Soul searching, self-evaluation, meditation, and prayer–step aside! I can tell you who you are at the deepest level (and all for about $25). If you appreciate my ability to predict your doom then you might like my ability to explain why you cannot roll your tongue, why cilantro tastes bad in your tacos, or why you seem more likely than others to get angry in the same situation. It’s a treasure map. And I know where it is. And I can get it. And it is in your genes.
The technological explosion that the reshaped the field of biochemistry and biophysics has produced some amazing scientific discoveries over a very short period of time. These discoveries have, in turn, fueled a whole new wave of technological advances. As is often the case, when one field is moving at breakneck speed, other fields, often slower moving disciplines, struggle to keep up with the implications of what is being done. In fact, prudence itself is often depicted as lagging behind courage.
Our society, having more access to the nascent ideas of science (especially through the availability of popular science publications and the openness required by the use of public money) has to assimilate more highly technological information at an almost impossible rate. To become an informed voter seems to require at least a BS in biochemistry if you are going to understand the issues surrounding cloning, in vitro fertilization, pre and post-natal DNA mapping, gene therapy, DNA ownership and patenting, etc.
Although I plan to write on many of these subjects, a flurry of news articles and online advertisements have piqued my curiosity about one of them in particular. There are companies popping up all over the place that will, for a fee, provide you with some portion of your genetic code. On the most basic level they will scan for the most common genetically caused diseases. From there, they can move into a set of probability charts that would describe your risks for other genetically influenced diseased. Then they can test for the more controversial “personality genes.” This is the where the trouble starts and where the advertising becomes irksome. The connection between personality and genetics is, of course, hotly debated. Some argue that the genetic markers that they find only secondarily or tangentially determine personality. For instance, a child that forms high symmetry in the face will probably become more socially integrated than one who has a genetic tendency for asymmetry.
But the problem is that people are gaining greater access to their own genetic code even though neither science nor philosophy have progressed far enough to help people rationally and prudently approach this information. The sequencing company wants to sell you the code (and will sell you whatever you can afford) and has no requirement to care one telomere about how the information impacts you. What will it mean to someone to tell them that they have the “novelty seeking” gene on chromosome 17? Will they just give themselves over to reckless behavior because they think “Ah, it’s in my genes, I just can’t help it.” What will it do to a heterosexual man to tell him that he has the genetic trait in the tip of the X chromosome that seems to correlate with homosexuality? Will he suffer a crisis of identity?
I think it is quite certain that the “nature versus nurture” debate will continue to rage for some time until our sciences converge again on a highly synthetic re-conceptualization of the human person. It is my belief that this new concept, while incorporating the physical and genetic support structures that carry biological information for heredity, will add up to a picture that looks very familiar. A picture we recognize as ourselves. And our grandmothers will tell us, “I told you it was both….nature and nurture.” And I wouldn’t hold my breath for a simple answer from our genes to the most pressing issues that bother us. In a future article, I will explain why a simple sequence of DNA does not wield the power of determination that even science often pretends it can.