Dreams of the Week

Posted by Pete Shanks May 18, 2011
Biopolitical Times

Sometimes the phrase "gene of the week" just doesn't fit. We do have one this week — oh joy, a happiness gene! — but there are other, related reports equally worth noting. They are all about dreams of control, of ways we can take charge of our future by reading our biology and manipulating our children's genes.

First, and least, is the announcement of a commercial test to measure the length of telomeres and thus predict longevity! For a mere $700, a Spanish company called Life Length plans to sell you the "death test" with the claim that:

"Knowing whether our telomeres are a normal length or not for a given chronological age will give us an indication of our health status and of our physiological 'age' even before diseases appear."

However, a British expert tells Scientific American that: "We haven't defined what we consider to be a norm and what we consider to be abnormal, either long or short." Pro tip: Regular exercise, low stress and good diet are correlated with longer telomeres. Might be worth trying.

And the "happiness gene"? That's a typically unwarranted claim, derived from a journal article about how "functional polymorphism (5-HTTLPR) in the serotonin transporter gene is associated with subjective well-being." The abstract helpfully explains that this "may help explain the important genetic component of the individual baseline levels of happiness." Ian Sample of the Guardian notes in his fourth paragraph that the study marked a "tentative step" but finds this lead irresistible:

In work that gives cranky teenagers another reason to blame their parents for all life's woes, researchers have uncovered a genetic link to happiness.

And then he suggests that a "greater understanding of happiness genes might in future allow would-be parents to create a child who will be more satisfied with their life." And, sure enough, he found an academic, Edward Diener of the University of Illinois, to say:

"Parents one day might have the choice of whether to choose genes that will create a child who is more satisfied with his or her life."

And so the dreams of controlling the future surface again. Meanwhile, Discover (something of a haven now for transhumanists) has picked up on University of Oregon physics professor Steve Hsu's hopes of defining the genetic nature of "the g factor, or IQ." He wants to use that to, yes, select the embryos with the best combination of alleles, in order to increase the mean level of g by 0.2 SDs [from this pdf], so there will be "more than twice as many individuals exceeding 4 SDs above the parental mean." This will obviously solve the world's problems overnight, or something, it's not quite clear what. But Ronald Fisher, the great statistician and geneticist, and the long-time editor of the Annals of Eugenics, thought it was a good idea in 1911. Hsu's presentation ends by quoting Fisher.

In addition to being a professor of physics, Hsu is also associated with BGI, formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute. That's a very big deal: $1.6 billion in funding; ramping up to 1000 genomes (of many species) sequenced a day at $5K each; and, according to Hsu, "more sequencing power than all of US or Europe combined."

Is it unfair to lump what could develop into a major project funded by the Chinese government together with a crass commercial outfit and a tired rehash of genetic determinism? Yes it is. If Hsu's project really starts to take shape, then it deserves the kind of treatment Stephen Jay Gould gave The Bell Curve, and more. Until then, mild ridicule is a start. But we'd better keep an eye on this.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: