Steven Pinker Reveals His Genome

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Harvard University cognitive scientist Steven Pinker reveals his genome (except for his APOE 4 allele status) in this Sunday's New York Times magazine and explains why it's not such a big deal. Pinker is one of ten leading scientists who is participating in Havard geneticist George Church's Personal Genome Project. These scientists have agreed to have their genes sequenced and then reveal what they find to researchers. Church's PGP wants to sign up 100,000 people who will do the same thing so that researchers can troll though the databases to find genetic linkages that enhance the probability of health and disease.

So what did Pinker reveal? That he has alleles that enable him to taste bitterness in broccoli and beer; fast-twitch genes that suggest he could be a sprinter; slightly less chance of prostate cancer; a slightly higher chance of type 2 diabetes. The point he wants to make is that personal genomic information is not toxic or occult or, at this early stage, even all that interesting. But it will be.

As Pinker writes: 

Personal genomics is here to stay. The science will improve as efforts like the Personal Genome Project amass huge samples, the price of sequencing sinks and biologists come to a better understanding of what genes do and why they vary. People who have grown up with the democratization of information will not tolerate paternalistic regulations that keep them from their own genomes, and early adopters will explore how this new information can best be used to manage our health. There are risks of misunderstandings, but there are also risks in much of the flimflam we tolerate in alternative medicine, and in the hunches and folklore that many doctors prefer to evidence-based medicine. And besides, personal genomics is just too much fun….

Many of the dystopian fears raised by personal genomics are simply out of touch with the complex and probabilistic nature of genes. Forget about the hyperparents who want to implant math genes in their unborn children, the "Gattaca" corporations that scan people's DNA to assign them to castes, the employers or suitors who hack into your genome to find out what kind of worker or spouse you'd make. Let them try; they'd be wasting their time.

The real-life examples are almost as futile. When the connection between the ACTN3 gene and muscle type was discovered, parents and coaches started swabbing the cheeks of children so they could steer the ones with the fast-twitch variant into sprinting and football. Carl Foster, one of the scientists who uncovered the association, had a better idea: "Just line them up with their classmates for a race and see which ones are the fastest." Good advice. The test for a gene can identify one of the contributors to a trait. A measurement of the trait itself will identify all of them: the other genes (many or few, discovered or undiscovered, understood or not understood), the way they interact, the effects of the environment and the child's unique history of developmental quirks….

So if you are bitten by scientific or personal curiosity and can think in probabilities, by all means enjoy the fruits of personal genomics. But if you want to know whether you are at risk for high cholesterol, have your cholesterol measured; if you want to know whether you are good at math, take a math test. And if you really want to know yourself (and this will be the test of how much you do), consider the suggestion of François La Rochefoucauld: "Our enemies' opinion of us comes closer to the truth than our own."

Pinker has asked not be told what APOE alleles he has. As he explains: 

Nearly a quarter of the population carries one copy of the E4 variant, which triples their risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Two percent of people carry two copies of the gene (one from each parent), which increases their risk fifteenfold. James Watson, who with Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA and who was one of the first two humans to have his genome sequenced, asked not to see which variant he had….

I figured that my current burden of existential dread is just about right, so I followed Watson's lead and asked for a line-item veto of my APOE gene information when the P.G.P. sequencer gets to it.

For my part, that is precisely the kind of genetic information that I would want to know. Of course, as I have argued elsewhere, I would want to know that exact day I am going to die if I could. 

Whole fascinating Pinker article here. Reason's interview with Pinker can be found here.

Disclosure: I have applied to join the Personal Genome Project, but haven't heard back yet. 

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33 responses to “Steven Pinker Reveals His Genome

  1. This is just another Corporatist trick to exploit and own the workers.

  2. If it’s not a big deal, why hide the APOE4 allele? Plus, with lifetime employment and health insurance provided by Harvard, he has a lot less to worry about than the average person.

    I’m not worried about dystopian fears, but there are practical concerns.

  3. Nice move. Now Pinker will have to deal with a bunch of idenity theives using his genome to apply for credit cars.

  4. Mo: I don’t think it’s a practical problem. I think he just doesn’t want to know – it’s just another dread to add to the dread of knowing he will eventually die.

  5. I agree LurkerBold, fuck Chavez, and screw the workers! They had this coming!

  6. if you want to know whether you are good at math, take a math test.

    Isn’t this the kind of thing genome testing would be good for? If a kid showed potential skills that were hidden by a disadvantaged background, wouldn’t this help get attention from the schools?

  7. stuartl,

    In a strange way maybe. Instead of being fair and those with the ability providing for those in need the Corporatists are going to copyright the dna of the workers and exploit them.

  8. Stuartl,
    Do you really want to put up with the outcry that would occur if someone got preferential educational treatment (especially in public schools) because of their genes? Even I find it a little disturbing.

  9. LurkerBold,
    You are a failed spoof troll.

  10. I don’t get his if you want to know if you’re at risk for X measure it. On the cholesterol thing, is your cholesterol low because of what you eat or your genes. If it’s your genes, maybe you could sneak an extra steak a month in.

  11. economist,

    No, you fail.

    This is just another Corporatist trick to exploit and own the workers.

