People Not 99.9 Percent Identical After All

|

In 2000, at a White House press conference on genetic discrimination, the head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, Francis Collins, declared, "Mr. President, I know that you know that you and I, like any other two Americans, regardless of ethnic group, are 99.9 percent genetically identical."

The impulse behind this declaration was not so much scientific as it was designed to forestall racist interpretations of the findings of genomic science.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is now reporting on recent research that shows that it isn't quite that simple. That people's individual genomes are, well, individual. This will prove to have all sorts of consequences for interpreting human diferences, especially in the area of treating diseases. According to the Inquirer:

It was a nice idea that we're all genetically 99.9 percent identical, but new research says it's not so simple.

The old thinking held that coiled in our cells, we all carry the same instruction book with just a few alternative spellings. But upon closer scrutiny, it appears our DNA is full of long strings of genetic code that are copied sometimes hundreds of times, the number of copies varying wildly from person to person.

And each of us is apparently missing quite a few large chunks of DNA. Other large segments of genetic code are misplaced on their chromosomes or pasted in backward. Not that there's any one designated normal arrangement—we're all just different.

As this all was becoming clear over the last several years, scientists expressed some surprise that the human genetic code is such a disorganized mess.

"This changes how we think about evolution and, in some respects, disease," says Evan Eichler, a researcher at the University of Washington, Seattle. "That's the part that's exciting."

Whole thing here.

NEXT: California to Meathead: Stifle Yourself

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Anyone that is familiar with comples computer programs can tell you that there are countless ways to accomplish a task.

    Some of the code I have seen is amazingly complex for simple tasks. I have even re-written some and done the same thing with ten percent of the original code.

    Why should the genome be different? Unlike computer programs, which at most have had a few years to accumulate errors, revisions and additions, the genome has had billions of years to do so.

    Maybe someday we can re-write it. After all, what could go horribly, horribly, wrong?

  2. Francis Collins is a political hack.

    That we’re not all identical was painfully obvious to anyone who was not committed to the PC dogma.

    Of course the key is that the physical amount of difference makes no, well, difference.

    So what if we differ by twelve copies of gene X, or by a single nucleotide that increases gene X expression by 12 fold? The end result is the same. Differences exist in both appearance and personality. This should be quite freakin’ obvious to anyone who has raised more than one child.

    My pinko academic friends constantly complain about the “politization” of science, but only to the extent they disagree with Bush’s funding priorities. They never complain about the “we’re all identical” tripe.

  3. There’s also the obvious, though often neglected fact that small changes in DNA “instructions” can have radical effects on the outcome. Men and women are almost identical genetically, but not physically. The fact that we are “almost identical” (to the extent that we are) is a long way from “exactly the same.”

    Unfortunately, the human record of understanding the moral significance of genetic differences has been, um, all too human. It’s easy to understand Collins’ cautious words.

  4. “Maybe someday we can re-write it. After all, what could go horribly, horribly, wrong?”

    BSOD?

  5. I don’t see how any of this is a “PC” or “pinko” issue. We are very much the same, we interbreed, etc. That we may be a little more genetically different doesn’t so much effect “liberals” or “conservatives” so much as it affects dogmatic monotheists and anthropologists, the former because the image of God is supposed to be statically perfect and the latter because the 100,000 year theory and anti-neanderthal-interbreeding theory are getting farther and farther fetched.

    I think this is great news! More science, more data, more news, more learning. It’s all good.

    JMJ

  6. tomWright’s analogy is off. While you might expect different species to have different solutions to the same problem (and they do), you don’t expect two different members of the same species to have fundamentally different solutions (and they don’t).

    The nattering here is about the definition of “identical.” Lefties want to claim that we are all the same, because this reassures them that there is no “basis” for racial differences. We’re all equal, blah, blah, blah. If there ARE significant differences between races, then one might wonder if there are real differences in IQ, etc, that could lead us back down the road to eugenics, or to make excuses for systematic discrimination.

    Rather than tackle the real issues, they’re trying to nip it in the bud.

  7. Men and women are almost identical genetically, but not physically.

    Men have a Y chromosome that women do not. This in turn fundamentally changes the expression of many other genes. Note what happens when you get an “extra” copy of chromosome 21 (Downs’). This isn’t even a “different” chromosome, just an extra one.

    I don’t see how any of this is a “PC” or “pinko” issue.

    This has everything to do with our concept of “race.” It is quite trendy, academically, to deny there is a genetic difference between races. Statistically, they have an argument, but they ignore a lot of data to get there. A fundamental flaw in the analysis is the assumption that “black” is a single race.

