Human Genome Project: We Discover Much that Genetics Can't Tell Us

We have emerged into the post-genetic-inheritance era, where we are facing the limitations on what our DNA can tell us about ourselves and how we can modify our lives.
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For some time, the pursuit of the human genome has convinced Americans we are on the verge of discovering the genetic causes -- and cures -- for everything. This hope has been boosted by the general scientism (worshiping at the mantel of what is supposedly scientific) of American culture, and mythical -- often faked-up -- descriptions of identical twins reared apart who are perfect replicas of one another. Like the German-born Nazi and Jewish brothers (now that's a difference, isn't it?) who both flushed the toilet before urinating, or the English twins who "never met" but who wore seven rings on exactly the same fingers (wonder where that gene is?). In fact, identical twins reared apart can be unrecognizable as siblings, while those reared together vary in highly significant ways (most sets of identical twins are discordant for homosexuality -- that is, most often when one is the other isn't).

The Human Genome Project has actually tilted our understanding in the opposite way: telling us just how limited is the role of genetics in producing human outcomes. To begin with, researchers were shocked to discover how much DNA on our chromosomes is unspoken for -- that is, not arranged into specific gene sites associated with identifiable traits. Instead, the vast preponderance of DNA apparently regulates the expression of genes in ways so complex and unpredictable as to be ultimately unspecifiable.

At the same time, our DNA and genetic destiny is not fixed. It turns out that DNA interacts in entirely chance ways during the course of ontogeny -- the development of the embryo -- based simply on how the chromosomes cross and fold back on themselves and one another.

Which brings us to the cover story of the new Time Magazine. The cover shows a pregnant woman and announces an article about the impact of the first nine months of life -- the sojourn in the womb -- on the ultimate human being. Among the examples cited are Israeli women pregnant during war times whose fetuses are more likely to become schizophrenic. This story replaces the many over the years, in Time and elsewhere, about the inheritance of schizophrenia, the pursuit of which has largely come a cropper.

This is an example of influences that occur before the child comes face to face with parents, peers, and lived experience - all of which have independent impacts. In another example, Native-American women who receive treatment for their own diabetes are less likely to have diabetic children than if they remain untreated. (Of course, this finding doesn't vitiate the importance of how children are fed, and eat, after they descend onto the earth.)

But the phenomenon of prenatal influence on post-natal outcomes -- which can then impact subsequent generations, say if the non-diabetic child becomes a mother -- reminds us of Trofim Lysenko, the Soviet scientist who preached the inheritance of acquired traits. Lysenkoism came to stand for scientific quackery of all sorts, although it was particularly applied to those who mold science to fit political ideology.

Yet, we can reframe Lysenkoism as the tendency for all societies to interpret scientific data in line with their own political and cultural gestalts. In the United States, this has resulted in repeated claims -- fantasies really -- that go unfulfilled, but which are regularly repeated nonetheless. Consider that at the beginning of the genome project many people confidently predicted genetic cures for cancer, schizophrenia, alcoholism -- come to think, many are still making these confident predictions!

We have emerged into the post-genetic-inheritance era, where we are facing the limitations on what our DNA can tell us about ourselves and how we can modify our lives, individually and collectively. In this brave, new world, we may be ultimately responsible for how we behave, including whether and how we change, as well as influencing (I won't say causing) our children's life trajectories, including psychological problems they encounter. But haven't engaged parents always accepted this responsibility, even as we have experienced the humility of learning that many things besides parenting contribute to our children's destinies?

So, suck it up, fellow Human Genome Project subjects. We are what we make of ourselves. Sarte was right.