Moderate marginal value to genomics

By Razib Khan | June 8, 2011 3:10 am

In the comments below when it comes to genomic privacy I expressed a rather carefree attitude toward the future possibilities of dark prediction. Over at FARK.com the comments were rather uniformly alarmed, and influenced by Gattaca. For example: “It’s really kind of shocking how accurate Gattaca is turning out to be.”

Unfortunately I haven’t watched Gattaca. I read a negative a review when the film came out, and since I don’t watch many movies in any case I passed. This I’ve come to regret because of the influence of the film, whether it was great as a work of art or not, is strong enough today to routinely be referenced. It seems to have pretty good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s got some staying power on Google Trends. I keep meaning to watch it on Amazon Instant Video, but then there’s the opportunity cost of time. So I did the second best thing, I read the plot summary on Wikipedia.


The main thing I took away from reading the plot summary of the world of Gattaca is that the power of genetics to predict the future is far greater in that world than it will likely ever be in our own world. Not only that, but the marginal value of genomics in terms of the behavioral predictions which people fear in particular is not going to be that great. By marginal value, I’m alluding to the fact that one of the best guides to how you will turn out is how your parents turn out. We know that much of the variation of many traits like I.Q., height, and personality is heritable variation, in that variation in genes controls much of the variation in the trait in the population. But because much of that variation is dispersed across a wide range of genes simply finding a specific gene is likely to be of little added value. The most efficacious way to be “Gattacaed” is to be profiled by the behavior and morbidity of your family! Genome adds some juice on top of this, but not nearly as much as people fear.*

A secondary issue is that this focus on genes neglects the reality of stochastic variation. As long time reader “biologist” likes to point out even inbred C. elegans lines exhibit a lot of variation in trait outcome because you can’t just squeeze randomness out of the equation. That’s part of the reason biological processes and science is so sloppy in comparison to more deterministic fields like physics. So if you combine the fact that a substantial proportion of behavioral variation is just going to be due to random events because of the nature of the universe (e.g., the sensitivity of biological development to fluctuations in environment), along with the fact that a lot of the predictive value is already there in parental information, then any government or society which fixates on genes to the exclusion of all else is as “reality based” as Soviet Communism. It’s going to collapse, or it’s already totally crazy and the fixation on genomics is your last worry.

I expressed my amusement, frustration, and confusion, at this whole situation to David Dobbs yesterday on twitter. You see, I’ve been pegged as a “genetic determinist” since the beginning of my blogging. I regularly get caught in the “glass-half-empty” trap which Steven Pinker outlined in the early 2000s whereby asserting that ~50% of the variation of a trait might be controlled by genes gets you tagged as a genetic determinist, even if you are explicit in acknowledging that ~50% of the variation is obviously not controlled by variation of genes. I’m way more open than most people to the importance of biological factors in differences between sexes, and differences between populations and across the populations, as well as biologically encoded “human universals.” I really don’t stress too much about the fact that people disagree, I suspect I’m right and that we’ll know whether I’m right or wrong within the next decade or so because of the likely crystallization of much more expansive data sets of all sorts (genomic, behavioral, social, etc.) which will be mined by powerful analytic tools.

But with all that in the rear-view mirror it is really bizarre that I have to keep screaming that you don’t need to stress out about genomics as such. It’s part & parcel of the broader rise of information technology and self-awareness. It’s also part of the seamless whole of nature, a portion of which we’ve always been aware of. Everyone knows parents resemble offspring on a host of traits, even if they unlearn this truth later on. And whether a government believes that genes or a “frigid mother” “determines” outcomes, whether they do good or bad is independent of these sorts of details.

P.S. Only two people have offered to put their genotype into the public domain in the past week. If you want to do so, please email me at contactgnxp -at- gmail -com. Here is my genotype.

* Eventually though perhaps you could ascertain where you rank within the sibling pecking order in terms of mutational load, which would be informative.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Behavior Genetics, Genetics, Genomics
  • Ian

    Gattaca is a story about prejudice and passing. It’s basically the story of a light-skinned black man in the Jim Crow era passing for white and doing extremely well at a job he would never have gotten had they known he was black. And having to continue to hide what he truly is. Hiding your genome doesn’t actually protect you in a Gattaca-type world. The problem is simply being naturally conceived, with all the chance that entails.

    Gattaca doesn’t really endorse genetic determinism. Rather, it’s a movie about a world in which society buys into the idea. And both Ethan Hawke’s character and Jude Law’s show the flaw in that assumption.

