As researchers work to understand the human genome, many questions remain, including, perhaps, the most fundamental: Just how much of the human experience is determined before we are already born, by our genes, and how much is dependent upon external environmental factors?Based on this, he has surely had his own genome sequenced, right? Nope.
Oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross the answer to that question is complicated. "Biology is not destiny," Mukherjee explains. "But some aspects of biology — and in fact some aspects of destiny — are commanded very strongly by genes."
The degree to which biology governs our lives is the subject of Mukherjee's new book, The Gene. In it, he recounts the history of genetics and examines the roles genes play in such factors as identity, temperament, sexual orientation and disease risk.
GROSS: ... I want to ask about your own genes. Have you decided whether to or not to get genetically tested yourself? And I should mention here that there is a history of schizophrenia in your family. You had two uncles and a cousin with schizophrenia. You know, what scientists are learning about schizophrenia is that there is a genetic component to it or genetic predisposition. So do you want to get tested for that or other illnesses?I post this to prove that even the experts in genetics have the dopiest ideas about it. He wants to inform the public about genetics, but he is willfully ignorant of the personal practical implications.
MUKHERJEE: I've chosen not to be tested. And I will probably choose not to be tested for a long time, until I start getting information back from genetic testing that's very deterministic. Again, remember that idea of penetrance that we talked about. Some genetic variations are very strongly predictive of certain forms of illness or certain forms of anatomical traits and so forth. I think that right now, for diseases like schizophrenia, we're nowhere close to that place. The most that we know is that there are multiple genes in familial schizophrenia, the kind that our family has. Essentially, we don't know how to map, as it were. There's no one-to-one correspondence between a genome and the chances of developing schizophrenia.
And until we can create that map - and whether we can create that map ever is a question - but until I - we can create that map, I will certainly not be tested because it - that idea - I mean, that's, again, the center of the book. That confines you. It becomes predictive. You become - it's a chilling word that I use in the book - you become a previvor (ph). A previvor is someone who's survived an illness that they haven't even had yet. You live in the shadow of an illness that you haven't had yet. It's a very Orwellian idea. And I think we should resist it as much as possible.
GROSS: Would you feel that way if you were a woman and there was a history of breast cancer in your family?
MUKHERJEE: Very tough question - if I was a woman and I had a history of breast cancer in my family - if the history was striking enough - and, you know, here's a - it's a place where a genetic counselor helps. If the history was striking enough, I would probably sequence at least the genes that have been implicated in breast cancer, no doubt about it.
I also criticized his New Yorker article on epigenetics.
Bad as he is, his reviewers are even worse. Atlantic mag reviews his book to argue that genes are overrated:
The antidote to such Whig history is a Darwinian approach. Darwin’s great insight was that while species do change, they do not progress toward a predetermined goal: Organisms adapt to local conditions, using the tools available at the time. So too with science. What counts as an interesting or soluble scientific problem varies with time and place; today’s truth is tomorrow’s null hypothesis — and next year’s error.I do not recall Darwin ever said that evolution does not make progress, or have a purpose. Whether he did or not, many modern evolutionists, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould, say things like that a lot.
... The point is not that this [a complex view of how genes work; see below] is the correct way to understand the genome. The point is that science is not a march toward truth. Rather, as the author John McPhee wrote in 1967, “science erases what was previously true.” Every generation of scientists mulches under yesterday’s facts to fertilize those of tomorrow.
“There is grandeur in this view of life,” insisted Darwin, despite its allowing no purpose, no goal, no chance of perfection. There is grandeur in a Darwinian view of science, too. The gene is not a Platonic ideal. It is a human idea, ever changing and always rooted in time and place. To echo Darwin himself, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the laws laid down by Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, endless interpretations of heredity have been, and are being, evolved.
They not only deny progress and purpose in the history of life, they deny that science makes progress. They say that "today’s truth is tomorrow’s null hypothesis".
There are political undertones to this. Leftists and Marxists hate the idea of scientific truths, and they really despise truths about human nature.
As you can see from my motto, I reject all of this. Science makes progress towards truth, and genuine truths are not erased or mulched. My positivism is in a minority among philosophers and science popularizers.
Speaking of academic leftists citing Darwin for foolish ideas, the current Atlantic mag has a philosopher article saying:
The sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect. This shift in perception is the continuation of an intellectual revolution that began about 150 years ago, when Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. Shortly after Darwin put forth his theory of evolution, his cousin Sir Francis Galton began to draw out the implications: If we have evolved, then mental faculties like intelligence must be hereditary. But we use those faculties — which some people have to a greater degree than others — to make decisions. So our ability to choose our fate is not free, but depends on our biological inheritance. ...This is mostly nonsense, of course. Intelligence has been shown to be heritable, as would be expected from Darwinian evolution. But I don't think that Darwin believe in such extreme genetic determination, as he did not understand genes.
Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion. ...
This research and its implications are not new. What is new, though, is the spread of free-will skepticism beyond the laboratories and into the mainstream. ...
The list goes on: Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.
It is possible that people who believe that free will is an illusion have some mild form of schizophrenia.
This is yet another example of philosophers thinking that they know better than everyone else. Philosophers and schizophrenics can hold beliefs that no normal person would.
Here is a summary of the Atlantic article:
Libertarian free will [the “we could have chosen otherwise” form] is dead, or at least dying among intellectuals. That means that determinism reigns (Cave doesn’t mention quantum mechanics), and that at any one time we can make only one choice.I hate to be anti-intellectual, but what am I to think when all the intellectuals are trying to convince me to give up my belief in free will? Or that they are such superior beings that they can operate without free will, but lesser beings like myself need to maintain that (supposedly false) belief?
But if we really realized we don’t have free will of that sort, we’d behave badly. Cave cites the study of Vohs and Schooler (not noting that that study wasn’t repeatable), but also other studies showing that individuals who believe in free will are better workers than those who don’t. I haven’t read those studies, and thus don’t know if they’re flawed, but of course there may be unexamined variables that explain this correlation.
Therefore, we need to maintain the illusion that we have libertarian free will, or at least some kind of free will. Otherwise society will crumble.
Speaking of overrated intellectuals, I see that physicist Sean M. Carroll's new book is on the NY Times best-seller list.