Monday, April 30, 2012

Fellow Human Variants,

After the hysterical, insightful, and varied presentations on the last day of classes I was putting together some thoughts for the final paper. In my presentation I added a picture of my sister, Sarah, and me from when we were toddlers and compared it to how we are now. Just to jog your memory...

Sarah on left, me on right

Me on left, Sarah on right    

Sarah and I are 18 months apart, we have lived in the same house our entire lives, have the same parents, went to the same preschool, kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school. Considering we share so much of our genes, and our environment are virtually identical, what makes us so different?

Thinking back so stories my parents used to tell, people thought we were twins! This may be partially due to the endless matching outfits my mother provided, but also the many traits we share. Today, however, people think I'm playing a practical joke when I tell them that Sarah is my biological sister.

In this class I've learned the roll that genes play in a person's phenotype, and even today I see many similarities between Sarah and I. Once friends get to know us together they often comment how we have the same laugh, the same mannerisms, same eyes, and lips.

Maybe Sarah is so different from me because of that 18 month age gap. Even though we are so close in age we were still in different grades in school, giving us different friend groups. I am very athletic, and Sarah was always very musical, just as Sarah was always very quiet and I was always very outgoing.

Even the smallest bit of change in environment can make a difference. Sarah and I turned out very different in some ways, just because of that small age gap.

BUT genes are also very important. During the presentations I heard a lot about environment that makes you, you. For me, that holds true but my genes also make me, me. Sarah's genes make her, her, but OUR genes make us so similar.

So the moral of my story is to not dismiss genes as an influential factor, because they are! The .1% difference in humans throughout the world make variation and they make you, you. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

A poem of relevance

Human Family

by Maya Angelou

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I've sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

Overcoming Genophobia

Misha Angrist's article in the HuffPo captures some of the spirit of our course experiment.

"the rhetoric of fear does none of us any favors"

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Last day of class

Dear Human Variants,
You made me laugh and you made me cry today and I know that's not the point of our course, but it sure was lovely to be in that classroom this afternoon! It felt like the center of the universe for just one hour. Thank you all for opening up like that and for embracing this experience! I am completely inspired by you all.

Monday, April 23, 2012

What makes me, me

I was working on our upcoming group presentation and on answering the questions: what makes me human and what makes me, me?  For the most part, the things I ended up using to define myself had little to do with my genetics...or did they? 

I used aspects of my culture, my values, my appearance, and my past life experiences as classifications of my identity.  Apart from my appearance, what I think makes me me has a lot to do with external forces acting upon me instead of being genetically predetermined. 

But then again, we only know what a small portion of our DNA encodes for and even the things we do know could be affected by the unknown factors.  It is possible that the things I think have nothing to do with genetics may actually be intricately intertwined, or even predetermined by my genetics. 

Could your DNA encode for a propensity toward certain kinds of people and thus predetermine the friends you choose?  Could you be genetically inclined to live in a specific region therefore impacting the culture one is exposed to?  Does our biochemical make-up have a larger, albeit less direct, influence on what it takes for you to be you and for me to be me?  Maybe it is feasible that our genetics have already predetermined areas of our lives that we've attributed to being consequences of the environment. 

The reasoning behind all of this becomes pretty circular without more research and new discoveries.    

Saturday, April 21, 2012

My Humanity, My Identity. Part II: Universal Problems

Now that Part I has laid out our goals, let's tackle the questions we've raised one step at a time. We'll start with the one I think is more complicated, "What makes me human?" as I suspect my humanity will be more useful to answering questions about my identity than the reverse. It might be helpful when reading this series to not assume that I am explicitly stating any one point of view as fact immediately, but rather attempting to be thorough with different ways to conceptualize and analyze the issue at hand so that we can find the one we might consider the best. 

So when we ask a question like "What makes me human?", what do we take this to mean? For clarity's sake, let's phrase this for the moment as "What makes me a human?" as we do not seem to be using "human" here to describe us the same way we might use it to describe other things, e.g. "human skeleton" or "human folly."

We might approach and interpret the question this way: there are many things in the world which I can accurately identify as humans, but of course, there's only one me.  So "Ryan" is a particular thing, but "human" is a universal category that doesn't exist in any one thing. So what is it about the particular "Ryan" that makes it fit into the category "human"?  Well, it makes sense that whatever it is that makes me a human being should be the same thing(s) that makes all other human beings fit into this category.  We don't say things like "Holly is a human being, but not in the same sense that Jordan is."  We'd have trouble understanding what someone meant by such a statement, most likely.

