Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Genes: convenient tokens of our time

My post today, perhaps typically cranky, was triggered by an essay at Aeon about the influence that the film Still Alice has had on thinking about Alzheimer's Disease (AD). As the piece puts it, AD is presented in the film as a genetic disease with a simply predictable doom-like known genetic cause.  The authors argue that the movie is more than entertainment.  It's a portrayal that raises an important ethical issue, because it is very misleading to leave the impression that AD is a predictable genetic disease.  That's because a clear genetic causation, and thus the simple 'we can test for it' representation, applies only to a small fraction of AD.  The film badly misrepresents the overall reality of this awful form of the disease (a good treatment of Alzheimer's disease and its history is Margaret Lock's thoughtful The Alzheimer Conundrum, 2013, Princeton Press).

While focusing on AD, the Aeon piece makes strong statements about our obsession with genes, in ways that we think can be readily generalized.  In a nutshell, genes have become the convenient tokens of our time.

Symboling is a key to making us 'human'
If there is any one thing that most distinguishes our human species from others, it may be the use of language as a symbolic way to perceive the world and communicate to others.  Symboling has long been said by anthropologists to be an important key to our evolution and the development of culture, itself based on language.

Symbol and metaphor are used not just to represent the world and to communicate about it, but also to sort out our social structure and our relationships with each other and the world.  Language is largely the manipulation or invocation of symbols.  In a species that understands future events and generalities, like death and sex, in abstract terms, the symbols of language can be reassuring or starkly threatening.  We can use them to soothe ourselves or to manipulate others, and they can also be used in the societal dance around who has power, influence, and resources.

Symbols represent a perception of reality, but a symbol is not in itself reality.  It is our filter, on or around which we base our interactions and even our material lives.  And, science is as thoroughly influenced by symbols as any other human endeavor.

Science is, like religion, a part of our culture that purports to lead us to understand and generalize about the world, but because science is itself a cultural endeavor, it is also part and parcel of the hierarchy and empire building we do in general, part of a cultural machinery that includes self-promotion, and mutually reinforcing service industries including news media, and even scientific journals themselves.

The current or even growing pressures to maintain factory-like 'productivity' in terms of grants coming in and papers going out is largely at odds with the fundamental purpose of science (as opposed to 'technology').  Unlike designing a better product, in the important, leading-edge areas of science, we don't know where we're going.  That is indeed the reason that it is science.  Exploring the unknown is what really good science is about.  That's not naturally an assembly-line process, because the latter depends on using known facts.  However, our society is increasingly forcing science to be like a factory, with a rather short-term kind of fiscal accountability.

Our culture, like any culture, creates symbols to use as tokens as we go about our lives.  Tokens are reassuring or explanatory symbols, and we naturally use them in the manipulations for various resources that culture is often about.  Nowadays, a central token is the gene.

DNA; Wikipedia

Genes as symbols
Genes are proffered as the irrefutable ubiquitous cause of things, the salvation, the explanation, in ways rather similar to the way God and miracles are proffered by religion.  Genes conveniently lead to manipulation by technology, and technology sells in our industrial culture. Genes are specific rather than vague, are enumerable, can be seen as real core 'data' to explain the world.  Genes are widely used as ultimate blameworthy causes, responsible for disease which comes to be defined as what happens when genes go 'wrong'.  Being literally unseen, like angels, genes can take on an aura of pervasive power and mystery.  The incantation by scientists is that if we can only be enabled to find them we can even cure them (with CRISPR or some other promised panacea), exorcising their evil. All of this invocation of fundamental causal tokens is particulate enough to be marketable for grants and research proposals, great for publishing in journals and for news media to gawk at in wonder. Genes provide impressively mysterious tokens for scientists to promise almost to create miracles by manipulating.  Genes stand for life's Book of Truth, much as sacred texts have traditionally done and, for many, still do.

Genes provide fundamental symbolic tokens in theories of life--its essence, its evolution, of human behavior, of good and evil traits, of atoms of causation from which everything follows. They lurk in the background, responsible for all good and evil.  So in our age in human history, it is not surprising that reports of finding genes 'for' this or that have unbelievable explanatory panache.  It's not a trivial aspect of this symbolic role that people (including scientists) have to take others' word for what they claim as insights.

This token does, of course, have underlying reality
We're in the age of science, so that it is only to be expected that we'll have tokens relevant to this endeavor.  That we have our symbols around which to build other aspects of our culture doesn't mean that the biology of genes is being made up out of whole cloth.  Unlike religion, where things can be 'verified' only by claims of communication with God, genes can of course, at least in principle, be checked and claims tested.  Genes obviously do have major and fundamental roles in life.  If that isn't true, we are really misperceiving fundamentals of our existence.  So, even when complexities of causation are daunting, we can claim and blame what we want on genes and in a sense be correct at least at some level.  That enhances and endorses the token value of genes.

Genes do have great sticking power.  The Aeon piece about AD is just one of countless daily examples.  A fraction of cases of AD are so closely associated with the presence of some known variants in a couple of genes, that true causation--whatever the mechanism--seems an entirely plausible explanation.  Likewise, there are hundreds or thousands of disorders that seem clearly to be inherited and as the result of malfunction of one or two specific genes.  The cultural extension of this in our society that we are stressing here is the extension of these clearly causative findings to the idea that causation can be enumerated in convenient ways mainly by peoples' inherited genomes and that other aspects of biological causation are often treated as being rather superficial or incidental.  That in a sense is typical of deeply held cultural icons or tokens.

