You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Genetics, Race and Socially Responsible Science

Lawrence Bush
December 1, 2003

An Interview with Alan McGowan

Jewish Currents: Modern science is tampering with some fundamentals of nature. We’re extending longevity, altering the genetic composition of species, splitting the atom. Many people recoil from all of this experimentation — those on the left who tend to identify science with amoral capitalism, and many others who are influenced by religious myths and teachings that caution against human “arrogance.” Jewish legend, for example, holds that idolatry began when the grandchildren of Adam and Eve created a golem and began tampering in other ways with “God’s universe.”
Now, as secularists and humanists, we don’t want to base our judgments on anti-humanistic religious teachings — but what sources can we use for making judgments about scientific endeavors?
Alan McGowan: There are, to my mind, at least three reasons for caution. Number one is the end result itself. Scientists now believe that the normal human lifespan, if we could eliminate disease and accidents, would be between 100 and 120. Suppose we could extend that to 180. What would be the quality of life between 120 and 180? It’s not clear that people would be able to do what they would like to do: to be active and healthy and vigorous and fully functional. Evolution has fashioned our body parts to wear out at about the same time. If the heart can be replaced, the mind may go. If the leg can be replaced, the arms may go. There’s a system failure that’s hard to overcome, so the quality-of-life outcomes are hard to determine.
Second of all, how do you get there? What kind of experiments do you allow in order to prove or disprove that life at 180 is going to be viable? There are lots of experiments that would give us valuable information that we’ve decided not to do, because they violate our basic sense of fairness. Scientists think it is possible, for example, either now or in the near future, to take a mouse, remove the brain cells that give a mouse whatever consciousness it has, and replace those with human brain cells. It is conceivable that this would yield a human consciousness in a mouse’s body. Most people with whom I talk say that this is an example of something we shouldn’t do.
JC: Where does that sense of taboo come from, for you?
AM: For me, it’s the understanding that if I were that consciousness, I would not want to be in a mouse’s body. The experiment violates my sense of human rights.
The third reason for caution about science has to do with economic injustice. Certain AIDS drugs, for instance, are extremely expensive. We’re also developing pills for Alzheimer’s disease that may work but are very expensive. There’s a new wheelchair that can climb stairs and stand people in an upright position. It costs $100,000. Will Medicare pay for it? I doubt it. So we’re spending a lot of time and effort to benefit people who have a lot of money. At the same time, we’re not doing sufficient research on other ways of preventing disease. For example, if we would go on a federally financed campaign with gazillions of dollars to stop smoking, we would extend the average lifespan by something close to twenty years. Or take heart disease: If people at age 40 start taking a statin and a diuretic to lower their blood pressure to what used to be thought of as below normal, we would eliminate heart disease. This would require funding a public health program and research to answer the question: Why don’t people take their drugs? Instead, the funding goes into the creation of patent-protected, high-profit medications and equipment.
JC: At the same time, don’t these innovations for the rich eventually create products that benefit the mass market? Computers, for example, evolved from a high-end corporate tool into a household product that a lot of families can afford.
AM: Yes, but if you socially engineer public space so that you don’t need a $100,000 wheelchair that climbs stairs, isn’t that a better solution? The accessibility dips at the corner of every New York sidewalk benefit everyone, including people with strollers, shopping carts, people carrying heavy loads, as well as people in wheelchairs. Similarly, if there were truly adequate public transportation systems in our cities, cars would not have to be driven nearly as much and the scientific pursuit of a “clean” combustion engine wouldn’t be so important.
People who distrust science are right to distrust science, because a lot of scientific enterprise is driven not by science but by politics. Why, for example, in the 1980s and ’90s, did seventy-six percent of the money for scientific enterprise in this country come from the Defense Department?
