Sunday, November 29, 2009

The looming crisis in human genetics

Nov 13th 2009
From The World in 2010 print edition
Full article:

By Geoffrey Miller
University of New Mexico

In a nutshell: the new genetics will reveal much less than hoped about how to cure disease, and much more than feared about human evolution and inequality, including genetic differences between classes, ethnicities and races....

Dozens of papers will report specific genes associated with almost every imaginable trait—intelligence, personality, religiosity, sexuality, longevity, economic risk-taking, consumer preferences, leisure interests and political attitudes. The data are already collected, with DNA samples from large populations already measured for these traits....

When sequencing costs drop within a few years below $1,000 per genome, researchers in Europe, China and India will start huge projects with vast sample sizes, sophisticated bioinformatics, diverse trait measures and detailed family structures. (American bioscience will prove too politically squeamish to fund such studies.) The missing heritability problem will surely be solved sooner or later....

The trouble is, the resequencing data will reveal much more about human evolutionary history and ethnic differences than they will about disease genes. 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.

We will also identify the many genes that create physical and mental differences across populations, and we will be able to estimate when those genes arose. Some of those differences probably occurred very recently, within recorded history....

If the shift from GWAS 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. 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.


  1. On the other hand, if we are not, as many people believe, all descended from rocks, this is much less of a problem than it appears.

  2. Origins really have nothing to do with the reality of genetics and the issues cited in the article.

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