The problem with genes as tokens is that they are invoked generally or generically in the competition for cultural resources, material and symbolic.  Personally, we think there are issues, genetic issues in fact, that deserve greater investment, rather than just the easier to invoke bigger-is-better approach. They include a much more intense attack on those many traits that we already know without any serious doubt are tractably genetic--due to one or only a couple of genes, and therefore which real genetic therapy might treat or prevent effectively.  By contrast, most traits even if they are affected by genetic variation as all traits must be, are predominantly due to environmental or chance causative factors.  We have ways to avoid many diseases that don't require genetic approaches, but as vague entities they're perfect subjects for invoking the gene token, and policy in the industrial world clearly shows this.

Some progress does of course occur because of genetically-based research, but the promise far outpaces the reality of genetic cures.  But genes are the material tokens that keep the motor running far beyond the actual level of progress.  They effectively reflect our time--our molecular, computer, technological culture imagery, our love of scale, size and the material grandeur they generate.

Every culture, every generation has its tokens and belief systems.  Genes are among ours.  They're never perfect.  People seek hope, and what velvet robes and gilded cathedrals and mosques provide for many, whereas the humming laboratories do for a growing number of others.

Tokens, symbols and metaphors: they drive much of what people do, even in science.


jessilydia said...

Ken, I like your pointing out "The current or even growing pressures to maintain factory-like 'productivity' in terms of grants coming in and papers going out is largely at odds with the fundamental purpose of science (as opposed to 'technology')."

It brings out the trouble with mistaking genes and symbols. When science first began to encourage investors on campus a lot of people saw it as "a bargain with the devil", to promise ever growing returns. That always goes bad in the end, but people also "never learn". It seems to be a perennial conflict.

Chris said...

Related to the topic of "genes as tokens" (as well as your recent post on complexity), I'd be interested in your thoughts on Keith Baverstock's article, "Genes Without Prominence", in the latest issue of Inference. Do the failures of universal genetic predictability mean we ought to rethink our concept of a "gene", or has Baverstock lost the plot?

Anonymous said...

In your last three posts you've hit the trifecta of arguably the most contested issues in human biology: the brain, senescence, and the gene. Whether the big government moonshoot/Manhattan Project or the corporate monetized approach, there is a need for Taylorist efficiency which influences how these issues are conceived: a) reductionism - phenomenon reduced to lowest levels, b) streamlining - simple, unidirectional causal pathways, often involving an active 'agent' (gene, neuron) and passive instruments (body, environment), c) tractability - all causes are knowable in principle, can be modeled, and most importantly outcomes predicted, d) familiar metaphors, namely the digital electronic computer.

Whether it's the 'computational' brain, 'programmed' aging (or aging as a trade-off of programs), or genetic 'programs' the conclusion is that all we need to do is provide improved software or switch out some of the hardware seems obvious. And these metaphors and assumptions relates to adjacent issues like epigenetics, the relationship of cancer to senescence, and mental and behavioral potential. Not that Taylorist thinking and its main hallmark, reductionism, is necessarily incorrect. But it surely isn't complete. Instead, it is subsumable into a multilevel, multicausal, feedback-based approach sometimes called dynamical systems theory.

Anonymous said...

When you look at all the GWAS's with sample sizes in the hundreds of thousands, see all the incredibly talented scientists crunching the numbers using the latest libraries with algorithms tailor-made to power through the most complex computations quicker. You hear the amazing promises. "Predict your IQ, educational achievements, income, disease risks, and more, with nothing more than your genome!" Indeed, your children will soon enjoy the opportunity of being genetically engineering, smarter, wealthier, stronger, better.

Isn't this the way to the future?

Ken Weiss said...

Response to Chris,
Baverstock has taken a line many physicists have taken, basically, which is to say that they understand evolution better than biologists do. Much of the fundamental things he says are of course true, and tempering the 'gene for' ethos of our time is worthwhile. But there are many issues in what he wrote, and some misunderstand I think, too much to go into here. One example is a mispresentation, or misperception, of 'gradualism' and things like punctuated equilibrium (which Darwin also recognized, but without credit from Gould). Gradualism really referred to complex traits, like flying in bats or whales' return to the see, etc. Darwin knew that major 'jumps' would be both hard to explain and would be fodder for creationism. The 'punctuations' in Gould and Eldridge don't mean that occasionally a fully-formed new trait arises, but that for long periods complex traits often don't seem to change much.

Generally, an assault on simplistic genetic models, metaphors, and thinking is welcome and important. But physicists and chemists often get important issues substantially wrong, when they try to reduce biology to chemistry, so one has to be careful in reading either side of the story, I think.

Chris said...

Hi Ken, thanks for your reply. I have no trouble believing that chemists or physicists (or my fellow astronomers) have a tendency to mistake their ignorance of the details of biology for the unimportance of those details. My own bias tends towards the view that biology is reducible to chemistry, which, in turn, is reducible to physics, but I wouldn't pretend that we really understand either step in that reduction (and I don't know enough about issues of "emergence" to argue that this view is anything more than an intellectual predisposition).

Ken Weiss said...

I don't see how biology could not be consistent with chemistry and physics, unless science is really mistaken about existence. But I think 'consistent with' doesn't mean 'predictable from' as a generality. If the number of combinations, or even individually unique combinations is as great as it seems likely, then much about life that we care about would not be predictable in the usual way. To me, the key or a key issue is replicability, because current science is largely based on that premise; yet in many important ways life is a phenomenon that exists as we know it because it diverges and in important ways is not, at least in practice, sufficiently replicable. But that doesn't mean cause and effect aren't at work.