    SPANK

  12. There will always be reasons to fear and hate knowledge.

  13. I hope that Obama appoints a genome Czar to prevent the corporations from exploiting this.

  14. I’m warming up to the idea of a Troll Czar.

  15. Interesting to ask whether genetic testing will be good or bad on the insurance front if it becomes widespread. My initial inclination was to think “Don’t do it! You’ll never get health insurance!” But if insurers knew more about our health, it might remove the “lemons problem” and stop the upward spiral of insurance premiums.

    stuartl: I have seen a neuroscientist say (I forget the exact source) that measuring the dendricity in someone’s neurons would be a better gauge of intelligence than any IQ test. On the other hand, though, the kind of skills that tests demonstrate (performing under pressure, reading and writing, speaking to adults) might actually be more relevant to a kid’s future prospects than raw “intelligence.”

  16. Great, now Bailey’s shilling for Big Gene.

  17. I thought the Urk*b*ld was already troll czar.

  18. There will always be reasons to fear and hate knowledge.

    Not when the singularity comes.

  19. The Troll Gene can only be shown by evidence of trolling. So TROLLS, KEEP ON TROLLING!

  20. why cannot you spell out Urkobold as troll czar? Does writing his name summon him?

    *Looks in mirror*

    URKOBOLD
    URKOBOLD
    URKOBOLD

    Did it work!?!?!

  21. Whew! At first I thought the headline said, “Steven Genome Reveals His Pinker.”

    I’m flattered, but I just don’t swing that way.

  22. No problem exploring your genome info. Big problem when this is mandated at birth (or prior) to assign your value and expected lifetime cost to the fedgov medical magmt machine. And as the cost sinks, fedgov (by popular demand)takes complete control of and allocations of med services, you damn well know it will be used not for the benefit of the individual but for the overseers.

  23. YOU HAVE REACHED THE URKOBOLD-SUMMONING ANSWERING SERVICE. IF THIS IS A TAINT-WITHERING EMERGENCY, PLEASE DIAL ‘1’ NOW. OTHERWISE, PLEASE STAY ON THE LINE, AND A SCANTILY CLAD OPERATOR WILL ASSIST YOU SHORTLY.

  24. Urkobold exploits women? I am not a fan any more.

  25. LURKERBOLD, THAT IS WHY YOU FAIL–YOUR LACK OF ATTENTION TO DETAIL. A CURSORY REVIEW OF THE URKOBOLD’S WEB SITE REVEALS EXPLOITATION, CORRUPTION, SEXUAL EXCESS, AND A DISTRESSING OBSESSION WITH THE FEMALE FORM.

  26. Do you really want to put up with the outcry that would occur if someone got preferential educational treatment (especially in public schools) because of their genes? Even I find it a little disturbing.

    Favoritism in schools occurs all the time due to genes. Some teachers do not like kids with the Y chromosome. Some assume that kids without the Y are not likely to be good at math (but Urko likes them once they are old enough). Others can’t help but assume that a darker skinned kid is less intelligent or at least less likely to do well at math.

    I am not suggesting a formal program, at least until a lot more effectiveness is demonstrated. You could/should still segregate based on actual demonstrated aptitude. However, if a parent had genetic data they might choose to show them to the school as a way to get more attention for their child.

    Genes might also be useful in predicting the style of learning kids favor, in which case it might be possible to tailor their education more appropriately. Right now most teachers have one style that favors one kind of learner.

    I have seen a neuroscientist say (I forget the exact source) that measuring the dendricity in someone’s neurons would be a better gauge of intelligence than any IQ test.

    Rose, I have seen that as well, but it is not a very good measure for specific aptitudes. I was following the speculation that someone’s genes might be good for a specific subject.

  27. I don’t want to publicize my genome because I don’t want to know whether I masturbate with my teddy bear due to genetics or environment.

  28. Pinker’s viewpoint sounds very reasonable.

  29. Ron – The most theoretically accurate genetic test still won’t be able to take into account fatal accidents, or any non-natural causes of death, so it sounds like to me like you may be in for a false sense of security (assuming you genes are in order…)

  30. The good news is that Steven Pinker now has insight into how well he can metabolize and respond to a whole host of medications.

    If he’s paying attention – and I’m sure he is – any of his prescription medications can now be adjusted according to his genetic profile.

    I don’t understand the disease risk fixation. Well, I understand it, because it seems perfectly natural to ask, “what’s gonna kill me?” That information, however, is ultimately not very useful. Sure you could be at high risk for heart disease, but you could also be hit by a bus tomorrow and the point will be moot.

    It’s more important, I think, to understand how your body responds to medications. You can be assured of getting the right dose – achieving therapeutic benefit instead of toxic doses or subtherapeutic wastes of time and money. You could be assured of getting the right drug, because you would know ahead of time which ones will benefit you and which may harm you.

    Information like that is priceless.

  31. With the unveiling of PGP, I expect Richard Stallman and company to release “Gnu Personal Genome” as an open-source alternative any time now.

  32. The Personal Genome Project is already an open source project. The genomes will be released as open source.

    I’ve applied too, but I have a feeling they are going to have a surplus of ~35 year old Caucasian geeks, so my chances are somewhat low.

  33. With the unveiling of PGP, I expect Richard Stallman and company to release “Gnu Personal Genome” as an open-source alternative any time now.

    Even better, your personal DNA sequence as part of the key.

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