Because science was being used to boost U.S. military dominance. Why in the years after World War II was so much money put into atomic physics? Because we were refining nuclear weaponry. Why now has so much money been put into the human genome project? Because a lot of medical benefit was expected to come out of it — which meant that fortunes would be made by the pharmaceutical industry. In the mid-’80s, people began to argue that if we knew the structure of the genome, we would know everything about us. Since most diseases — fewer than we thought, but nevertheless, many diseases — have a genetic component to them, it was thought that, through genetics, we would understand diseases and therefore how to cure them. Articles that appeared in the 1990s predicted the curing of cancer in the 20th century. When the genome was finally revealed, the metaphors were incredible: “code of life,” “book of life,” and so on. Actually, there was an interesting series of conversations within the National Association of Science Writers about how to talk about this. The science writers were, frankly, quite skeptical, because they had been hyped before.
Mapping the human genome is like mapping the city and getting the address of every house. Now we’re investigating what goes on inside every house, what the “people” do, how they live and relate to each other — and we’re discovering that gene functioning is a lot more complicated than people thought. There was, for example, an enterprise called “pharmaco-genetics,” which suggested that if you could simply chart each person’s genome, you could figure out exactly which drugs in which dosages would work for him or her.
But life didn’t turn out to work that simply. Nearly every company founded on the premise of pharmaco-genetics is in trouble or has not realized its objectives. It turns out that just as the actions of genes determine behavior, so does behavior affect the actions of genes. Your behavior can turn on one gene as opposed to another. There are layers of regulation, of genes telling other genes what to do, in up to four layers. So the expression of the genes is a very complex situation.
JC: Genes aren’t simply the blueprint?
AM: That’s about a fifteen year-old theory. Now we have a much more complex understanding of how everything that happens in your body is an expression of your genes. Let me give you an example. People who are very depressed generally have a low level of seratonin. You can take a very depressed person with practically zero levels of seratonin and get that person to smile, mechanically — and the seratonin goes up. The genes express themselves in response to the smile, and the seratonin goes up. We’re really at the very beginning of the learning curve when it comes to the interaction of behavior and the genes. We don’t even really know how many genes exist in the human body because we don’t know any more how to define a gene! A given stretch of DNA can be part of several different genes. So you have arguments raging about how many genes there actually are.
The latest focus of the Human Genome Research Institute is the haplotyte map — the “hap map.” It turns out that the genetic roots of disease are not single genes but groupings — haplotytes. We believe that there is a finite number of haplotytes. In order to make sure that everybody is represented, samples are being taken from the five so-called “races.” But because of funding limits, they’re not taking representative samples from the entire Asia region, but from one village in China . . . one village in Africa . . . one town in Europe. Now, we already know that there are group differences in genetics based on geography. The criticism of the hap map project is that its small sampling is going to further reinforce the notion of genetic difference based not on geography but on race.
JC: Skin color, obviously, is genetic.
AM: But is there a connection between the color of your skin and your IQ? Or the color of your skin and your propensity to heart disease or hypertension? Or the color of your skin and your running ability?
The fact is that there’s far greater genetic diversity within the black population than within any other population. Humanity originated, remember, in Africa, and it was about 150,000 years before a few humans successfully migrated out and populated the rest of the world. Those few had a very constricted gene pool — they had only 50,000 years for their gene pool to expand, compared to the 200,000 years in Africa. So you have much, much greater genetic diversity within Africa than you have everywhere else in the world, combined.
There is a huge debate raging now about whether race has a genetic basis or not. People like me, in one camp, say that race has no basis in genetics. There’s an article, for example, by Richard Cooper in the New England Journal of Medicine, in which he shows that sickle-cell anemia is not a “black disease” but a disease of the Mediterranean. For sickle-cell anemia, you need two copies of the gene, one from each parent, but if you get only one copy from a parent, it helps protect you against malaria. So the gene stayed around because it served an evolutionary purpose. Same thing with Tay-Sachs — one copy of the gene gives you protection against malaria, two gives you the disease.
