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Wanted: Campaign to End Genetic Determinism

2012 April 20
by Allie Janson Hazell

Today is National DNA Day, a day designated to promote genetics and genomics education. I’ve always found it a little unfortunate that DNA day falls so close to Earth Day (April 22). Clearly the latter is more recognized and celebrated throughout the world. Wouldn’t we do better to celebrate DNA Day six months from now, when it might get a little more attention? But in considering it further, I think we can benefit from the opportunity to celebrate DNA and our planet at the same time. If nothing else, it provides a perfect opportunity to tackle one of the biggest challenges we face in genomics education: Genetic Determinism.

Genetic determinism’ or the prevailing perception that our genes determine health and dictate our behaviour, is a misconception that healthcare providers and the genetics community tackle daily. In reality, we know that genes are only one piece of the puzzle. Our genes plus our environment and the complex interaction between the two must be considered in order gain a realistic understanding of health and disease risk.

A recent reminder of the perils of genetic determinism came in a New York Times article titled ‘Study says DNA power to predict illness is limited.’ This article reported on a study that looked at over 50,000 identical twins in relation to 24 common health conditions to determine how often one or both twins developed a particular condition. As the author reports,

Since identical twins share all of their genes, the investigators could ask to what extent genes predict an increased chance of getting a disease. Using a mathematical model, they reached an answer: not much. Most people will be at average risk for most of the 24 diseases.

So, what would the average person reading this article (or just the headline) likely take away from it? Probably: genes don’t matter.

I’ve found that I can measure how much traction a study has gained by the number of personal emails I receive from friends and family linking to a particular source. Needless to say, this was a particularly ‘hyped’ study. And one that I found quite frustrating, not because of what the findings were, but rather how the findings were being portrayed. I was not alone in this sentiment as evident by the amount of online chatter that ensued. Erika Check Hayden over at Nature News Blog nicely summed up the sentiment:

Geneticists don’t dispute the idea that genes aren’t the only factor that determines whether we get sick; many of them agree with that point. The problem, geneticists say, is not that the study… arrived at a false conclusion, but that it arrived at an old, familiar one via questionable methods and is now being portrayed by the media as a new discovery that undermines the value of genetics.

So, essentially just because your genes aren’t everything, doesn’t mean your genes are nothing.

The fact that genetic determinism continues to persist as a mainstream perception illustrates that we, as the scientific community, simply aren’t doing enough to communicate the ‘genes plus environment’ message to the general public. Or, we need to consider new approaches to delivering this message. As scientist and science writer Christine Wilcox argues:

…scientists pass the buck when it comes to communicating science. We write the papers, but then hand them off to journalists and say “here, explain this to everyone else.” … Then, we gripe and moan when the science is shottily explained or, worse, completely misinterpreted.

This argument can be extended beyond researchers to healthcare providers, and the genetics community in particular. For genetic counsellors specifically, our business is communication. Which brings us back to DNA Day: this day is not only an important initiative, but a yearly reminder that we could all be doing a little (or a lot) more.

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