The false promises of the genome

Genes, Cells and Brains:

The Promethean Promises of a New Biology

I WAS fortunate enough to be teaching evolutionary biology while I was reading Hilary and Steven Rose’s excellent new book Genes, Cells, and Brains: The Promethean Promises of a New Biology. Each chapter translated itself into a discussion, activity, or homework assignment for my class, so provocative was this book.

Upon introducing evolution, we had a discussion about the human implications of the theory of natural selection. I presented my students with two empirical facts; around 15 percent of adults in the United States never have children; and across the globe, as the literacy rate goes up, the number of children per family decreases. I asked my students to crudely apply the theory of evolution to these facts and follow them to their logical conclusion. I actually got one young man to say reading was killing our species, at which point, everyone burst out laughing. The point, one made in Genes, Cells, and Brains, sunk in; highly reductionist versions of evolutionary biology make no sense when grafted onto human society.

The first portion of the book focuses on the history of “Promethean” (creative, novel, path-breaking) promises of genetics and its ugly stepsister, eugenics. Every biology professor who taught me in the 1990’s argued that the Human Genome Project (HGP), the list of ATCG (the bases that make up DNA), would unlock all the secrets of humanity. However, after a very petty struggle between public and private sequencing initiatives, humanity ended up with a list of ATCG that, scientists concluded, was mostly “junk DNA.” Because they didn’t understand what the DNA did, they decided it must be worthless.

The whole collection of ATCG’s inside each cell of each organism is considered its genome. Traditionally, the genome is thought to be composed of many genes, stretches of DNA that encode the instructions for the assembly and positioning of proteins. These proteins can also interact with the expression (a name for the process of making a gene into a protein) and function of other proteins. Prior to the HGP, biotechnology promised that once we had discovered all of the protein-coding stretches of DNA in humans, we would have discovered the cause of everything from major genetic diseases, to human behaviors, and even human attitudes. As Hillary and Steven Rose point out, this approach reduces all of social human complexity to a series of DNA instructions.

The insights biotechnology hoped to gain were sadly disappointed when the final sequence of the HGP was released. It turns out the key to humanity is not found in our DNA “recipe.” Humans have approximately 24,000 genes, but fruit flies are relatively similar, with approximately 14,000 genes. Corn, on the other hand, has almost twice as many protein-coding DNA sequences as we do. The authors quote a rueful admission on the part of one of the leaders of the HGP: “We’ve called the human genome the blueprint, the Holy Grail, all sorts of things. It’s a parts list. If I gave you the parts list of a Boeing 777 and it has 100,000 parts, I don’t think you could screw it together, and you certainly couldn’t understand why it flew.”

Undeterred by this confrontation with human complexity, the biological reductionists turned to biobanks to fulfill the promises of sequencing. The plan was to match medical records (in places, unlike the United States, which have nationalized healthcare) with a database of associated DNA sequences. The thinking was that certain genes associated with disease could be identified, and risk could be quantified, allowing medical intervention before the onset of symptoms. At least that was the public rationale for turning over a nation’s medical records to a private company. In practice, pharmaceutical and insurance companies were salivating at the thought of having their hands on genetic information that could maximize their profit. Pharmaceutical companies would have an easy path towards drug discovery. Insurance companies could use the data to require new genetic tests to evaluate health prospects.

The way these projects were initiated in various countries (Iceland, Sweden, the UK) showed the motives behind the various players. In Iceland, a private company joined forces with the neoliberal government to try and ram through a comprehensive biobank of every citizen of Iceland including Medical history, genealogy, and DNA sequences. Both patient groups and genetic and bioethics researchers revolted. The project became so controversial and problem-ridden that the company eventually folded up shop. In the UK, a more sensitive approach to privacy and bioethical questions led to a massive reduction in participation, essentially destroying the original hopes for statistically relevant data on disease-associated genes. The history of these biobanks shows that neoliberal uses of our biological information tend towards a collision course with established societal norms.

Also, the advances of the HGP (if a 90 percent baffling list of letters can be called that) led the way for new fields to evoke old prejudices. With increasing identification of particular diseases with certain genes, there came an ever-greater use of genetic screening and the specter of consumer eugenics loomed large. The authors give a basic history of the eugenics movement, from Darwin’s contemporary, Francis Galton, to the Nazi’s heinous application of selective breeding, through the backlash against eugenics following World War II. They remind us, however, that the application of racist, abilist, and xenophobic tenants to reproductive freedoms did not stop with the Nazi’s—they only became more discreet. This history was entwined with a discussion of the larger history of bioethics. Notably, the field of bioethics was predominantly applied to the use of non-human animals before World War II. England’s surgeons and scientists had to contend with an animal rights movement as early as the 1850’s. These movements were composed of both forward (feminist) and backwards (gentry huntsman) looking elements. But their efforts established the first legislation of science’s accountability to morality.