Harold Freeman, who heads a new center at the National Institutes of Health to eliminate racial health disparities, says that whenever you use race as a surrogate for genetics, you’re hiding the real genetic causes. There’s real harm in this. There are white people, for example, who present with the symptoms of sickle-cell anemia, but because they’re not black, they don’t get diagnosed.
Now, the opposing point of view is held by Neil Risch, a population geneticist at Stanford. He has an article in the same issue of the New England Journal of Medicine saying that if you take the DNA and just look at the differences, those differences fall out in what we call the races. If you look at his article very carefully, however, he’s not talking about the genes that actually code for anything, the genes that actually tell the body what to do. Approximately ninety-seven percent of the DNA does not code for proteins, which is the function of a gene. Although that ninety-seven percent may play some role in gene regulation, it’s not a factor in natural selection.
We know that there’s a phenomenon of DNA drift, and isolated populations are going to drift in different directions. What Risch is talking about, therefore — though you have to read him very closely to see this — is a population phenomenon, not a racial phenomenon.
JC: Still, there are genetic markers that indicate someone’s ancestry, with or without visible racial differences. For instance, what about the genetic marker for the “Kohanin,” or “Cohen,” the priestly class of ancient Israel, which has apparently turned up among various individuals and peoples around the world, including the Lembi of South Africa — black-skinned Africans who have long claimed Jewish ancestry?
AM: That’s a mitochondrial marker. The mitochondria is the stuff of the genes outside the chromosomes. Mitochondria comes from the egg — the sperm doesn’t have any. So there’s no natural selection pressure: Whatever is there tends to be duplicated without change for long periods of time. That’s why Jared Diamond and Luigi Cavalis Forza can talk about “the seven daughters of Eve” — because, tracing back the mitochondria, it is conceivable that all of us came from seven women — seven who migrated out of Africa.
JC: It’s ironic that the “Cohen” tradition is handed down by inheritance only among men, yet the mitochondrial marker is maintained exclusively by women.
To the extent that genetic research is filtering into the popular culture, it seems to be serving an anti-racist role of minimizing the significance of race in the public mind.
AM: I think that’s true. There used to be the polygenic theory that the different races actually evolved in different places, that they didn’t come from common African ancestors. Very few people hold to that theory today. There’s very little evidence for genetically significant differences among the races.
The one thing people will throw at you is the IQ difference between American blacks and whites. There is a demonstrable difference — no doubt about it. However, Claude Steele, who studies the effects of stigma on human beings, has done studies in which he administers tests as intelligence tests, and then with a different rationale, and compares the results. The difference in scores between blacks and whites disappears when test-takers are not told that it’s an intelligence test.
But people still hold onto racial theories. There is a BBC film I use in my classes called The Difference. It tells the story of Danish researchers who went and studied the Kalenjin people of Kenya — the people from whom all the great marathon runners and sprinters come. The film very clearly makes the point — three people state it — that this is not a racial issue. There may be genetic factors, there may be environmental and cultural factors, but this is not a black-white issue. Rather, a particular people living as cattle herders in the Rift Valley have developed this capacity to run better than most others. Most other Kenyan tribespeople run as slowly as anybody else in the world.
Now, I have a few newspaper reports about this film. One is headlined, “Black Men Run Faster”. Another one says, “Black Runners Have the Speed Gene”. This, despite the film’s insistence that it is not about racial difference. The pervasiveness of the racial/racist ideology is still strong.

Alan McGowan is the president of the Gene Media Forum, founded in 1999 to assist journalists in covering the many ethical and public policy questions that arise from discoveries in genetic research. He chairs the Science, Technology, and Society Concentration at the New School University-Eugene Lang College, and is an executive editor of Environment magazine. McGowan has written widely on science, science policy, and public understanding of science. He is a member of the secular Jewish community by marriage, by sentiment and by virtue of his involvement with Camp Kinderland. Jewish Currents spoke to him in August in his office at the New School.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.