Well Being

Genetics Interview #5: Razib of Gene Expression

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This week, I interviewed one of the most illustrious genetics bloggers in our community. Razib of Gene Expression and ScienceBlogs' Gene Expression. As you will see from his answers, Razib is a deep and wide thinker who some may not always agree with but you can be sure of an intelligent debate. (Look for the little nugget in the interview about RA Fisher.)

1. Gene Expression (GNXP) just celebrated its fourth anniversary. It is not only one of the first genetics blogs, but also one of the most controversial. Can you explain the blog’s guiding principles? And how does GNXP at ScienceBlogs differ from the original?

Well, as a group blog we all have various principles, and those principles have changed over time. For me, the key is to know more and learn more, and so I tend to skew the blog toward a tone and topicality which will encourage an elite readership that frankly serves my own egoistic goals of data acquisition. The universe of papers in the sciences is so large that two eyeballs simply does not suffice, and so the readers are a way to extend one’s cognitive capacity. I like to think I reciprocate in my functionality.

On a less self-centered note I do think it is important to communicate with intelligent people in various disciplines about genetics. We are fundamentally biological creatures, and though our evolutionary past does not hold us in a straight-jacket it does offer lessons and rigs the die, so to speak. That is one reason I have expanded my interest to cognitive psychology, as my reading suggests to me that the mind itself has an architecture which shapes how we view the world. In terms of public policy many trained in the liberal arts and social sciences operate at a higher level of complexity and often seem to miss the insights that genetic or psychological science, predicated on the individual, may offer. I believe that economics, with its historical emphasis on individual rational actors, is going in the right direction, but the reality is that humans by and large are not rational actors because of biological and psychological priors.

I also post on history, a topic of personal interest to me, and the reasoning is two fold. Many people of scientific inclinations simply lack data when it comes to the broad scope of human experience and tend to generalize from a few a priori principles gleaned in an offhand fashion. In the manner of scientists they then make wide and absolute inferences which are easily falsifiable from the historical record. Opinions must be informed by fact, and far too often scientists who offer political or social opinions operate in a vacuum of fact. Secondarily, but not less important, I wish to include in the discussion those with more humanistic interests. The reality is that I do believe in the fundamental and theoretical unity of knowledge. I am skeptical that our own cognitive capacities will realize true consilience, but the striving for this ideal might offer up benefits. Humanists who come to read entries relating to history will also hopefully be exposed to other entries dealing with the natural sciences. In this way their understanding of humanity will become deeper, more fundamental, less grounded in introspection.

As for “Science Blogs,” that is a different and new beast. I’ve only been there for less that 6 months, so we’ll see where it goes. It is obviously going to correlate more with my own personal interests since I’m the only blogger there. I tend to be more explicit about my assumptions since unlike GNXP classic many of the readers are new. I post less on controversial material that assumes evolutionary and genetic points because I’m not sure that those points are well understood by all readers (e.g., “there hasn’t been enough time for humans to change in the past 10,000 years). Over time I will probably get more technical and explore more obscure and controversial topics, but I’m still trying to habituate the non-overlapping readership there to basics in regards to population genetics and quantitative variation (which are simply necessary to really work through the inferences).

2. You and your blogs are often labeled as conservative even though you consider yourself a libertarian. What would you say are the major ways in which politics has affected genetics research? Is it really necessary for scientists to label themselves or does it just distract from “the truth”?

