Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Race To Genomic Identity

Eric Raymond has an incite-full (I pun) post up at his blog Armed and Dangerous titled A Specter Is Haunting Genetics. His principle point (I pun again) being that, as we come to more fully classify a statistically meaningful representative sample of the human population, we will almost certainly discover ... well, let him say it for himself:
(1) we will shortly have genomic-sequence information on hundreds of thousands of human beings from all over the planet, enough to build a detailed map of human genetic variation and a science of behavioral genetics. (2) We will confirm that variant alleles correlate strongly with significant measures of human ability and character, beginning with IQ and quite possibly continuing to distribution of time preference, sociability, docility, and other important traits. (3) We will discover that these same alleles correlate significantly with traditional indicia of race.

As I take his meaning to be, we will be able to identify the individual genetic variations that are presently classified by external physical appearance - in a word: race. The squabbles begin and degenerate rapidly thereafter.

In the early-to-mid 1980's I worked for the US Navy at a research facility. Along with one other man named Peter, we were the only two people within the building during the night shift we worked. The building was fairly well RF shielded so, to the limited extent talk radio existed back then, it wasn't really an option anyway. :) The job largely consisted of setting up multi-hour long sequences and the occasional crack of dawn customer requirement. IOW we talked. A lot - and about much we wouldn't ordinarily have inspiration or inclination to consider in other circumstance.

As it happens, this same general topic (the socio-political impact of genetic identifiers) was one we repeatedly considered.

Now remember, this was the '80's; Reagan was walkin' the walk, the economy was roaring back, Crick and Watson and DNA were a recurring theme in news stories of the day (much of them crime related) and the "nurture/nature" argument was much in vogue due to the prominence of the McMartin Pre-School (and other sex abuse) trials over those years. Peter's family was politically active (and significant in state politics) and he had a trained artist's sense of story, while I was a longtime reader of speculative fiction with an eclectic employment and education history; we were well equipped to apply "what if ..." to a wide range of topics. No real way for us to tell how well grounded, or even if, those thoughts were, but there you have it ... stopped clocks and all that comes quickly to mind.

We eventually settled on the creation of a personal "label" as the most direct means to overcome the history and industry that has accrued to race and eugenics-related perceptions. The idea being that, since individuals are apparently the result of some mixture of genetic inheritance and social environmental inputs, an individual identification code based on their individual genetics would be a method for refuting the opposition that seemed even then an almost certain response to such detailed knowledge of humanity. This would only work if there was a large enough sample base to make such classification statistically meaningful and there was created a social-input chart of some nature (that quantified the general characteristics of a given growth experience or influence - much in the manner that present-day dating sites do, as it turns out). This last was always the critical stumbling block since we couldn't envision a means for doing such a thing (neither of us being surnamed Berners-Lee you understand :)).

I'm hopeful that with his professional background and personal depth of interest, Eric will have a better sense of the practicality of Peter's and my early stumbling about in the night hours. If one day I become Will Brown XY-7543GT-&%76-%#$@&54A instead of XXX-YY-ZZZZ, then it becomes possible to argue that my (everyone's) genetic code isn't "racist" at all, but is an accurate measure of both my potential medical state as well as my capability generally, absent some form of intervention. Instead of sticking me in a niche, it becomes possible to quantify the trans-human fantasy onto a scale of feasibility as well as work to remove group classification from societal consideration. To the extent that humans are social animals, possession of a means to characterise each other in advance of detailed individual knowledge will remain necessary to continuation of the human condition. Having a mechanism to make such pre-judgement as individually accurate as clinically possible seems a useful alternative to the historical standard.

Or, so said all both of us.

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