So if we wanted to define what a human being is, we would probably refer to a property or set of properties defined by (let's say) scientific criteria attributable to all humans. Thus, we might restate our original question like so: "What are the properties of the particular 'Ryan' which make it a part of the category 'human being'?"

Now there have been lots of attempts to define "human being" and "humanity" with this and similar approaches. Rather than go through endless examples of this, let's discuss what needs to be true for this approach to actually work. We have asked ourselves, "What are the properties that classify individuals as humans?" For any definition or classification of human that uses this approach, we must be able to imagine absolutely no possibilities where:

a) something would be human without one such property, or
b) something would not be human despite the presence of all these properties.

It is important that we allow for hypothetical scenarios here, as they are what really show the limitations of any given definition. Let's take the scholastic definition of human as "rational animal." Given what we know about evolution, we should be able to easily imagine a new species of animal with Homo sapiens as its ancestor and the capacity for reason that we would not call "human." And so while "rational animal" may be a practical definition in that we could only use it to describe one thing that exists, it does not account for all possibilities. It would be like defining the genus Homo in terms of Homo sapiens because there is only one species within that genus that exists currently.

Speaking of evolution, this approach makes another very important assumption, namely, something either is human or is not. That doesn't seem to go in line with what we know, however.  I propose another thought experiment to demonstrate this:

Can we go back far enough in our evolutionary history to find a human whose mother is not human?

I think this would be extremely difficult and unlikely, even without the part that requires time travel. Evolutionary progress seems to be more of a continuum than a sequence of stages. Would our criteria allow us to draw that metaphorical line which creates such a distinct categorical separation? Even if we wanted to talk about this in strictly biological terms, we still run into the notorious species problem, which seems to me to be the exact same problem faced when defining any taxonomic or categorical term.

These difficulties should be extremely relevant to us, and it is important to bring them to light before going any further in this investigation.  For literally over two thousand years it was taken for granted that category terms had fixed boundaries and that any debate over these boundaries was not a sign of the insufficiency of this approach, but rather a matter to be settled with time. It was only in the mid-20th century that this idea came under serious questioning and attack in philosophy, anthropology, and cognitive science. Even though we often talk now of "gray areas," the idea that most things "either are or are not" any given universal term is still prevalent in the way we conceptualize, categorize, and organize the world we see around us.  We create definitions that are useful in most cases yet are full of exceptions.

So what can we do without these fixed boundaries, you ask? That's the subject for Part III!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Nature AND Nurture

For decades the nature vs. nurture debate went on, but with the field of genetics growing rapidly, we can agree that a person's "identity" is nature AND nurture. Once again, procrastinating, I stumbled across a blog written by Robery Klitzman, M.D., who discuses the role genetic testing plays. With recent advancements DNA testing has become relatively cheap and the amount of people getting these tests are skyrocketing. The question remains, does everyone know what to do with their results?

Those who are getting these tests need to know that they are not definitive, in terms of if this person was at a "higher risk" of a certain disease, it is not definite. Yes, some diseases it is 100% genetic, but for the vast majority they are not. With nature being your genes, and nurture being your environment, both play a role in what makes you, you.

Dr. Klitzman compares these results to the weather forecast. Sure, there is a chance it may rain, meteorologists have sufficient evidence that it will rain, but how many times have you flipped on the weather and they have predicted rain, but the storm never reached your specific area?

In my opinion, these tests are great. If you do have a higher chance of getting a certain disease it gives you the opportunity to do something about it. In terms of my results I am at a higher risk for Parkinson's Disease. 23andMe gives "what you can do" to lower your chance of developing the disease, drink coffee or tea, and stay active. Luckily I do both, but it still gives me the tools for early detection which may decrease the symptoms associated with this disease.

If your interested and want to read the article, I've posted the URL below

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Humanity, My Identity. Part I: The Long Road Ahead

I should probably start this with an apology. First, for writing this instead of working on that exam we have due tonight. Second, for not being as active as I promised I would be in my initial post. I've probably been setting a bad example as Guru. In my defense, I did have two posts written, but all the interesting things I had to say about Metal Gear Solid were preempted by Gattaca, and I think I ranted about the irony of Race Is a Four-Letter Word enough in private. To make up for this, I bring you the first in a long series of posts that touches directly on the questions that guide this course, this blog, and the papers all our Contributing Variants are (read: should be) working on, namely, "What makes me human?" and "What makes me me?"