    Although it’s been a long time since I saw it, I think I would recommend Gattaca. Though, I suppose a large part of the value of the movie was its presentation of a ‘what if’ scenario, so obviously the value declines a little if you already know what they’re saying.

  • Neil

    Um, I think you should watch the film.

    In my view, the main theme is not determinism but discrimination – genetics as a new class system, used to titillate the public for sure, but primarily used to keep the population in its place.

    The key scene for me was:

    As Vincent moves through the Gattaca complex to the launch site, he is stopped for an unexpected last urine test. Vincent has not brought Jerome’s urine to hide his identity as he assumed there would not be any more tests. The test result uncovers Vincent’s identity, but Lamar, the doctor conducting the test (and who also conducted Vincent’s initial interview at Gattaca) reveals he has known Vincent’s identity for some time.

    Wikipedia has this down as sentimentality – the tester wants to believe people can succeed despite their genetic defects. I thought this was more about collusion – whatever the spin to the public, real elites cannot neglect talent, and genetic predictions are just that: predictions.

  • http://www.twitter.com/stevetsuida Steve Tsuida

    I must be crazy right? People on 23andme.com can ask to see raw data from the genotyping service I had done by 23 and Me. Gasp! Sweet Abraham Lincoln, someone could pass that around and I could get all GATTACA’d or something.

    Ya no.

    Let’s say I’m the CEO of MaliceCo. Health Insurance. (I’m not.)
    I’ve got 1,000,000 customers.
    I’m lucky, and 1,000 of them have been privately genotyped.
    I’m even luckier, and 100 of those will have something that lets me jack their deductible up to $8,000,000! Score! That’s $800,000,000 in free money for me!

    Well, no because they were only 10% at risk of having the illness which they’d make a claim for, and the treatment was only $500,000 total. So if only 10% of my 100 at-risk clients from my 1000 genotyped clients (10) get completely sick I’m really only going to save a maximum of $5,000,000 with those jacked up deductibles. Still, that’s $5 million in savings! Score!

    The problem is, I don’t know which of those 100 people will be worth that $5 million, so I’ve got to either screen everyone, or maybe just pick a random sampling and hope I hit the jackpot. Let’s say I screen 50,000 of my customers to see if they were privately genotyped. Let’s say it only takes 16 hours to do absolutely all of the detective work, at junior IT consultant rates. $60 per hour. 50,000 customers screened at 16 hours for $60/hour costs me $48 million dollars, and if the odds are coldly odd-like, I’m not going to get $5M in savings out of that, I’m going to get $250,000. I’ll have lost $47,750,000.

    Meaning, if I want to geno-discriminate for fun and profit, I’m going to have to get your DNA some other way. So go ahead and publish your raw data, we at MaliceCo. can’t afford to respond to it. We’re going to tap all your sewer lines.

    “16 hours?” You say. “By gum, it takes me only 2 minutes to download a file!”

    Sure, but that’s once you’ve confirmed that customer X has been genotyped (perhaps by mining their credit card data). Then you’ve got to determine whether they published that data. Then you’ve got to confirm that they published real data, rather than set a trap to catch us in a discrimination lawsuit, then you’ve got to run that varied-format data through something like Promethease so you can mulch everyone’s results to a common format for your staff to pick victims from. Then you’ve got to do all the paperwork on the few cases where you hit the jackpot. The calls, the legal work, even just the accounting. 16 hours is generous.

    But let’s turn it into 30 minutes, because MaliceCo. also makes the Discriminotron 4000G. The world’s best three-legged-deer finder, which each of our consultants use. We don’t even count the R&D cost, because we stole it from the French. My screening those 50,000 random customers only costs me $1,500,000 now. But crap, they’re still only worth $250,000 in savings if the odds play out. I’ll lose $1,250,000. Still not worth it. Still gonna tap your sewer lines.

  • Cmdr. Awesome

    What Ian says up above is very much on the money. This quote from your post:
    “The main thing I took away from reading the plot summary of the world of Gattaca is that the power of genetics to predict the future is far greater in that world than it will likely ever be in our own world.”
    is missing the point. The movie doesn’t really intended to present the idea that genomics is an ultimate dictator of potential; it attempts to demonstrate the point that regular people will buy into that idea. For example, Ethan Hawke’s character’s parents (whatever his name was, I don’t remember now) fall into that trap – they have a purely natural son, and their shame at his normalness effectively drives them into modifying their second son.

