The magical power of "genes"

By Razib Khan | December 6, 2010 9:05 pm

Liberal Überblogger Matthew Yglesias, Pulling Back The Curtain on Human Behavior:

People sometimes seem to think that you could forestall a Gattaca-esque scenario of genetic transparency through privacy laws. But it seems to me that you’d actually need to go stronger, and not only guarantee the right to not have your genetic information disclosed. To prevent the emergence of a near-universal disclosure equilibrium in a world of cheap genetic profiling over the long run, you’d need to ban voluntary disclosure. The mere fact that you don’t want a potential partner to know your DRD4 profile will tell her all she needs to know about you.

800px-Galton_experimentLet’s grant the power of genomics to predict behavior in this way. Let’s also neglect the real problems of banning this sort of thing in a world of commoditized sequencing or typing.* I have some news for Matt & company, there’s already a much more powerful way to behavior genetic profile someone: look at their family. Indians have long known this. So the big short-medium term problem is that getting your hands on the biodata of anyone’s family members is one-click away….

Update: A commenter points out that Yglesias may have been advocating such a position to expose the absurdity of it. I wondered that too, but wasn’t sure and thought perhaps he was serious. In any case, I think the commenter makes good points, so I retract the charge. Though the bigger point obviously still stands.

* Unless Matt has Victorian values I assume he could anticipate that it wouldn’t be too hard to get “DNA” from a prospective partner. How exactly a ban would work when there are places overseas doing sequencing I have no idea. It isn’t as if biological material is never sent through the mail.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Behavior Genetics
MORE ABOUT: Behavior, Genes

Comments (5)

  1. elbowspeak

    I think it’s fair to say that, as he often does, Yglesias is pointing out the necessary conditions required for a specific outcome. For him, it’s rhetorical device used to highlight the absurdity of the position. He is certainly not advocating for such a ban. As I’m sure you read his blog frequently, you are aware that Yglesias is perhaps the most “free market” oriented liberal around. (Although there are many progressives who would object to calling him ‘liberal’ in the left wing sense). If people want cheap genomes, he would support it – whole hog.

  2. The next step in PC — ban research that contradicts the ideal of the Blank Slate.

  3. “The mere fact that you don’t want a potential partner to know your DRD4 profile will tell her all she needs to know about you.”

    That is a fantastic observation…and the fact that you WOULD want someone to know your genotype at a “personality” locus tells them far, far more about you than the actual genotype ever could. This is where personal genomics will go in popular culture and market place…a hokey meta-identity that will take on a life of its own in terms of products and services to match your genotype. Astrology, but worse.

    I think the DRD4/novelty thing didn’t hold up in larger samples?

  4. DRD4 has nothing on AVPR1a, the so called bad husband gene. This single gene accounts for essentially all of the heritability of marital satisfaction and divorce in a large Swedish sample.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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