There should probably be little doubt that everyone answering these questions for a grade here in APG 350 has a unique perspective and a wonderful account of what makes them feel like a participating member in this thing we call the human race. There is also almost certainly little doubt that there is a plethora of materials gathered by scientists of all varieties (biological anthropologists not least among them) that lend themselves to answering or otherwise elucidating possible answers to these questions. But I don't see why we should settle for that.

So here's my suggestion: Let's work toward a good, meaningful answer to these questions. In the best case scenario, we'll reach answers that are not only good and meaningful, but also useful to the way we conceive of ourselves in the world. In the worst case, these questions will be completely unanswerable, though maybe knowing that will also be useful. (More on what we mean by "meaningful" later.)

I won't lie; I really don't like these questions. They've been bugging me for a while now and I doubt I will ever feel comfortable giving any kind of definite answer to them, especially in the context of anthropology. I hope the reasons for this will become obvious following the later parts of this series, but suffice to say, these questions are actually really freaking complicated and, perhaps surprisingly, the more difficult question may be the first one.

Though I'm sure this will come as a surprise to no one, these questions, "What makes me human?" and "What makes me me?", seem to me to be philosophical in nature. This is not to say that the investigation of the various issues involved in answering them belongs to a discipline called "philosophy." What I mean instead is that these questions do not seem answerable simply through gathering and analyzing empirical evidence*, such as how members of Homo sapiens physically differ from other species and how individuals within the species physically differ from one another. Rather there seems to be a metaphysical component to these questions which addresses something at the core of the spirit of the question, namely, "What does it mean to be human?" Because of this, we must also admit an epistemological aspect. If you think of metaphysics being a subject that deals with the question, What is a human?, epistemology is the subject that deals with the question, How do we know what a human is?

*This point is highly controversial and any good empiricist should attack me on these grounds alone. We'll revisit this issue more directly in the next post, however, when we ask exactly what it would take to give a complete answer to these questions.

The goal of this series of posts, then, is to address the following questions: what do we mean when we ask a question like "What makes me human?"; what do we understand to be the components of that question and what are their natures?; what are the limits of taking any single approach to such a question?; is this question answerable in a meaningful way?; what can we learn about issues that have such questions at their core?

And lastly, will I complete this series before everyone stops reading this blog? Stay tuned if you want to find out!

(Oh, and don't worry, this has everything to do with biological anthropology--it will just take some work to get there.)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Jamie here!! As we are all well aware from class the other day, I am a fan of One Direction. So in being how big a fan I am, I was watching some youtube videos of them performing and came across one from when they performed on the Kid’s Choice Awards a couple of weeks ago. Many people were singing along such as Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift and Ashley Tisdale. Even the First Lady Michelle Obama and her two daughters were singing along. This was not a surprise for me mainly because I know how big One Direction is and also because I have seen her rocking out with her kids to the Jonas Brothers (don‘t hate). That’s when I thought back to our lecture on the President and how he identifies as being biracial, half white and half black. It got me thinking, do his kids consider themselves biracial as well considering one of their grandparents is clearly white and they have white aunts, uncles and cousins? Do all children who have one parent that is biracial such as that, consider themselves to be from 2 races, or do they only identify with the majority or with what color their skin was? So while trying to avoid some homework I decided to Google it.

Now I know with the definition of race being about skin color only, there are children such as myself who have parents of different nationalities, but that’s not what I am talking about here. I feel like this may confuse some people (trust me, it made sense in my brain, but that‘s not saying a lot) but I am referring to race as being skin color, which is something that we learned is not true at all. Google only gave results on raising biracial children and what to do with them… Not very helpful so I tried to think of any other examples besides the Obamas, but my brain is frazzled mainly because when I do homework I listen to music and I think of dances and nothing else, a habit which I need to break and I’m off on a tangent. In any case I couldn’t and it made me a little frustrated because am I looking for something that isn’t there or as important as I am making it be? Do any of you have anything to add to it?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Are "Super Genes" In Our Future?

Hey guys,

Today as I was having my daily dose of procrastination I stumbled across an interesting article. These scientists from North Carolina have spiced celery and rose genes to create a "super flower." Most roses, with my experience anyway, never seem to last more than a week in a vase. When these scientists added this gene from the celery plant, the roses had a much longer vase life, reaching to three or four weeks. As lovely as this discovery is for the ones who are blessed to receive flowers, it begs a bigger question.

