All posts filed under: Genetics

To Be Useful, Health Data Must Go Deeper Than ‘Black’ and ‘White’

All over the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected patients based on a variety of identifiable factors, from age to sex to occupation. Data such as these are crucial to public-health officials and researchers tasked with improving care for all citizens. But in some cases, the quest for data seems driven as much by political factors as by the need to protect public health. In Canada, where I work as a resident physician in the field of head and neck surgery, the federal government has proposed that racial data be tracked as part of our national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as is already the case in the United States. On the surface, there would seem to be an obvious parallel with the need to collect race-based policing data, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the worldwide protests that followed. Collecting such data makes sense in the context of policing, since race corresponds to a visible marker that can prompt radically different responses from police officers. But the situation is different when …

COVID-19’s Gender Gap

When Hilary Clinton said in 1998 that “women have always been the primary victims of war,” it sent a chill down the spine of many. It is a questionable piece of emotional accounting to calculate that, even though men die in greater numbers than women—often after being drafted unwillingly into combat—the impact on women is greater because they lose male relatives, become refugees, and are left with the responsibility of raising children alone. But if you think Clinton’s accounting was reasonable, then you will have no problem with the narrative around the gender death gap in the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. You might have noticed that in the media (for example, the BBC, the Guardian), and even in the world of health (for example, the World Health Organisation and the Lancet), a commonly recurring narrative has developed around the pandemic: More men are dying, but the real victims are women. Moreover, this narrative usually implies that men’s deaths are largely due to men’s poor decisions about health behaviour. Are men’s deaths their own fault? The Lancet …

Sex Differences in Cognition

In a previous post I examined the biological and social influences on sex and gender identity. Evidence suggests that biology plays a powerful role in the determination of sex as well as of gender identity, although social forces are also important particularly as they relate to gender role expression. In this essay I’ll examine the evidence surrounding a related controversial topic: whether or not there are cognitive differences between the sexes and, if so, whether they are biological or social in origin. In what follows, I’ll focus on individuals whose gender identity matches their biological sex. This leaves out nonbinary and transsexual persons, about whom there is far less research evidence. Nevertheless, given that transsexuals tend to have hypothalamuses that match their identified gender not their biological sex, it would be interesting to know if this produces cognitive differences as well. Some evidence suggests that the administration of sex hormones to those undergoing transition does influence cognition in expected ways. Other studies suggest that cognitive differences exist prior to hormone treatment, and that the cognition …

How CRISPR-Enabled Gene Editing Could Change Our World: A Huntington’s Disease Case Study

Inside the O’Briens is a work of fiction by Lisa Genova that chronicles several years in the life of Joe O’Brien and his family. At the age of forty-four, Joe, a Boston police officer, is diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a progressive brain disorder. Symptoms of Huntington’s disease usually appear in a person’s thirties or forties and initially include involuntary jerking and twitching movements, as well as subtle emotional difficulties and disorganized thinking. As the disease progresses, problems develop with motor skills like walking, coordination, and balance; the involuntary jerking and twitching become more pronounced; and cognitive abilities and emotions become further impaired. While there are medications to help alleviate these symptoms, there is no cure. Most people with Huntington’s disease die of this illness fifteen to twenty years after the onset of symptoms. The diagnosis of Huntington’s disease is only the beginning of Joe’s nightmare. At the same time that Joe learns he has this fatal disorder, he is made to understand that each of his four adult children—JJ, Patrick, Meghan and Katie—has a 50 …

There is No ‘Gay Gene,’ but Sexuality is Affected by Many Genes of Small Effect

The authors of an international research project into the genetics of same-sex behaviour recently reported their findings, and created a minor media stir. The international team of researchers looked at DNA markers and data from surveys of sexual behaviour completed by over 400,000 UK Biobank participants, as well as 69,000 users of 23andMe, and found five genetic markers associated with same-sex behaviour. The authors concluded that genetics can explain between 8 percent and 25 percent of the variation in same-sex sexual behaviour. A debate over the extent to which human sexuality is linked to genetics, if at all, has been going on since at least 1993, when a controversial study appeared to find that some people have a genetic predisposition to homosexuality, and gave rise to the concept of the “gay gene.” The idea that a single gene might be responsible for sexual behaviour—or, indeed, any other psychological trait—has since been discredited and we now know that human behaviour is influenced by many genes, each having a small effect. The media coverage of the recent …

