Distinguished Speaker Series questions nature versus nurture

“The seeds of failure” planted by the Human Genome Project have forced scientists to broaden their notions of the gene, according to Sahotra Sarkar, a philosopher of science and conservation biologist. This was a point highlighted throughout his lecture “Nature and Nurture in the Postgenomic Era.” Sarkar visited MSU as part of the College of Letters and Science Distinguished Speakers Series on Monday, April 4. The Department of Philosophy sponsored the event; MSU philosophy professor Prasanta Bandyopadhyay was instrumental in bringing Sarkar to the series. The lecture spoke to the successes, failures and implications that have arisen in the decade since the completion of the Human Genome Project.

Sarkar is currently a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin, having previously received a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Chicago. He is a highly cited philosopher, notably for founding systematic conservation planning within conservation biology and working in varieties of reductionism. The lecture highlighted his background both in biology and philosophy, grappling with the scientific technicalities of the Human Genome Project and the societal outcomes of its results.

The project’s origins began with the Atomic Energy Commission, which monitored survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs dropped in 1945 and their descendents. The commission expected to see an increased rate of mutations, but these mutations did not materialize and the commission concluded that a finer resolution map of the genome was needed in order to locate the missing mutations. The Human Genome Project was then proposed in the 1980s, and formally launched in 1990.

Sarkar was a critic of the project, one of many opponents of the proposal. Objections were based on intellectual, religious, ethical and policy grounds. Prospects of genetic discrimination stimulated fear of eugenics, privacy issues and insurance denial based on genetic predisposition. Religious leaders called for concern of the project encouraging abortions and “playing God,” while scientists were opposed to the amount of resources taken away from other areas of biological research.

However, promises of medical potential convinced the U.S. Congress to fund the project. The project promised that treatments could be personalized and medical care catered to specific genotypes, and that the “war against cancer” could be won.

These promises did not materialize. Sarkar maintains that there has been no medical benefit due to the Human Genome Project, and its impact is basically irrelevant in the health field. Public health concerns have not become problems due to policy reforms passed protecting genetic privacy.

Sarkar does not mean this to  indicate that the project has been useless. Surprise after surprise came from the results the project, which officially ended in 2003. Scientists discovered that the amount of genes in an organism’s DNA does not translate into complexity (for example, rice has more genes than a person) and the amount of genes in a human is dramatically less than expected (100,000 was hypothesized, and the current estimation is 21,000). Even more surprising, only one percent of a healthy genome appears to have a function in the body, and the rest of the genetic information is considered “junk DNA.” Sarkar pointed out, “There are creationists who point out how well designed organisms are to argue for the existence of God, but no intelligent designer would design a genome where 99 percent is entirely waste.”

He went on to the philosophical implications of assuming the line of thought that “nature can be equated to biological, which is assumed to be inherited, which can than be inferred as genetic,” arguing that the relationship between genes and the environment is far more integrated than the common “nature versus nurture” reasoning.

Sarkar recognized that while the Human Genome Project did not accomplish its original goals, its findings have had a massive impact on genetics, saying that, “If anyone had predicted before 2000 that the genome is as weird as it has turned out to be, no one would have believed that person.” He concluded that due to the findings of the Human Genome Project, “nature versus nurture does not make sense in the light of modern biology.”