    (I’m sure there’s some name for the fallacy involved there – “Everyone else is doing it and we’ll fall behind if we don’t do it too.” Never took critical thinking and I’ve always been too busy to go back and study it.)

    Would they have done so if they were armed with proper knowledge of what genetic information really does say about potential, or had they known that their son could be much more than the numbers on his chart indicated he was?

    Indeed, Hawke’s character presents an excellent example of nurture over nature – exerting will, effort and endless practice and study to overcome his body’s natural failings and surpass those abilities of the genetically designed men and women around him. (Yes, I know it’s really supposed to be about the power of human will to overcome obstacles but I do think nurture applies here – there’s nothing that says “nurture” can’t really be “self-nurture,” no matter how…wrong…that phrase sounds :P)

    When the main character himself demonstrates your initial concern – that genomics is overrated in that world – I’d say that’s a pretty strong statement that the movie does in fact agree with your point.

    Personally, I think the film is a decent cautionary tale about technology without knowledge. Would their society have gone this far down that path if the population had a decent idea about the limits of information that genomics can provide? I.e., it can indicate factors that have some influence, but only in very rare cases (Downe’s, PKU, etc) do those factors have an effect on your life that you can’t counteract by choosing to live differently.

    I don’t know. Maybe that’s all just silly bullcrap.

  • Ryan

    I totally agree with Ian and Neil, you should definitely watch the movie because its whole point is that a genetic determinism thinking is wrong. The characters of Vincent and Jerome are a testament to the fact that genes don’t seal your fate, only your predispositions.

    Also, the genetic determinism in the movie isn’t as naive and wrong as you might think by reading a summary. It brings up an interesting point by saying ‘if we have a vast selection of genetically tailored individuals with high intelligence and physical prowess with low chance of disease, why bother using a person who is an unknown variable?’ That is the future which is certainly possible and that we should fear. The movie centering around the job of astronaut is a good example. You can almost find yourself agreeing with the space center only using the people of the “best genetics” because placing the best individuals into such a high risk and investment position is understandable. The point the movie makes is that we can’t just count out individuals based on a chance- we would risk losing our ‘humanity’ in the process.

  • http://wwwpersonalgenomics.us Trey

    I’m going to agree with the commenters. The movie isn’t about genetic determinism, but rather about our human penchant for discriminating.

    And that’s the danger I see in the genomics era. You already see it with companies that test for athletic ability or intellectual prowess. Whether the genetics of these traits is determinant isn’t the issue, it’s that people will see them that way and discriminate thusly. This isn’t a problem with the data, it’s a problem with what people will do with it and that’s what GATTACA is about.

    That said, I’m one for freely available and attainable genomic testing for any and all consumers. But as a society and a community of scientists we’ll have to work diligently to educate people what genetics means. I think we are woefully unprepared for that.

  • Anon

    You cannot get the raw data from 23andMe. Sure, they will give you the genotype calls, but not the probe intensities. I would still highly recommend the service while releasing your results into the public domain.

  • Polynices

    What’s stupid about the movie and how it messes up its own message is that the defect the protagonist has is a risk of early death from heart disease. People with this defect aren’t allowed to pilot spaceships (imagine that!). He borrows someone else’s data so he can become a pilot anyway. This incredible selfishness and risk to the lives of countless others is portrayed as a GOOD thing!

    They could have changed the story slightly and had it mean what they meant it to. But as written genetic profiling is actually good and the protagonist is a bad guy.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    The movie doesn’t really intended to present the idea that genomics is an ultimate dictator of potential; it attempts to demonstrate the point that regular people will buy into that idea.

    right, but i wasn’t really talking about the “point” of the movie. that seems pretty straightforward. i’m saying that people are actually accepting that the movie is a good predictor for the potential power of genomics. is it? the stuff i’m seeing described makes it seem way more effective at prediction than it ever really will be.

    That said, I’m one for freely available and attainable genomic testing for any and all consumers. But as a society and a community of scientists we’ll have to work diligently to educate people what genetics means. I think we are woefully unprepared for that.

    sure, but the point of my post is that we have awesome tools to discriminate already. genomics doesn’t add too much to that. so the issue is policy/institutional frameworks, not the rise of evil enabled by omniscient science.

  • Peter Ellis

    even inbred C. elegans lines exhibit a lot of variation in trait outcome because you can’t just squeeze randomness out of the equation.

    Actually, it’s far from uncommon for inbred lines (of whatever species) to have higher phenotypic variability than outbred lines despite the much greater genetic uniformity. That’s presumably because the inbred lines have fixed some combination of alleles that’s particularly bad at resisting deleterious environmental perturbations.

