Gene’s Aren’t What They Used To Be

In a recent Op-Ed, Olivia Judson sounds puzzled by the fact that far from revealing what actually defines each of us, many genetic differences “appear to be more or less irrelevant” (“Testing genes, solving little“, IHT, Aug 18, 2008).

In practice, leaving aside the gender and a hint of the genetic ancestry of the person, a genetic analysis cannot be used to understand almost anything. And yet, all our traits are written in our genes, are they not?

Ms Judson hypothesizes two solutions to this riddle. Either “huge numbers of genes affect most traits” or “variants of a few genes do have a substantial effect but they are too rare to have been discovered yet“. But there is another much more plausible solution, via the science of Epigenetics.

Very simply, Epigenetics is the study of genes’ expression, i.e. of the actual activity of each gene and of its changes over time.

Much as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has enabled scientists to probe the actual workings of the brain, instead of being limited to its physical aspect as visible through static MRI, so Epigenetics is opening up the possibility of understandings the genes as they truly act, and not simply as bits of DNA that happen to reside in our cells.

After all, the very definition of life implies a continuous change.

It would be pretty hard to understand the world if all we could see were static images, losing out on everything that happens dynamically.

The End of Genetics’ Golden Age

Once upon a time people believed everything associated to living things was the combination of something called “nature” and something else called “nurture”: the former, as written in the “living thing”‘s genes, and the latter, the effect of everything that was external to the “living thing”.

Whole areas of research were based on that assumption: including lots of identical-but-separated-twin studies. Since identical twins have the same genetic code, it was argued, everything that would happen to both even if they had been separated shortly after birth would clearly be caused by “nature” (i.e., the genes).

Well, we now know for sure that the above is an incorrect simplification. It’s all clear from this picture:

Those are E.coli bacteria that are genetically identical. They have even been born and lived together in the same environment.”Classical” genetics would expect them to behave identically. But they do not: having each been given extra genes to glow when digesting lactose, their colony does not glow uniformly.

As absurd as it may sound at first glance, each bacterium is a clone but also a specific individual.

It turns out that one shouldn’t just look at what genes are present in an organism, but also at the way they are “expressed“, with some of them turned on or off randomly and/or by “external forces” (“nurture” again).

There is a short and clear article about clones and individuality, recently published on the New York Times. The end result is that the whole cloning industry may have been promising too much, and the exact duplication of human beings could result a truly impossible dream.

More seriously, the whole of the Science of Genetics needs a rethink, as way too much emphasis has been given on finding genes rather than on finding out which genes are activated and when and why.

In the future, the much-celebrated Human Genome Project will be seen only as a step in the right direction, not an achievement in itself. Because we are not all and simply written down in our DNA.

Genetics, IQ and Racism

Why do many potentially intelligent people decide to look and sound silly for generations to come? Or “given enough bales you’ll find a few straws in all the colors of the rainbow”…

Some bloggers (and likely, some scientists) whose names and URLs I won’t spend a minute linking to, have started using the latest discoveries in biology to suggest “genetics differences between races” and a linking between high IQ and “several snippets of DNA“.

In other words, there are people out there hell-bent in demonstrating that blacks are inferior to whites.

They are wrong. And it’s not a case of being “politically incorrect“…rather, it’s an example of how to be “idiotically incorrect“.

In fact, haven’t we seen this whole circus before (just read Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man“)? A circus where invariably:

(1) The most recent scientific findings get used to provide a rational basis to existing prejudices

(2) People jump to “certain conclusions” even before any scientific article is published

(3) Legitimacy is given to the incoherent notion that skin color can be used to classify people into racial groups, but only up to a point: so a Sicilian becomes a White like a Swede, and a Wolof from Senegal becomes a Black like an Oromo from Ethiopia

(I myself am semi-officially White during winter time, then after two weeks in the sun demonstrably a tad more black than an Ethiopian)

(4) It always boils down to black inferiority and white superiority. In fact, never ever in the History of Biology there has been any hint of consensus about the notion that blacks are superior to whites, or far-east asians superior to whites.

(5) We are told that even if it may be difficult to accept, still we have to accept that Blacks be inferior to Whites, because Science is said to say so

(6) People opposing such views are labeled as left-leaning “defenders of social justice” (i.e., “communists”)

(7) The discourse moves then to show Men, White Men that is, as superior to Women. Next, to show that White Men with Ancestors from Northern European Countries are superior to everybody else.

(8) After making a big mess, such a stale soup of fallacies is shown false but then only goes into some kind of “sleep mode” ready to come back to make many potentially intelligent people look and sound silly for generations to come.

This happens every few decases. Truly we never learn anything from history.

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On my side, the issue is not about defending social justice or imposing equality to all in the face of contrary evidence.

The issue is that if something has been shown wrong in the past, again and again, then it cannot be accepted as “true” unless there is some extraordinary evidence supporting it.

And at every round, the notch for “extraordinary” gets a little bit higher. I am afraid that the discovery of a few “snippets” among the thousands and thousands available appears way too ordinary, and at best the result of bad statistical analysis applied to extremely large sample sizes (in other words: given enough bales you’ll find a few straws in all the colors of the rainbow)

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All in all, I am starting to believe that the one difference between races, is in the genes that predispose to developing an Inferiority Complex.

Those genes are obviously very powerfully expressed among Racist White Men. In fact, for what other reason would they feel the need to try again, and again, and again, to find a scientific basis for their most stupid thoughts?