Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Major Cultural Change

I comment from time to time on language changes that are occurring in the background even as we live through them.  It is fun to contemplate when reading about language changes in the past, wondering if the older people even much noticed.  In literate societies these changes are slower, as written material conserves older forms. Those of us who were church-raised, and especially those in liturgical churches (or Baptists who insist on KJV), see how forms long out of use can nonetheless be preserved.

The same thing happens with culture, which affords thinkers and writers ample material for comment. You can make a career noticing how things were different in the old days and telling the tale artfully. I occasionally do that with some skill, but more often simply get the job done in plain fashion, pointing things out.

Personal genomics has transformed the culture and will transform it further. Books have been written by people wrestling with the information that their proudly Irish grandfather was actually baby-switched with a Jewish boy, or discovering that their father had serial affairs, or that their mother had a child before she was married or such.  I was listening to Linda Avey, one of the founders of 23 and me describe that they had not initially anticipated such things.  One of their engineers reported he could discern relatives from the samples just before the product came to market. Even as the kits were coming out, their own staff was discovering for the first time the occasional alarming piece of information - that mom had been sleeping with stepdad before the divorce from dad, for example. Only as this was emerging it occurred to them that many adopted children would be willing to pay a lot to find out who their relatives were, on the way to finding out who their parents are.

We have some in our family. My grandmother, the one that died in 1952 whose maiden name is my much-disliked middle name, had a son before she married my grandfather.  My father never knew about this half-brother, and I suspect my grandfather did not even know this. Our Son #5, a nephew, has a close match that must be his grandmother's (or less likely his grandfather's) sister. His mother was a closed adoption, but the pieces can be partly assembled. This connection denies that any woman in her family in California had a baby in Cambridge, MA in 1967. Look, some girl was sent to Boarding School or Summer Camp then. From our POV, he just wants to know who his grandparents were.  Yet I can sympathise with her view as well. The family moved heaven and earth to keep this secret, and it's not this woman's fault that her sister decided to have her DNA run.  

When I had mine run, I spoke to my brothers beforehand that this might uncover uncomfortable info, as our father was not a sexually responsible person.  It might even produce a Japanese sibling from 1946-7, when he was in the army of occupation in Hokkaido.

Eventually an Obama descendant will have DNA done, and no one will bother to ask about birth certificates.

We are only in the foothills of this, enough that it is still scandalous and amazing.  But the information will soon be automatic - everyone will have a full genome done at birth because it will be cheap - and such secrets will no longer exist.  We will all be in the fishbowl. How far can this go? In fifty years what information will they be able to extract from your skin or your hair, which are things you are going to have a very hard time preventing from other people getting ahold of? Not to mention what your devices can download from nearby devices as you walk past. It is not just the security breaches of hackers, or Zoom selling info to Facebook that will do this.  The shear volume of interconnection will make privacy impossible.

Maybe some types of privacy will still be possible.  I imagine someone worked this out in a Sci-Fi story in the fifties. There was one about suppressing time travel, not because of what remote events would be revealed, but because The Past starts one minute ago, which is essentially the present. (It was a Science Fiction HOF story.  I imagine I could find it.)

These days Connie could scrape it off and find out who she was.


james said...

Asimov, The Dead Past

james said...

I wonder what the error rate would be. Sample mixups, contamination, reporting glitches...

Doug said...

What we may be witnessing is (mostly) the failure of genetics as a disease risk prediction tool. But please recognize as an environmental health researcher, I may be biased...

My interest in personal genetic testing (I've had both 23andMe and Ancestry tests completed) has mostly been related to health conditions and phenotype. Overall, I thought the results were boring, and told me less than I could have guessed myself. In the near future, my guess is we should expect genetic disease testing to be about as helpful as a family health history. Diseases with reliable genetic biomarkers tend to be those with a high degree of penetrance (think BRCA1 for breast cancer, ApoE4 for Alzheimer's) or well-recognized heritable disorders (Mom's brother had CF, Dad's uncle died of a disease in childhood), all of which could be guessed from looking at health outcomes in relatives. Maybe genetic testing is useful in giving more definite answers to the things we already suspect. Of course, an exception is in the case of adoptions, or uncertain parentage. To some, there could also value in knowing your carrier status when considering having children.

What was my experience with 23andMe? I was negative on all carrier status reports, and the only health report showing anything other than typical risk was due to double mutations in an HLA gene, which is associated with slight risk of Celiac disease. All of this comes as no surprise. There are histories of cancer on both sides of my family, and strokes on one side, but none of this was reflected in 23andMe or Promethease (there were also histories of smoking and other environmental factors in many of the cases). While not reported in 23andMe, the HLA mutations are linked to autoimmune diseases, including T1D, which a related family member has been diagnosed with. But being mostly Northern European would suggest I'm at increased risk of this mutation anyway. Interestingly, I was listed as "normal risk" for T2D. Both parents and grandparents on both sides were diagnosed with T2D, even though none were obese (or even more than slightly overweight). None of this information has changed how I should protect my own health.

There is a place in medicine for genetic testing. The ability to identify cancers using DNA testing is critical for targeted treatments. Genetic differences in drug metabolism directly impact treatment efficacy. However, I'm beginning to suspect the greatest impact from regular genetic testing may not be the ability to define disease risk (even polygenetic risk scores often can only account for a relatively small amount of disease variance), but rather the greatest impact may be felt among families, and provide previously impossible insight into population mixing and ancestry.

-Doug W.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Doug, you hit the right points. Many characteristics result from multiple small genetic effects - height, g-factor, propensity for impulsive behavior, but others result from rare large-effect genes. This is why full genome sequencing will be the norm in the future, rather than the targeted SNP-arrays now. We discussed epigenetics in a few sentences in passing last time, and I remain mildly but not entirely skeptical. Prenatal influences seem very likely, including on set of behaviors being enacted while another is discouraged. I can't go to the other extreme of hoping it will explain everything, however, because after a certain point it makes selection stop working - and I believe evolution does actually occur, and sometimes much more rapidly that people think even now. The earlier, the more likely believable is my current shorthand. And frankly, shorthand is usually all I do before moving on.

james said...

If the testing could be made rapid enough, this could be an ID.
Stealing someone's hair or fingernail clippings could regain some of its old nefarious meaning.

ErisGuy said...

It’s also possible that genetic testing came along too late to matter.

I learned I was my (bio)mom’s second child by her second husband, whom she divorced to remarry her first husband (father of her children one and three). My (bio)brothers want nothing to do with me and everyone else involved is long dead. My adoptive parents died 25 years ago; my biological mother, a few months before I learned this. My biological father was of low character who disappeared sixty years ago.

It’s no longer possible to learn how the adoption took place, as everyone involved had residences separated by hundreds of miles.

SJBC said...

"The Dead Past' by Isaac Asimov; and it was time-viewing not time travel,