Oct

26

Note from Vic and Laurel: this essay contains much material and a framework we don’t agree with, but as Bo is always insightful and fruitful to read and know, here it is for his current and future fans.

IĀ get so tired of the genetic prattle in the news. It’s a stunt. If kids are pre-programmed for low intellect then why am I beating my head against the blackboards to teach them in school? If there is a gene for drunkenness then why is AAA successful? If there is a killer gene then why not string up babies as they hit the sheets? The answer to these and other media paradoxes lies not in our genes but in the environment in which we and the genes live.

Not all scientists think genes are all that important. Dr. Ruth Hubbard of Harvard University states in a book Explaining the Gene Myth that we are not simply blobs of DNA. We are complex organisms that are more difficult to understand as individuals and in the scope of evolution. She says that the myth of the all-powerful gene is based on flawed science. She disagrees with the notion that genes are responsible for our future mental and physical health, and offers instead that some geneticists and the press cloud the true issue of environment.

My college genetics teacher Dr. Mathew (not his real name) was a genius with a fondness for Drosophila, the fruit fly. The professor spent the first day of class thanking all the Drosophila that had made his career. In the first week he also memorized the names of each of the two hundred students who asked a question. There were many since genetics is tough to understand. My daily job after Veterinary school was to monitor through a little glass window the steam room at the Intramural Building to curtail a rash of men passing chocolates on the benches. One day a tap on the other side of the glass took my eyes up from a text to behold Dr Mathew shouting, ‘Mr. Keely! I’m so glad you asked about Drosophila.’

Fruit flies are revered by geneticists because they have only eight chromosomes instead of the human 46, they reproduce very quickly and have lots and lots of offspring, they’re teeny and take up little room in a lab, and they don’t eat much. So awestruck was I by their import that for three months I didn’t clean the garbage out of the dump where I lived, cooked and slept. Clouds of thousands of tiny flying insects reproduced that were closely enough related to fruit flies that I theorized that I didn’t want to stake my future health on further experiments with them.

Years later in 1995, not because of my sheepskin but due to a rather cutting racquet and story telling, I stayed for one week with James Watson at his home near the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory. I have five memories of the short stay. His two pet expressions that juxtaposed the past and present were, ‘It’s because we are wired that way’, and, ‘The future!’. The third recall is at the daily breakfast table where he uncannily put one eye on the newspaper and the other eye on me, and the next morning quoted the previous day’s headlines and our chat. The fourth is his lamentable tennis backhand, ‘Wired that way but think of the future!’ The fifth is the Human Genome Project started in 1990 that was in full swing among international geneticists to map the human DNA. That’s about 30,000 genes. The primary goals of the program were to impact the future of medicine and to better understand our place in the world. Dr. Watson toiled, was ebullient and formidable.

A year after the Watson visit, I decided to chuck it all to step off the front porch of a Connecticut manor under a backpack and walked a patchwork of trails north for 500 miles to Canada. Somewhere on the Vermont Long Trail on a helix ascent of a treacherous mountain, I met a steel-haired 65-year old gent in his retirement who was hiking my path except that he’d started three months earlier in South Carolina. We stood facing the same mountain as he soberly advised, ‘You have a choice, guy: Hike an hour to the top, or take the five minute ski lift.’ Earlier he had climbed it, and as a reward had descended the lift and was about to ride up again, and continue to Canada.

Similarly, every individual evolves with his choices, even as the species develop with theirs. There are many ways up the same mountain, real or metaphor, and I believe that we should take the slow, hard paths early in life to enjoy the fast, easier ones later as rewards and overviews. Behavioral genetics and gene therapy remind me of the original sin and confessional. Genes and sins, sins and genes.

I think the modern fast forward into a genetics revolution involves much sleight of intellectual hand to divert we the people from the true issues of overpopulation and toxins filling the earth and ourselves. Is it easier for you to accept an inexpensive snip at your next child’s DNA to ensure his healthy delivery and life, although it’s placebo, or to start riding a bicycle to work and join others in spending a few billions to clean up the environment?

I believe our stable of problems to conquer this decade includes an overly acidic diet, premature hormones from early s-x, processed foods and additives plus preservatives, over-prescribed medication, street drugs, in utero toxicity, city water, amalgam fillings, car exhaust, pesticides, industrial pollution, and not cannibalizing psychologists. If we continue the genetic waltz then these real causes of individual and societal behaviors and diseases will be ignored and forgotten. Be on your toes for theater. Dolly the lamb was born from the DNA of a mammary cell and named after Dolly Parton for obvious reasons. This is genetic hype the public feeds on. We are not prisoners of genes as much as of our thoughts that comfort us.

I may be wrong. I’m sitting at my evening date with a bare light bulb at the Subway Shop in Blythe, California reading The Complete Idiots Guide to Decoding Your Genes. I feel like just another person trying to understand the universe. However, unlike many, I don’t swallow easy solutions just to ease my brain. A kid just walked in from the rough neighborhood and bragged to someone, ‘That’s our homeless teacher, Mr. Keely. He read books upside down to improve his eyesight.’ He didn’t say there’s a gene for homelessness and reading right to left, and that’s the kind of hard facts that I appreciate.


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