Bioethical considerations have also played out in concerns around a new cellular technology, in vitro fertilization (IVF), and the capability of genetic screening raising the specter of designer babies. The authors dub this “consumer eugenics” in contrast to the state sponsored eugenics (sterilization of women of color, those labeled disabled, and others deemed undesirable by the state.) IVF usually involves multiple eggs and sperm in order to increase the chances of fertilization. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) allows researchers to screen embryos for common single-gene genetic disorders. However, the severity of these disorders vary, with some requiring lifelong medical care and others limiting the potential child’s lifespan to a few years. The ethical questions raised by this technology are profound. The authors sum it up with: “Does every parent have a right to a perfect child?” And what precedent is set when we enable our society, with its obscene priorities, to determine what perfection is? Often, disability-rights activists claim that decision for the potential child, feminist groups claim that right to be the woman’s, researchers claim it to be theirs, and the state considers its ruling are the only relevant voice in the matter.

This becomes even more concrete when examining PGD for “savior siblings.” The attempt to have another child in order to provide cells, tissues of organs for an existing ill child is highly regulated in Europe. But the author’s demonstrate that the state will weigh in favor of those who have the money and influence to promote their cause. The prospect of social privilege as a path to obtaining genetically specified human beings is one that shows the continuity between state-sponsored and consumer-driven eugenics.

Like the new consumer eugenics, the technology surrounding the uses of stem cells relates directly to the status and rights of women in society. Stem cells are a beautiful reminder of the author’s theme of biological complexity. Two stem cells may contain the same DNA code, but one can be placed in a chemical environment where it becomes a liver cell, whereas another can be induced to become lung tissue. This flexibility is part of the definition. Some types of stem cells can only give rise to certain types of mature cells, such as bone marrow. But fertilized eggs from IVF that are not used for implantation, human embryonic stem cells (HESC), can give rise to all the cells found in the mature organism. Former US President George Bush outlawed federal funding for HESC research during his term in order to bolster the rights of fertilized eggs as compared to their potential mothers. It was clearly part of the ongoing fight against women’s reproductive freedom. However, in the UK, feminists and other advocates of women’s liberation have challenged stem cell research from another angle, because it fails to allow women control over parts of their own bodies and allows sexist research institutions more voice over motherhood than women themselves.

These and other bioethical concerns meant that stem cell research is well funded in Europe but also highly regulated. And the stakes are so high in this field, it flirts with science fiction so openly, that the fiction has leaked into the pages of one the most prestigious scientific journals in the world: Science. A Korean research group outright fabricated results showing they had removed the DNA from an HESC and replaced it with another set of genetic material from patients with genetic diseases, promising, in effect, a cure-all. It turns out that many of the women researchers in the Korean lab were also the donors of the stem cells, clearly a conflict of interest. More recently, much of the debate around HESC’s has been sidestepped by advances in changing the internal chemistry of human skin cells, returning them to a more stem cell state of flexible future. But this technology does nothing to overcome the profound ethical implications of “we’ll grow you a new one” regenerative medicine.

The final field the authors examine is that of neuroscience. In this field too, they chart how a reductionist framework (“you are nothing but a bunch of neurons,” according to Francis Crick, part of the team who discovered DNA) can be used to market everything from anti-depressants to anti-terrorism. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is used to measure blood flow to various parts of the brain in real time. The underlying assumption, and reduction, is that areas with more blood are being used for whatever conscious thought or unconscious emotion that the researchers are studying. But a group of students managed to get fMRI data off a dead salmon.

The authors also question the growing dominance of pharmaceutical treatments for mental health issues. Not only were many medicines stolen from indigenous people without recognition or compensation, often these drugs only complicate symptoms in the attempt for a quick fix. These drugs tend to target a single chemical or protein in the brain for adjustment. Whatever your take on the widespread use of antidepressants, it is clear that many people in this society are deeply unhappy and others, by pretending that a mind and a brain are one and the same, are making a lot of money off it.

A running theme throughout the book, though never stated directly, is that capitalism distorts and perverts science. The tendency to reduce human complexity such that you end up with spurious science comes from the philosophical and political currents of the system in which we live. Highly competitive science encourages cheating. Science that fights for funding prioritizes patents and designer drugs. Science that reflects individualism gives the most to those with money and power. Ethical considerations and regulation are only a concession to social movements.

This book lacked the activist tone of earlier work by the authors’ and others who share their love of science and social justice. We are left pondering the dilemma instead of joining the picket line. And while it has clear examples of reductionism and the harmful effects it has on science and society, it lacks a detailed, positive exposition of what constitutes biological complexity. Steven Rose’s Lifelines is a wonderful source for this information, and readers will get the full impact of the authors’ arguments if they read both books together. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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