One must separate norms, the overarching goals, and the day to day method. I don’t think politics, aside from ubquitious social politics, matters in science on the everyday level, but in terms of emphasis and orientation what your goals and values are seem entirely relevant. If scientists accepted that a zygote was a human being, and that human life is inviolable, then that has public policy implications in terms of stem cell research (one example among many in regards to fetal tissue research). If scientists believed that any findings which support interpopulational differences are simply too politically explosive to explore, then that has public policy implications. Over the last 50 years politics has effected genetics research because of the Nazis. The Galton Laboratory as University College was once focused on ‘eugenics,’ as opposed to ‘human genetics.’ It is a lot safer to focus on model organisms (and honestly, more practical in terms of expense and a 4-5 year Ph.D. track) than on humans if you want to think of the full (and often unpalatable) implications of evolutionary science, which after all does occur via differential reproduction correlates with fitness. The second half of R.A. Fisher’s seminal ‘Genetical Theory’ dealt with eugenics, though Fisher himself focused on positive (encouraging the fit to reproduce) as opposed to negative (sterilizing the unfit, etc.) eugenics (and he practiced it in his own life, consciously being a rather prolific man). With the rise of genomics I suspect we will see a focus back on our own species as many of the techniques are promoted via their supposed clinical applications. Hopefully some of the structural problems with human genetics (you can’t do controlled breeding of H. sapiens!) will be mitigated by the amount of information that genomics will throw our way.

As for my politics, well, I am not really interested in first order political topics today. This is an example where you see my own personal evolution over the past 4 years. Nevertheless, I am definitely outside of the comfortable liberal box that many scientists today reside within. In part this is from my reading in history, but I probably have an iconoclastic bent. To some extent over at “Science Blogs” I see myself as a mild reality check on the normative liberalism, though truly I tend to perceive day-to-day politics as epiphenomenal and just a way to waste time. On the other hand, I do have a deep appreciation of Western civilization, and am concerned about the relativizing tendency of some on the Left, and I don’t think this is epiphenomenal because I think science is contingent upon a certain set of values which were first elucidated in detail in the West in the 18th and have spread over time.

3. I once read a Nobel prize winning scientist say that he thinks about genetics from the time he wakes up to the time he goes to bed. Based on how much you write in your blogs, I’d guess that you’re the same. Are you? Do you think it’s necessary to to live a totally consumed life in order to become a great thinker on any subject?

Hm. I do think about genetics a lot, and how it is applied to the world around us. But genetics isn’t particle physics, you see it all around us in a very tangible form in organisms. You see the variation within and across populations, and you see mutations emerge in the laboratory with relatively low power microscopes (e.g., c. elegans). As for being totally consumed to be a great thinker, I think that on average probably, though there are plenty of exceptions I suspect. Some singular brilliances such as Richard Feynman had ‘other interests,’ as can be attested in his biography. Two great mathematicians, A.H. Kolmogorov and G.H. Hardy, both had strong interests in history. In fact, Paul Erdos, ‘the man who loved numbers,’ seemed to have had non-mathematical interests before his 50s. I suppose that the need to be singular is roughly proportional to your innate brilliance, the brightest lights in the firmament are as the gods, so to speak, all of creation is their purview.

4. How and at what age did you become interested in genetics? What kept you going?

Around the age of 10 I became interested in genetics because of human paleoanthropology. It was rather tentative and superficial for quite a while, and though I did find my initial genetics courses fascinating I ened up focusing on biochemistry. But after I started GNXP I began to immerse myself in the literature of population genetics, I saw how much explanatory value it seeemd to possess and how relatively neglected it was by modern biologists who seemed fixated on specific molecular pathways. I believe I really didn’t “understand” evolution until 2 years ago because I didn’t “understand” population genetics.

5. What do you think the general public needs to know about genetics and the future of genetics?

The public needs to know that basics of evolutionary genetics are exceedingly simple in their algebra. “Evolution” is not about dinosaurs, and it is not a mysterious and inscrutable force. It operates as a process with a few basic parameters, whether it be heritable variation or a selection coefficient, and we are not gods who are immune from this force. Genetics and evolution are all around us in our own population substructure, in the developmental arc of our own lives. This generation shall not pass without the reality that the average human will be able to access their full genomic code, our genetical architecture will not just be a vague outline we have to infer from our appearence or a few tests here and there, it will be as easy to access as our social security number. But science can only give us the raw materials, what we choose to do with it is up to us. We better start thinking!

Thank you so much, Razib! You have certainly given us a lot to think about.