Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Is Pop Genetics the New Phrenology?

Christine and I attended the NetKAL Distinguished Speaker Dinner this past Saturday and heard one of the more fascinating talks given at a NetKAL event. The speaker was Dr. Sandra Soo-Jin Lee who is a Senior Research Scholar at Stanford and "a medical anthropologist whose work probes the social and cultural contexts of emerging genetic technologies and their application in biomedicine."

She discussed the implications of two recent articles and genetic studies that had the media buzzing. First, was Po Bronson's NYTimes article, "Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?", which discussed the COMT gene that could explain why a child might be a "worrier" vs. a "warrior" or how well a child handles pressure. Dr. Lee talked about how Bronson was writing about how this translated into better taking test abilities if you a "warrior" and how Asians were 4 times less likely to be a "worrier" than white Europeans. This then somehow explained why Asians and Asian Americans do better on standardized tests. Increased quotas at top universities anyone?

Another recent study Dr. Lee discussed was the "leadership gene." How some gene sequence (couldn't find the exact article she referred to) can indicate whether a person would be a strong leader or not. There was a specific gene sequence within this set that almost signified a person would become a "superstar" leader. I hope I'm not misquoting Dr. Lee, but I believe she said if you were a white European you had a 60% chance of having this gene sequence, 10% if you were Asian American and 5% if you were African American.

First, when I heard this there were obvious questions about how did these researchers define "leadership" and what were their sample sets. Second, this immediately reminded me of the scene in "Django Unchained", which I saw a few weeks ago with Christine. Calvin Candie, Leonardo DiCaprio's character, discussed a theory of phrenology, which was the popular pseudoscience during those times. The scene took me back to my high school history courses, and if you read the transcript that echoed in my head during Dr. Lee's talk you'll understand why:

"This is Ben. He's an old joe that lived around here for a long time, and I do mean a long damn time. Old Ben here took care of my daddy and my daddy's daddy. Till he up and keeled over one day, old Ben took care of me. Growin' up the son of a huge plantation owner in Mississippi puts a white man in contact with a whole lotta black faces. I spent my whole life here, right here in Candieland, surrounded by black faces. Now seein' 'em every day, day in and day out, I only had one question: why don't they kill us?

Now right out there on that porch, three times a week for fifty years, old Ben here would shave my daddy with a straight razor. Now, if I was old Ben, I woulda cut my daddy's goddamn throat, an' it wouldn't-a taken me no fifty years of doin' neither. But he never did. Why not? See, the science of phrenology is crucial to understandin' the separation of our two species. [Picking up a hacksaw] And the skull of the African here? The area associated with submissiveness is larger than any human or any other sub-human species on planet Earth."

To be honest, I haven't researched or read the reports on the "leadership gene," but on the surface it reminded me of phrenology which was used to justified slavery and positions of power within our society. You can almost hear some crazies and idiots out there already stating:

"The science of genetics proves that Asians are not meant to be leaders of corporations... proves why there aren't many black NBA coaches... Asian American shouldn't be managers of teams... they lack that gene which helps them become natural leaders... only an exceptional Asian or Black man or woman can become a Fortune 500 CEO..."

So the questions for me to ask after attending Dr. Lee's talk was how well-regarded are these recent research studies among the scientific community? And will pop genetics become the new phrenology?

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