This article's title immediately drew my attention due to the recent discussions held in class. With so much research and discoveries being made in the field of genetics how far are we willing to go? Dr. Jen Wagner spoke about the role genes play in sports. I ask myself "If scientists can find a "super gene" in roses, how far are they from finding similar genes in humans?" As an athlete I think it would be pretty awesome to locate a gene that dramatically increased strength, or endurance, but at what price? If such genes were found and parents were able to make that decision for their children, what would be the effects?

Even today without all the advances I discussed, pressure is on children to be the best, not only in athletics but in academics. All sorts of hype is surrounded by professional sports and I have yet to meet an elementary aged boy that does not want to grow up to be Derek Jeter, or Michael Jordan. If these genes were popularized and widely used how many parents would lay out their children's lives for them? Half the fun of growing up is making your own life decisions.

So today I had some extra time on my hands/ procrastinating on an essay I’m not really dying to start; and I just got Netflix so I’ve been discovering all these new ways I can explore the world…documentaries!  So this morning I watched the film The Future of Food.  I saw it back in high school in my super-hippied out Global Studies class and it caught my attention!  Well, it just so happens that much of this film is about patenting genes and other products of nature.  In Angrist’s Chapter 10, he notes that in 2010, a judged ruled that the company Myriad could NOT patent the BRCA1 or BRAC2 gene, the one that can carry a mutation related to breast cancer.  The judge’s reasoning behind ruling against the patent was that “DNA in the body does the same thing outside the body: it carries information…it is not an invention, therefore, it cannot be patented.” Previously, Myriad appeared to have been holding onto this gene with a patent for research on breast cancer, and in doing so, stunting any other progressive research, and the reasoning behind this? It enabled them to make others pay ridiculously large sums of money to get ahold of this gene for their own research…  I can’t seem to think of any other reasoning behind Myriad’s purpose for patenting this gene either??? I suppose that by making money off patented genes, it gives them more funding for their own research…I want to give them the benefit of the doubt that their intentions are good, but is that really why they are patenting it?  Or are they just creating and attempting to corner and monopolize a market of genetics??

That’s exactly what The Future of Food talks about in their film.  At the beginning of the film, it states that in 1978, an engineer at G.E. created an oil eating microbe (used to possibly clean up oil spills) and he attempted to patent it.  Originally, the court denied this patent under the notion that you cannot patent nature!...but G.E. took it to the Supreme court and the patent went through by one vote!  The microbe was never used, but this opened the flood gates for an entirely new market of patents.  Not only did big companies start buying GMO’s, but also seeds, as they are produced naturally!

Currently Monsanto, the “bad guy” in the film, has about 11,000 patents, primarily seeds, done simply by buying out major seeds companies.  Why?  The film states that “they can use the one seed to replace all the seeds and they will own the market place”.  They’ve also been able to sue U.S. farmers by accusing them of infringing on their patented seeds or products.

With all of this rambling, I just find it to be kind of ridiculous that seeds and genes are being patented.  I’m pretty sure that the purpose of a patent is to corner a market and make money.  It’s to legally protect what you personally have created so only you can reap the financial benefits of what you believe was originally yours… So why is this involved in breast cancer? Why is a patent involved in a seed that we use as a source to feed people?

Being a psychology major, I tend to find myself questioning the reasoning behind people and human behavior…What is up with this yo??

I also just watched a film called Ingredients on Netflix..its awesome! also related to food, seeds, genetics, and is just an overall good film. Check it out!

How 23andMe Scared Me

My questions: Do genes determine sexual orientation, and is 23andme trying to answer this question? Is this ethical? What are the advantages to this, and why should people like me be concerned? 

While anticipating my results from 23andme, my biggest concern was finding out I had an increased chance for some serious life-threatening disease (Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, etc.). I was relieved to learn that this was not the case, and overall my health seemed to be okay. However, upon receiving my DNA analysis, my heart skipped a beat. Why? 23andme wanted me to participate in a survey about my sexual orientation. I am also gay. Ironically, I did not become eligible for this survey until the same day my results were delivered to me. Timely coincidence? Maybe. I’m not sure if anyone else was invited to participate in this survey, however in my mind the following thought occurred: that, maybe, 23andme is conducting research about a possible biological basis for sexuality, and they identified a genetic marker in me. Paranoid? Possibly. But it’s not such a novel idea. 

