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World-Changing Ideas

Human Social Project: Cracking the real code of life

The most meaningless, dangerous phrase in genetics is “The gene for X,” says Steve Jones, because the more we learn about DNA the less important it seems.

The Human Genome project, reading off DNA is complete. It’s finished. It’s easy. It’s done. In Steve Jones’ view it turned out to be largely a waste of time. What we need now is a Human Social Project.

The most meaningless, dangerous phrase in genetics is, “The gene for this” or “The gene for that”, says Jones, profesor of genetics, evolution and environment at University College London. Only 15 years ago people expected that they would find these genes for, say, cancer or for heart disease. But medicine’s big secret is that we haven’t found them. And we haven’t found them because they are not there. 

Many people think that if we can read DNA it could tell us when we are going to die. But we already know that from just a few questions: How old are you? Are you male or female? Do you smoke? Do you have a history of inherited diseases? Are you obese? But the biggest question is: What’s your zipcode. The difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest zipcodes in a city like Glasgow is an astonishing 28 years. And zipcodes have nothing to do with genes.

What the Human Genome Project has done is to transform the science of genetics, and give us another big, possibly bigger idea – to change society, not to change biology.  Life expectancy has been going up 6 hours a day every day since 1900, and all that is due to changes in the environment, none of that is due to changes in genes.

For many biologists, genetics has become the Holy Grail. But, of course, it always has been the Holy Grail, this was the search for inborn perfection or imperfection. It seems to be central to the way we think, and DNA research is just another a step. DNA research hasn’t provided the answer but it’s created an interesting question: What are we going to do about inherited imperfection? The answer is that we don’t change the way we are, we change the way we live. 

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