My Genome, My Self
August 11, 2012
ONE OF THE PERKS of being a psychologist is access to tools that allow you to carry out the injunction to know thyself. I have been tested for vocational interest (closest match: psychologist), intelligence (above average), personality (open, conscientious, agreeable, average in extraversion, not too neurotic) and political orientation (neither leftist nor rightist, more libertarian than authoritarian). I have M.R.I. pictures of my brain (no obvious holes or bulges) and soon will undergo the ultimate test of marital love: my brain will be scanned while my wife’s name is subliminally flashed before my eyes.
Last fall I submitted to the latest high-tech way to bare your soul. I had my genome sequenced and am allowing it to be posted on the Internet, along with my medical history. The opportunity arose when the biologist George Church sought 10 volunteers to kick off his audacious Personal Genome Project. The P.G.P. has created a public database that will contain the genomes and traits of 100,000 people. Tapping the magic of crowd sourcing that gave us Wikipedia and Google rankings, the project seeks to engage geneticists in a worldwide effort to sift through the genetic and environmental predictors of medical, physical and behavioral traits.
The Personal Genome Project is an initiative in basic research, not personal discovery. Yet the technological advance making it possible — the plunging cost of genome sequencing — will soon give people an unprecedented opportunity to contemplate their own biological and even psychological makeups. We have entered the era of consumer genetics. At one end of the price range you can get a complete sequence and analysis of your genome from Knome (often pronounced “know me”) for $99,500. At the other you can get a sample of traits, disease risks and ancestry data from 23andMe for $399. The science journal Nature listed “Personal Genomics Goes Mainstream” as a top news story of 2008.
Like the early days of the Internet, the dawn of personal genomics promises benefits and pitfalls that no one can foresee. It could usher in an era of personalized medicine, in which drug regimens are customized for a patient’s biochemistry rather than juggled through trial and error, and screening and prevention measures are aimed at those who are most at risk. It opens up a niche for bottom-feeding companies to terrify hypochondriacs by turning dubious probabilities into Genes of Doom. Depending on who has access to the information, personal genomics could bring about national health insurance, leapfrogging decades of debate, because piecemeal insurance is not viable in a world in which insurers can cherry-pick the most risk-free customers, or in which at-risk customers can load up on lavish insurance.
The pitfalls of personal genomics have already made it a subject of government attention. Last year President Bush signed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, outlawing discrimination in employment and health insurance based on genetic data. And the states of California and New York took action against the direct-to-consumer companies, arguing that what they provide are medical tests and thus can be ordered only by a doctor.
With the genome no less than with the Internet, information wants to be free, and I doubt that paternalistic measures can stifle the industry for long (but then, I have a libertarian temperament). For better or for worse, people will want to know about their genomes. The human mind is prone to essentialism — the intuition that living things house some hidden substance that gives them their form and determines their powers. Over the past century, this essence has become increasingly concrete. Growing out of the early, vague idea that traits are “in the blood,” the essence became identified with the abstractions discovered by Gregor Mendel called genes, and then with the iconic double helix of DNA. But DNA has long been an invisible molecule accessible only to a white-coated priesthood. Today, for the price of a flat-screen TV, people can read their essence as a printout detailing their very own A’s, C’s, T’s and G’s.
A firsthand familiarity with the code of life is bound to confront us with the emotional, moral and political baggage associated with the idea of our essential nature. People have long been familiar with tests for heritable diseases, and the use of genetics to trace ancestry — the new “Roots” — is becoming familiar as well. But we are only beginning to recognize that our genome also contains information about our temperaments and abilities. Affordable genotyping may offer new kinds of answers to the question “Who am I?” — to ruminations about our ancestry, our vulnerabilities, our character and our choices in life.
Over the years I have come to appreciate how elusive the answers to those questions can be. During my first book tour 15 years ago, an interviewer noted that the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould had dedicated his first book to his father, who took him to see the dinosaurs when he was 5. What was the event that made me become a cognitive psychologist who studies language? I was dumbstruck. The only thing that came to mind was that the human mind is uniquely interesting and that as soon as I learned you could study it for a living, I knew that that was what I wanted to do. But that response would not just have been charmless; it would also have failed to answer the question. Millions of people are exposed to cognitive psychology in college but have no interest in making a career of it. What made it so attractive to me?
As I stared blankly, the interviewer suggested that perhaps it was because I grew up in Quebec in the 1970s when language, our pre-eminent cognitive capacity, figured so prominently in debates about the future of the province. I quickly agreed — and silently vowed to come up with something better for the next time. Now I say that my formative years were a time of raging debates about the political implications of human nature, or that my parents subscribed to a Time-Life series of science books, and my eye was caught by the one called “The Mind,” or that one day a friend took me to hear a lecture by the great Canadian psychologist D. O. Hebb, and I was hooked. But it is all humbug. The very fact that I had to think so hard brought home what scholars of autobiography and memoir have long recognized. None of us know what made us what we are, and when we have to say something, we make up a good story….