Crisis in human genetics?


Jason Collins


March 4, 2011

It is a bit over a year since Geoffrey Miller wrote this piece foreshadowing a crisis in conscience by human geneticists that would become public knowledge in 2010. The crisis had two parts: that new findings in genetics would reveal less than hoped about disease and that they would reveal more than feared about genetic differences between classes, ethnicities and race.

Now that we are through 2010 with no crisis (that I was aware of - is this crisis still happening in private?), I thought I’d revisit Miller’s suggestion that geneticists would show more than feared about class, ethnic and race differences.

At the time I first read the article, I found it hard to characterise this information as something to fear. As Miller identifies, it would be a consequence of some interesting progress:

Once enough DNA is analysed around the world, science will have a panoramic view of human genetic variation across races, ethnicities and regions. We will start reconstructing a detailed family tree that links all living humans, discovering many surprises about mis-attributed paternity and covert mating between classes, castes, regions and ethnicities.

This sounds good to me. To understand the way genes spread as people migrated and mixed across the world will be to gain an important insight into human history.

Miller then points out that some people may be troubled when researchers start to identify genes that create physical and mental differences between populations and identify when those genes arose. Millers states:

If the shift from GWAS [genome wide association studies] to sequencing studies finds evidence of such politically awkward and morally perplexing facts, we can expect the usual range of ideological reactions, including nationalistic retro-racism from conservatives and outraged denial from blank-slate liberals.

But it is not all bad. He closes with:

The few who really understand the genetics will gain a more enlightened, live-and-let-live recognition of the biodiversity within our extraordinary species—including a clearer view of likely comparative advantages between the world’s different economies.

Reading that last sentence, the title to the article and the first paragraph appear over-inflated. People will always misuse information and there will be another body of people who will make great use of it.

Looking at Miller’s article from the vantage point of 2011, I am not sure much has changed. If anything, there has been a slow trickling of some of these ideas into spaces where they are starting to add value. GWAS studies are filling the journals and the store of population genetic data is increasing quickly. While most blank slaters continue to ignore it and the retro-racists use bits as they see fit, some of us are ploughing through it to learn something new.

Although Miller barely touches on it, the economic idea in that last sentence is interesting. If GWAS and sequencing studies identify different skills and comparative advantages across the world’s populations and economies, research into economic development could be vastly changed. However, I am not convinced that we are particularly close to obtaining that sort of information. As I noted in my last post, it seems that we are some distance from taking the load of genetic information and the associated picture of human evolutionary history and being able to link it to characteristics that matter economically. For the moment, basic information of human traits and heritability are filling that role.