50 whys to look for genes: Pros and complications

Waiting at the checkout yesterday, I noticed a special issue of Time: “How DNA shapes your life.”  “Having tried to harness the power of DNA for decades,” the introduction begins, “we’re finally getting somewhere.”  The special issue and its articles are clearly optimistic, even boosterish, without much nuance, at least in their titles for I have yet to read and digest the substance and style of the articles.  I did, however, start to mull over what it would take to make a special issue that delved into the range of meanings of genes and genetic, that treated the audience as capable of thinking about the complexities that surround the application of genetic knowledge.  (Analogous to my thinking many years ago after reading Sally Ride’s book for children about the space shuttle about how to explain why astronauts begin to feel weight as they return from orbit.  Ride said it’s because of gravity and getting close to the earth, which is not the reason — see the first part of this essay.)  This led me to start listing the variety of reasons one might look for the genetic basis of something and, for each, think about issues that confound or complicate the situation or claims being made.  (My previous list of different meanings of genetic helped.)  As the list got longer (it’s up to 40 already), I thought of the title and decided to begin a series of posts.

Just how these will be organized is not yet clear, but one important distinction will be between “two aspects of heredity—the transmission of traits to offspring…: how does an offspring develop to have the trait in question at all, e.g., its eye color, and how does the outcome of the development at some point in the lifespan differ from that person to the rest of the family or population” (p. 2 of Nature-Nurture? No).

At the same time, the length of the list got me thinking about Atsushi Akera’s picture of the history of research (in his case, around computers) where “[t]ensions and differences often produced redundant, over-ambitious, and incoherent research programs” (p. 10,Calculating a Natural World).  History of technology, he contends, needs to value the study of failure and to “make the notion of failure relative if one’s goal is to document the less linear paths of innovation” (p. 338).  If that image fits genetic research, we might puzzle over why the public image of genetics is of a “relatively smooth process.”

Anyway, stay tuned for the whys, the pros, the complications, and exploration to organize the list and conceptualize its length.

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29 thoughts on “50 whys to look for genes: Pros and complications

  1. Pingback: 51 whys to look for genes: 1. Understand how the living world operates (at molecular level) | Intersecting Processes

  2. Pingback: 51 whys to look for genes: 2. Identify presence of risk factors | Intersecting Processes

  3. Pingback: 51 whys to look for genes: 3. High heritability => genetic influences > environmental | Intersecting Processes

  4. Pingback: 51 whys to look for genes: 4. Understand the basis of traits | Intersecting Processes

  5. Pingback: 51 whys to look for genes: 5. Entry points into study of development | Intersecting Processes

  6. Pingback: 51 whys to look for genes: 6. Genetic = hard to change | Intersecting Processes

  7. Pingback: 51 whys to look for genes: 7. To explain innate behaviors | Intersecting Processes

  8. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 8. Differences between groups not well explained by environmental factors | Intersecting Processes

  9. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 9. To distinguish among multiple environmental factors | Intersecting Processes

  10. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 10. Identify risk factors (using GWA studies) | Intersecting Processes

  11. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 11. Eliminate the distinction between familial and hereditary cancers | Intersecting Processes

  12. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 12. Similar varieties respond similarly in similar locations | Intersecting Processes

  13. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 13. Genetics is “the future of medicine” | Intersecting Processes

  14. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 14. Specific genes have effects on psychology that depend on upbringing | Intersecting Processes

  15. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 15. Personalize medical treatment | Intersecting Processes

  16. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 16. Genomics-based medical system in the near future | Intersecting Processes

  17. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 17. Evolution = change of gene frequencies in populations | Intersecting Processes

  18. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 18. Organisms are the survival machines of genes | Intersecting Processes

  19. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 19. DNA fingerprinting | Intersecting Processes

  20. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 20. If it is passed down, there’s nothing we can do (could have done) | Intersecting Processes

  21. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 22. Exceptional responders to drug treatment | Intersecting Processes

  22. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 23. “All cancers are genetic” | Intersecting Processes

  23. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 25. Congenital traits | Intersecting Processes

  24. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 26. Powerful tools | Intersecting Processes

  25. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 24. Manipulate enzyme levels related to cancer progression | Intersecting Processes

  26. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 27. Mental illness–social causes or social consequences? | Intersecting Processes

  27. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 28. Genetically-informed social science | Intersecting Processes

  28. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 29. Mental illness–Interaction of “genetic risk” with many environmental factors for behavioral traits | Intersecting Processes

  29. Pingback: 50 whys to look for genes: 30. Genetic heterogeneity | Intersecting Processes

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