I recently watched an episode of Law and Order where this subject was discussed. In the show, the idea was held that by identifying a genetic marker, one’s sexuality could be determined before birth. The father in that episode wanted his pregnant wife to have an abortion because his child-to-be had that marker. 

Although it would be a fascinating find, should geneticists really be trying to discover this? Homosexuals face discrimination just like other minorities, we’re just fortunate enough to be able to hide our differences if needed. That is the advantage of “being gay” instead of belonging to another social group which experiences discrimination: it’s almost like an invisible identity, and is only visible if the individual is comfortable enough with it. By discovering a genetic marker that could determine sexual orientation, homosexuals would lose that advantage - they could even possibly be screened before birth. Of course, parents want the best for their child, and some might consider this to be a problem. Or maybe the child would be born into a homophobic or extremely conservative family. The amount of abortions could skyrocket. Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme. Regardless, I think that homophobic discrimination would augment greatly. 

However, this type of research could be a good thing, too. I, personally, would love to know if there is a genetic reason for my sexual preferences, for curiosity’s sake. It would also dispel the idea that: “gays choose to be this way” or “homosexuality is unnatural or immoral”. Because no, I don’t “choose” to be this way, I just am. And no, I’m not an immoral person. I actually am very proud of my morals. Many people in favor of gay rights would think of this as a good thing.

But, as I stated before, I think in the long run this would just cause more discrimination by those who are against homosexuality. For me, my sexuality isn’t my defining feature - there’s more to me than being attracted to people of the same sex. But, not everyone considers that. From my own perspective, it seems like people hold onto that one aspect of identity, and don’t really consider anything else. In fact, I had a friend once, who, upon learning my sexual orientation started introducing me to her friends as “This is (name). (S)he’s gay”. It is immature and irrelevant to introduce someone like that. 

So sorry I went on a tangent, but this was the part of 23andme that worried me. It made me feel vulnerable, as if the researchers knew that I was gay. I’ve always considered myself fortunate to be fairly discrete about my preferences, but just by “becoming eligible” for this survey, I felt like I was being targeted. If the data obtained from identifying a “gay gene” wouldn’t be misused, then I wouldn’t be so concerned. But, there is a possibility that it could be, and that is important to remember. 

If you’re interested more in this, I skimmed an article that goes into more detail about my post:

Thursday, April 5, 2012

So, my DNA results finally came in

  It didn't take me much time to decide that I was going to send in a spit sample when Holly first mentioned the 23andMe opportunity in class.  While I waited for the results I never doubted my choice to have my genome mapped (or at least part of my genome) and didn't have any concerns about sharing whatever my DNA might reveal with others.  So, it came as a shock to me that, when I got an email saying my report was in during a family party last weekend, I suddenly felt overwhelmingly protective of the results.  As I went through my disease risk, then my carrier status, then my drug response and so on, I felt increasingly confident in sharing 23andMe's findings with family members who found the whole genome mapping thing very interesting.
  It wasn't until later that I could actually think about why, in those first few minutes after getting my DNA results, I had felt anxiety.  The idea of making my genome public to strangers, never mind family members, doesn't scare me so why had I hesitated?  I think the answer is that I was with family members, not strangers, and the information I was about to report had almost as much to do with them as it did with me.  Knowing that whatever showed up in my DNA was inherited either from my mom or my dad made me want to shield them from anything bad that might turn up.  As I went through more and more of the results and found nothing alarming, I relaxed and wanted to share every little bit of information with anyone who would listen.
  Looking back after having read my results I realize I probably wasn't as prepared to get them back as I thought.  I knew there were possibilities for high disease risk for things like Alzheimer's and diabetes but I had only thought about how those results would make me feel about myself.  But honestly, when I think about it now, if I were at higher risk for, say, Alzheimer's I'd be much more emotional about the implications of that finding for my parents rather than for myself.  So while my results were reassuring, I can't help but think about what it would be like if it had gone the other way.  I still believe that knowing is better than not knowing, since the information is there whether you want to see it or not, but I also believe that its extremely difficult to completely prepare for something like this.  I think fully understanding the implications of having your genome mapped comes only after you receive your own results.  That's when you can begin to fully accept the findings and come to terms with what they mean.

... with all that said I am as confident as ever in my decision to have my DNA tested and I would do it again in a heart beat.     
I got my results!! They are already told me somethings that I have or have had.  But it's so exciting to be able to see what I am predisposed to and seeing that they are accurate so far in somethings.  I am not surprised by most of the results because of a good family history of keeping track of things like that. 
--Lily McKay