‘The Guarded Gate’ Review: Elites and Their Eugenics Projects

A review of The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants out of America by Daniel Okrent, Scribner, 496 pages (May, 2019). ….our people refuse to apply to human beings such elementary knowledge as every successful farmer is obliged to apply to his own stock breeding. Any group of farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stocks, physically and morally… —T. Roosevelt to C. B. Davenport, January 3, 1913 How are we to understand the widespread enthusiasm for eugenics in the U.S. a century ago? Some scholars like Nicholas Pastore have argued that hereditarianism in general and support for eugenics in particular is more commonly found on the political right, whereas others like John Tierney argue that eugenics is …

The Real Gender Gap in Heart Disease

Because I’m that guy, I took a poll at the recent family barbecue. “Heart disease—who has it worse? Men or women?” I asked. The answers came quickly. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law said, “Women.” My father-in-law, arms crossed, said confidently, “Men.” My mother-in-law remembered hearing about how heart disease affected women more than men during the February American Heart Association (AHA) “Go Red for Women” campaign. Apparently, the message wasn’t heard by the men at this family gathering. They were moved by stories of men—fathers, brothers, friends—they knew who died from heart disease. We are taught that facts should trump feelings, evidence should trump anecdotes, and at first glance it would appear the men are too in touch with their feelings. It is the mission of advocacy organizations like the AHA to raise awareness. Charts like this one are widely disseminated and used in countless presentations on the topic: The graph demonstrates that over the last few decades the number of women dying from heart disease has been significantly higher than men dying from heart disease. …

Selective Blank Slatism and Ideologically Motivated Misunderstandings

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. ~John B. Watson Blank slatism is the view, exemplified here with John B. Watson’s characteristic arrogance, that human nature is highly flexible and largely determined by environmental forces. Because almost all the available evidence suggests that blank slatism is incorrect, many scholars are puzzled that versions of this philosophy appear to remain popular in certain university departments and among the intelligentsia more broadly. Some critics of progressivism, such as the economist Thomas Sowell, have contended that political progressives are particularly likely to hold blank slate beliefs as a result of their tendency to attribute many social disparities to environmental and social causes and to de-emphasize genetic ones. Others—usually those favorably inclined to progressivism, like the Guardian‘s …

What Light Does ‘Three Identical Strangers’ Throw on the Nature/Nurture Debate?

The 2018 film, Three Identical Strangers, is gripping. It is both an exposé of a 1950s secret twin study (studies of triplets fall under the general heading of “twin or multiple birth studies”) and a heartbreaking portrayal of identical triplets, Robert, David and Eddy, who were separated at birth, then unknowingly placed under a microscope by psychologists intent upon learning how different family practices might yield different behavioral outcomes. This unthinkable episode in the history of twin research challenges not just established norms, but belief in the sacredness of family, and faith in the integrity of science. More needs to be researched and revealed about this dark study and I will be writing just such a book over the next year. And as one twin observed, “I wish someone would start a support group. This is all so crazy—no one, not even us twins understand the complexity.” Looking into the twins’ and triplets’ stolen childhoods and its profound effects on their lives will be a key goal. It is also vital to understand why identical …

Genes, Environment, and Luck: What We Can and Cannot Control

Social justice activists have issued a challenge to “check your white privilege.” Inasmuch as I oppose the inherent racism ingrained in such expressions of Identity Politics, my initial replies were of a snarky nature, such as “It’s doing just fine, thank you.” But as I engaged the task more seriously it wasn’t my “white privilege” that I discovered so much as it was my good fortune. This led to my November 2017 column in Scientific American, in which I enumerated a few of the ways that luck has favored many people (myself included) that led to their success, much of which was not “earned” in the purist sense that conservatives conceive of it, in which the successful merited it and the unsuccessful deserved it. The deeper I looked into the matter of how lives turn out, in fact, the more I realized how much is out of our control. Let’s begin with a question: Why do some people succeed in life while others fail? Is it because they are naturally smarter and harder working, or …