An e-friend breezed by the other day–a person, I mean, whom I had previously known only through his website and some e-mail exchanges on topics of common interest. He didn’t stay long. I was at home with my son. My wife and daughter were out (shopping, ballet practice). My son was in his room playing a computer game. The guest impressed Danny tremendously by greeting him with: “Word!” Then, leaving the boy to his game, we went downstairs and chatted over a drink. The guest showed me some interesting websites. My wife came home and was introduced. I took my guest out to dinner (or rather, he me–he paid, I mean). We came home and chatted some more, looked at some more websites. The guest left. I sat thinking for a while–thinking quite hard, as my thinking goes.
This guest was a young man, mid-20s I would guess, very energetic and fast-talking, very smart. He is a researcher at a famous university, in a field that is new: computational genomics. I’ll talk about that in a minute. I can’t give you his name, because he doesn’t want it given. He keeps his identity well hidden, in fact. Even his website offers no clues, though there are usually ways to find out the ownership of a website. He: “I can’t afford to be known. There are people out there trying to find out who I am–people who mean me no good, people who could wreck my career. I’m not going to let that happen.”
Because I can’t give the guy’s name, I’ll refer to him by a word that I thought I had coined in an NRODT review last year, but which in fact had been used as a company name well before that: “datanaut.” (This person is not Charles Murray, who would be very flattered to be described as being in his mid-20s.)
“Datanaut” follows from my friend’s specialty, computational genomics. Genomics is the study of genomes, those tremendously long strings of quite simple chemicals (there are just four of these chemicals, known familiarly as A, G, C, and T) found in the nuclei of living cells, which encode the inherited physical properties of whatever organism–a bacterium, a tree, a fish, a human being–the cells belong to. We now know what the actual patterns of As, Gs, Cs, and Ts are in the genomes of several kinds of living things, including human beings. This, unfortunately, is like knowing the sequence of brush strokes in all the Chinese characters that make up the Analects of Confucius: not really very informative unless you know what the characters–and their combinations and sequences–actually mean.
The human genome has about three billion “base pairs” of these fundamental chemicals. (An example of a base pair would be GT. The G lives on one side of the “double helix” you have heard about, the T on the other, connected by one of the bonds that hold the helix together.) Even a humble bacterium has about four million or so base pairs. That is a lot of data. To get any sense out of it, in fact, you need to engage in a newish discipline called “data mining.” That is what my house guest, the datanaut, is involved in. He is a data miner, and the database he works with is the human genome.
Of course, it is slightly inaccurate to speak of “the” human genome. My genome is not identical to yours. If it were, we should be physically indistinguishable. The genome of human being A is slightly different from the genome of human being B. If A and B are siblings, chances are the differences are slight. If they are more distantly related, chances are the differences are larger, though not as large as if they were not related at all. Furthermore, if A and B both come from a population that has been breeding mostly among themselves for a few hundred years, while C comes from a different, remote population, it is very highly probable that you could discover this situation just by examining the three genomes. And now you know why the datanaut keeps his identity secret. He, or more precisely his website, has already been denounced as “bigoted” by one of those people who find their fulfillment in life by denouncing other people as “bigoted.”
The science here is deep, and not to be trifled with. The datanaut uses some heavy-duty math in his work: stochastic processes, dynamic programming, hierarchical clustering, control matrices, ODEs and PDEs. That, at least, I could follow without effort; though it is impressive to hear such terms bandied about by a researcher whose line of inquiry belongs, insofar as it belongs to any traditional scientific category, to biology. (The old-fashioned sort of biology–dissecting frogs, twiddling with microscopes–was referred to by the datanaut as “benchtop” or “wet” biology. This was not said disparagingly; indeed, he spoke affectionately of his own benchtop work, and seemed proud of his practical skills in this area. Like the rest of us, though, he now spends most of his working day staring at a monitor.)
Where he lost me was with the genetics. Phenotypes and haplotypes, polymorphous and heterozygous, alleles and demes, founder effect and bottleneck, lysosomes and sphingolipids… I’m not a total idiot about this stuff. I try to keep up with science, and know the meaning of all those terms; but I know them as you know the vocabulary of a language in which you are far from fluent, because you only need to use it once in a long while. When I hear those terms in the flow of speech, I have to translate. I have to stop and think: “What does that mean? Oh, yes…,” by which time, of course, the speaker is four sentences ahead of me and I have lost the thread of his argument. If you are as incompetent in foreign languages as I am, you know the feeling.
I got the main drift, though. There is a huge swelling wave of knowledge building up–knowledge about human variation, human inheritance, human nature. Things have gone much further than I realized. Genes controlling intelligence? “We’ve got a few nailed down, and more are showing up…”
I spent much of my working life wading through masses of data. I never did disciplined “data mining” of the kind my guest engages in, but I know how patterns and significance gradually emerge out of a vast mass of undifferentiated bits and bytes. That’s what is happening with genomics. It’s not just happening from this one end, either. As in physics, where the cosmologist who deals with clusters of galaxies and the shape of the universe needs to understand the subatomic physics of quarks and leptons, so here too the very large meets the very small. As my friend is toiling away with his nucleic acid molecules, at the other end of the scale population geneticists such as Luigi Cavalli-Sforza are mapping disease frequencies and patterns of inheritance across entire nations and continents. The work of each reinforces the other.
And all this work has to be done while keeping a sort of radio silence, because it is deeply unpopular. I know some of the scientists doing this work–people like the datanaut. They are just like other scientists I have known, driven by a kind of hypertrophied curiosity, by an innocent urge to understand the inner secrets of the world. In other respects, they are just representative human beings, with the normal range of human weaknesses and failings. To the guardians of our public morality, though–the media and political elites, the legal and humanities academics–they are very devils, peering into what should be kept hidden, seeking out things better left alone, working to secret agendas, funded by groups of sinister anti-social plotters–”bigots!”
And the paradox is, that so much good will come out of all this research–is already coming out, in fact. As a result of work like the datanaut’s, lives are already being saved–the lives, for example, of some of the tens of thousands of Americans who used to die each year because of adverse reactions to drugs. More marvels are just over the horizon. A couple might soon, for example, be able to pre-determine the attributes of their child before conception by picking the spermatozoon that is to initiate that conception. (Not all of a man’s spermatazoa carry the same genetic information–if they did, my children would both be the same sex. To pick the best spermatozoon for the job, you would currently need to take several million of the little devils apart and scrutinize their cargo. However, non-destructive and highly efficient means of doing this are theoretically possible…)
“What about a cure for Alzheimer’s?” I ask my guest. My Dad died from Alzheimer’s, and it’s a thing I worry about. I had read that some genetic research was going on.
The datanaut shook his head. “Tricky. Dangerous. Alzheimer’s correlates with IQ, you see. Also has different incidence among different races…” He laughed. “Once researchers know that, they go find something else to work on. The state our science is in right now, there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit. No need to go committing professional suicide.”
So it goes. This wave of knowledge, this great wave, is building up in laboratories and research institutes all around the world. Sooner or later the wave will come roaring in to crash on our beach. When that happens, a lot of stuff will get swept away–a lot of social dogma, a lot of wishful thinking, a lot of ignorant punditry and self-righteous posturing, and probably some law and tradition and religion and social cohesion as well. There is, however, no stopping the wave. Or rather, we might stop it here in the USA, but then it would just go crashing ashore somewhere else–in China, or Japan, or India–somewhere with a different set of attitudes, a quite different kind of wishful thinking.
Dragged forward by cold science, which doesn’t care what we think or wish for, we are headed into some interesting times.