    I don’t see what this has to do with religion. If you are a fundamentalist, this isn’t going to change your mind. “God works in mysterious ways” and all that.

    I challenge the interpretation that variations in copy number (or orientation on the chromosome) constitute fundamental differences. To me, it’s just another way to regulate the expression level of genes. The fact that it’s more “visible” to us, is just anthropocentric analysis.

  8. We’re all snowflakes.

  9. Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.

  10. BSOD?

    “Humanity is going down for a reboot in 5 minutes: all users, please save your data and log out”

  11. Unlike computer programs, which at most have had a few years to accumulate errors, revisions and additions, the genome has had billions of years to do so.

    Interesting idea – that some of the DNA is “commented out.” Of course the “error” is defined as the organism not reproducing, so…

    There’s also the obvious, though often neglected fact that small changes in DNA “instructions” can have radical effects on the outcome.
    The range of symptoms which result from a single gentic mutation are pretty amazing.

    Men and women are almost identical genetically, but not physically.

    Actually men and women differ quite a bit genetically; humans are genetically closer to chimps of the same sex than they are to humans of the opposite sex. XY and all that.

  12. People told me me and my twin are 100% the same. But that can’t be right. Look, she wears green, and I wear red!

  13. the human genetic code is such a disorganized mess

    Well, humanity is a disorganized mess; it has to come from somewhere.

  14. Bubba,

    I don’t see how any of this is a “PC” or “pinko” issue.

    “This has everything to do with our concept of “race.” It is quite trendy, academically, to deny there is a genetic difference between races. Statistically, they have an argument, but they ignore a lot of data to get there. A fundamental flaw in the analysis is the assumption that “black” is a single race.”

    Eh, it’s not a big deal in “liberal” academia as far as I’ve been informed – and I’m pretty up to date. Until the geneticists can actually show what the differences mean, it’s moot speculation.

    “I don’t see what this has to do with religion. If you are a fundamentalist, this isn’t going to change your mind. “God works in mysterious ways” and all that.”

    I don’t know…

    “I challenge the interpretation that variations in copy number (or orientation on the chromosome) constitute fundamental differences. To me, it’s just another way to regulate the expression level of genes. The fact that it’s more “visible” to us, is just anthropocentric analysis.”

    Well said.

    JMJ

  15. An interesting book by Matt Ridley ‘Nature via Nuture’ posits that the one-sided arguments from the naturists (everything of significance is genetic) and nuturists(everything significant is environmental) misses the scientifically demonstrable relationship between the two…nuture affects nature and vice versa.

    Using this as context, the statement that we are not identical genetically really seems significant only if your view of humanity is skewed well to one side of the nature-nuture fence or the other.

  16. This just helps prove my theories that Yankees are a different race than the God fearing people in Dixie. Italians are truly different than Sicilians. Candadians still suck and Mormons are from Mars.

  17. There is quite a bit of evidence that Ashkenazi Jews are about 1 to 1.5 standard deviations smarter than the American average.

    Doesn’t sound like much but what it means is that differences of 10 to 1 or more in the percapita ratios at 5 standard deviations out on the plus side (150+ IQ). Even more at higher standard deviations.

  18. M. Simon,
    Huh? My spatially specialized IQ reasoning is having difficulty parsing your verbally specialized string.

  19. Eddy, let me simplify.

    With a shift of the central trend by 1 standard deviation to the right (from 100 average to 110 average) you greatly increase the differences at the 150 and up level. On a percapita basis. Why percapita? Otherwise you are comparing the results of a population of a few million to a population of 300 million.

  20. There is quite a bit of evidence that Ashkenazi Jews are about 1 to 1.5 standard deviations smarter than the American average.

    “Assessing the Ashkenazic IQ”
    http://www.lagriffedulion.f2s.com/ashkenaz.htm

    He comes up with about .73 std-dev, and:
    “Such a gap makes a random Ashkenazi Jew 40 times more likely to win a Fields Medal than a random non-Jewish white. In all, thirteen Fields Medals have gone to Ashkenazim as well as 37% of the Nobel Prizes in physics won by Americans.”

    Dumb joke: You can’t spell “Ashkenazi” without “Nazi.”

  21. Whether or not humans are genetically 99.9% identical or 99.8%, the fact is we are far more alike than different, and it’s in more than just genetics. There is only *one* human *species* and this is unlikely to change in the near future. Also, whether or not “races” exist does not mean we should keep them separate (ie. forbid mixing), nor does it justifcy racism, which is flat out wrong, period.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.