Genomes and What to Make of Them

December 4, 2008

A few weeks ago I was interviewed live on Radio Leicester on the subject of genes and behaviour.

I was asked: "Are there genes for hobbies?". "No," said I. "Thank you very much," said the interviewer, and that was the shortest radio interview in history.

I exaggerate a little, and in retrospect I should have said "maybe", in that my Italian partner has an identical twin sister who lives in Padua, and their favourite hobby is shopping, so perhaps there is something in it.

The point about this story is that this type of simplistic genetic determinism is very topical with the media, and that carries with it a certain amount of anxiety. If there are genes for hobbies, why not genes for criminality, violence, homosexuality, religiosity, or female infidelity and other politically or morally charged traits? Indeed, are there Jewish or Gypsy genes (thinking of the tragic episodes of the 20th century)?

These are the kinds of examples discussed by Barry Barnes and John Dupre in their provocative new book, Genomes and What to Make of Them, and studies of identical twins - as in my example above (particularly those reared apart so that their environments differ but their genes do not) - play a prominent role in their discussion.

They liken this type of simplification to astrology, to mirror how astrologers predict our imminent future (behaviour) from reading the stars (our genes). This entrenched type of thinking has numerous flaws as outlined clearly by these authors (and many before them), yet is stubbornly persistent, not only in the media but also with researchers who should know better (evolutionary psychologists are an easy target here).

In the first half of the book, the authors necessarily set the scene by explaining basic genetics, genomics, epigenetics (the modification of the genome by the environment within the life cycle of an organism) and various other hot topics such as the newly discovered small double-stranded RNA molecules and their possible applications.

While they are a little too dismissive of classical genetics (which is alive and well in countless universities), considering these guys are sociologists/philosophers, they seem to know their (genetic) onions.

The second half of the book, from chapter four (evolution) onwards, is much more fun, and it outlines the limits of genetic determinism, the power of genomics for GM crops, genetic engineering of animals and insects, stem cells, the bureaucratisation of human DNA databases and the government/citizen relationship, gene therapy in humans, human dignity - all of it good, controversial stuff.

Where they differ from other authors who have often covered the same ground is that they dissect the arguments for and against within a socio-philosophical context that - at least to me - was refreshing (even though they tend to use "isms" a lot).

Do they come up with anything new? Maybe not, but it was an entertaining read (at least the second half). I have some minor quibbles in their interpretations of some of the basic science, and I wish they had livened up the text with a few figures (there are only two hopelessly primitive and unhelpful figures in the draft I have).

So if you are not a biologist, you might wish to check out a glossy modern genetics textbook first to familiarise yourself with the general area, and therein lies the rub. At whom is this book aimed? Probably not biologists, as they have largely heard the arguments before. Nor is it for the informed non-biologists, as it is hard going at times in terms of the technology discussed. So while I generally like the book, to paraphrase their title, I'm not sure what to make of it.

Genomes and What to Make of Them.

By Barry Barnes and John Dupre. University of Chicago Press 288pp, £14.50. ISBN 9780226172958. Published 29 November 2008

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