    In my own line of work, C57Bl6J mice have horrendous (and highly variable) sperm morphology, whereas an outbred strain like MF1 has much more homogeneous sperm, as do C57Bl6J x CBA F1 males.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #10, good specific point.

  • http://wwwpersonalgenomics.us Trey

    sure, but the point of my post is that we have awesome tools to discriminate already. genomics doesn’t add too much to that. so the issue is policy/institutional frameworks, not the rise of evil enabled by omniscient science.

    I’m not sure I said anything like the ‘rise of evil enabled by omniscient science’ :D. Indeed, though I didn’t see that as a point of your post since you hadn’t really mentioned the many tools we have to discriminate already, we do have many tools to discriminate. “evil” doesn’t need to be enabled by science, omniscient or otherwise. It exists.

    This doesn’t mean though that increased knowledge, especially of the all-encompassing kind that personal genomics will entail, will not come with an increased need for understanding what it means. That it won’t become not only yet another reason to discriminate, but a powerful, ubiquitous one because of an uneducated public.

    I wouldn’t conclude though that this means we need to ‘regulate’ DTC testing or ‘slow down’ personal genomics (indeed, that’d be a fruitless task), but on the contrary, allow and encourage DTC DNA testing and personal genomics for everyone. Only when everyone has their genome in hand will the society as a whole be forced to educate themselves.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Indeed, though I didn’t see that as a point of your post since you hadn’t really mentioned the many tools we have to discriminate already

    pedigrees. that’s all you need for a lot of stuff. so i did mention the tools. family history.

  • DK

    the power of genetics to predict the future is far greater in that world than it will likely ever be in our own world

    Well, you seemed to be joining Steve Hsu in the optimistic outlook of figuring our genes determining intelligence in 10 years or so. I take it that by extension it also meant (maybe another decade away) figuring out the way they do it and be able to predict. If so then the same can be done to any complex trait. Which immediately puts us right into Gattaca World, doesn’t it? Personally, I don’t believe it is ever likely to happen.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Well, you seemed to be joining Steve Hsu in the optimistic outlook of figuring our genes determining intelligence in 10 years or so

    i told you i didn’t think steve was that optimistic, but rather he was hopeful. i also told you i made that assessment after talking to him for 3 hours about this issue. did you bother reading my comment, or do you just not update opinions based on new information?

    Which immediately puts us right into Gattaca World, doesn’t it?

    no, it doesn’t. i will post on this because people seem to be unclear about my implication here, because just explaining the heritability obviously doesn’t remove the “environmental” component, does it? or is there something i’m missing? go ahead and explain it to me if i’m confused.

  • DK

    Well, can I still live with my impression that Steve is optimistic? :-) That’s the way I read his many posts.

    As for the Gattaca World: yes, “explaining heritability doesn’t remove the environmental component”. But explaining heritability this complex implies being able to explain and take into account the environmental effects. Similar degrees of complexity. Even totally random “environmental” events and effects (which are minority of all) would still be accounted for probabilistically (i.e., Gattaca’s gene actuaries would still be right 9/10). All in all, this would be much closer to the Gattaca World than to today’s looking at parents and school tests/transcripts.

    Again, I don’t believe it will happen but if one day we are so smart as to being able to model a cell or create an AI, then Gattaca’s World does seem quite plausible.

  • Pingback: Genetics existed before -omics | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine()

  • Cmdr. Awesome

    Well. I went back and re-read this article in light of the second one. Now I feel like a moron. >.<

    I am forced to agree that some people do take Gattaca to be more of a predictor of the future of the world under the iron reign of genomics than it actually will be. I would like to point out that many of those people probably also believe that a former playboy bunny and Indigo Child became an expert on autism without actually studying it.

    I should note that I'm actually not making light of this – in fact, if anything that makes it more of a problem, and not less. We've seen in recent years how much of an impact the irrational segment of society can have. At the same time, I suppose it was pretty much inevitable that they'd get involved…

  • http://www.riverellan.blogspot.com Tom Bri

    Good movie, worth watching. Characters do some dumb stuff for dumb reasons, just like real people. I was disappointed in the ending, but it was true to the plot.

  • ackbark

    Movies like Gattaca err in being inconsistent.

    In a world with science like that clearing up something like a heart defect would be trivial and people heading off to some extraterrestrial environment would be heavily modified for living in it.

    But outside that I think the movie is worth watching as a parable about discrimination and personal achievement.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

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 http://www.razib.com

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »