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May 31, 2008

About Your Genes

About halfway through "Your Biological Biography," Human Genome leader Francis Collins said, "Your genome is the hand you're dealt. It's up to you to figure out how to play the game." That about sums up the debate -- would knowing that you're prone to, say, heart disease change the way you live your life? Collins believes so. I am dubious, as I think people have the unique ability to justify almost anything. But perhaps Collins is more of an optimist.

Writer Misha Angrist was genotyped: "I'm a big Ashkenazi mess," he confessed. Thanks to the recently-passed Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, insurance companies cannot use that information to their benefit. But how does one deal with the psychological complications? In an informal audience poll, Collins asked how many would want to know their likelihood of developing Alzheimer's Disease. Slightly more than half raised their hands. I was shocked -- having a grandmother with Alzheimer's puts me in the "ignorance is bliss" category.

Paul Nurse moderated the panel that included sociologist Nikolas Rose and geneticist Jim Evans. Rose asserted that your genome says no more about you than where you work, or who you came from. And Evans sided with me (or so I like to think), in that "we think of prevention as a drug. The [genome project] will not propel people to be better."

The audience had nothing but questions for the group. The most contentious being one man who spoke in defense of intelligent design, to the hisses of the crowd. Collins summed it up beautifully: "The debate on intelligent design vs evolution, especially in this country, means we must choose between God and Darwin, when most people would be happy to live somewhere in the middle. I myself believe in both."

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