which we've always been aware of. Everyone knows parents resemble offspring on a host of traits, even if they unlearn this truth later on. And whether a government believes that genes or a "frigid mother" "determines" outcomes, whether they do good or bad is independent of these sorts of details. P.S. Only two people have offered to put their genotype into the public domain in the past week. If you want to do so, please email me at contactgnxp -at- gmail -com. Here is my genotype. * Eventually though perhaps you could ascertain where you rank within the sibling pecking order in terms of mutational load, which would be informative.

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