November 29, 2009

Geoffrey Miller: "The Looming Crisis in Human Genetics"

From The Economist:
The looming crisis in human genetics:
Some awkward news ahead
by Geoffrey Miller
Author of Spent

Human geneticists have reached a private crisis of conscience, and it will become public knowledge in 2010. The crisis has depressing health implications and alarming political ones. In a nutshell: the new genetics will reveal much less than hoped about how to cure disease, and much more than feared about human evolution and inequality, including genetic differences between classes, ethnicities and races.

About five years ago, genetics researchers became excited about new methods for “genome-wide association studies” (GWAS). We already knew from twin, family and adoption studies that all human traits are heritable: genetic differences explain much of the variation between individuals. We knew the genes were there; we just had to find them....

In 2010, GWAS fever will reach its peak. Dozens of papers will report specific genes associated with almost every imaginable trait—intelligence, personality, religiosity, sexuality, longevity, economic risk-taking, consumer preferences, leisure interests and political attitudes. The data are already collected, with DNA samples from large populations already measured for these traits. It’s just a matter of doing the statistics and writing up the papers for Nature Genetics. ...

GWAS researchers will, in public, continue trumpeting their successes to science journalists and Science magazine. They will reassure Big Pharma and the grant agencies that GWAS will identify the genes that explain most of the variation in heart disease, cancer, obesity, depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and ageing itself. ...

In private, though, the more thoughtful GWAS researchers are troubled. They hold small, discreet conferences on the “missing heritability” problem: if all these human traits are heritable, why are GWAS studies failing so often? ...

But the genes typically do not replicate across studies. Even when they do replicate, they never explain more than a tiny fraction of any interesting trait. In fact, classical Mendelian genetics based on family studies has identified far more disease-risk genes with larger effects than GWAS research has so far.

Why the failure? The missing heritability may reflect limitations of DNA-chip design: GWAS methods so far focus on relatively common genetic variants in regions of DNA that code for proteins. They under-sample rare variants and DNA regions translated into non-coding RNA, which seems to orchestrate most organic development in vertebrates. Or it may be that thousands of small mutations disrupt body and brain in different ways in different populations. At worst, each human trait may depend on hundreds of thousands of genetic variants that add up through gene-expression patterns of mind-numbing complexity.

Political science

We will know much more when it becomes possible to do cheap “resequencing”—which is really just “sequencing” a wider variety of individuals beyond the handful analysed for the Human Genome Project. Full sequencing means analysing all 3 billion base pairs of an individual’s DNA rather than just a sample of 1m genetic variants as the DNA chips do. When sequencing costs drop within a few years below $1,000 per genome, researchers in Europe, China and India will start huge projects with vast sample sizes, sophisticated bioinformatics, diverse trait measures and detailed family structures. (American bioscience will prove too politically squeamish to fund such studies.) The missing heritability problem will surely be solved sooner or later.

Or will it? At present, we understand the genetics of lactose tolerance fairly well because they are simple. We don't understand the genetics of IQ at all well, presumably because they are complicated. It would be interesting to know what are traits are the most promising targets intermediate in complexity between lactose tolerance and IQ.

The trouble is, the resequencing data will reveal much more about human evolutionary history and ethnic differences than they will about disease genes.

As Matt Ridley once said, your genes didn't evolve to kill you.

Once enough DNA is analysed around the world, science will have a panoramic view of human genetic variation across races, ethnicities and regions. We will start reconstructing a detailed family tree that links all living humans, discovering many surprises about mis-attributed paternity and covert mating between classes, castes, regions and ethnicities.

We will also identify the many genes that create physical and mental differences across populations, and we will be able to estimate when those genes arose. Some of those differences probably occurred very recently, within recorded history. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending argued in “The 10,000 Year Explosion” that some human groups experienced a vastly accelerated rate of evolutionary change within the past few thousand years, benefiting from the new genetic diversity created within far larger populations, and in response to the new survival, social and reproductive challenges of agriculture, cities, divisions of labour and social classes. Others did not experience these changes until the past few hundred years when they were subject to contact, colonisation and, all too often, extermination.

If the shift from GWAS to sequencing studies finds evidence of such politically awkward and morally perplexing facts, we can expect the usual range of ideological reactions, including nationalistic retro-racism from conservatives and outraged denial from blank-slate liberals. The few who really understand the genetics will gain a more enlightened, live-and-let-live recognition of the biodiversity within our extraordinary species—including a clearer view of likely comparative advantages between the world’s different economies.

More likely, we just won't hear much about it. For years, I've been hearing that as the evidence piles up, the dominant ideology will have to adapt to it. Why? Why not just lie more and persecute more? A lot of people find covering up the truth to be more emotionally satisfying than learning it.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

52 comments:

Bob said...

"why are GWAS studies failing so often? ...But the genes typically do not replicate across studies."

Poorly done studies with too small sample sizes.

This can be easily fixed with enough money, and will be fixed even without more money.

Right now you can get a big discount on getting a partial genome analysis if you agree to make the data and information about yourself available to researchers.

Here is one example of a company doing it pretty cheap.

https://www.23andme.com/

As prices fall, more money doesn't even have to be spent. Lots of people will do it once it is free, which it will be pretty soon from this research subsidy.

Garland said...

"For years, I've been hearing that as the evidence piles up, the dominant ideology will have to adapt to it. Why? Why not just lie more and persecute more? A lot of people find covering up the truth to be more emotionally satisfying than learning it."

Well, you've said stuff like that yourself, at least a few years ago. Did you just change your mind in the last few years? Or do you think eventually the evidence will win through, after a few upcoming decades of persecution?

Simon said...

This article seems a lot more honest than what I was seeing in The Economist before I cancelled my subscription some years back. Hmm, I may have to give it another look.

dearieme said...

"some human groups experienced a vastly accelerated rate of evolutionary change within the past few thousand years, .... Others did not experience these changes until the past few hundred years when they were subject to ..., all too often, extermination": yikes! How does this evolution-by-extermination work?

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't send your genome to 23andMe unless you want it sold at auction. Like DecodeMe, they are on the verge of bankruptcy.

Anonymous said...

> why are GWAS studies failing so often?
> ...
> They simply have not been delivering the goods.

Depends on what you expect about the genetic architecture of these traits.

GWAS work for finding common variants of small effect, which is what most researchers realistically expected. Those results provide understanding into the biology of the studied phenotypes.

But what they don't do is allow you to predict phenotype from genotype with any meaningful precision. So personal genomics isn't that useful.

l said...

Genetics researchers are in a politically less desirable position than the CRU crew at East Anglia. How much can they say and still get gov't grant money?

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't send your genome to 23andMe unless you want it sold at auction. Like DecodeMe, they are on the verge of bankruptcy.

I think 23andMe will be around awhile. The co-founder is the wife of one of Google's co-founders.

Anonymous said...

So personal genomics isn't that useful.

I think it's more useful for ancestry than health.

RandyB said...

Maybe not by 2010, but pretty soon personal genomics will kill the health insurance industry. Individuals will know exactly what diseases they should buy insurance for, and the industry can't discriminate based on genetic info.

When this happens, there will no longer be choice in health insurance, when only one party is able to self-select.

Anonymous said...

A lot of people find covering up the truth to be more emotionally satisfying than learning it.

And there we are, right back to Climategate!

Anonymous said...

"We will start reconstructing a detailed family tree that links all living humans, discovering many surprises about mis-attributed paternity and covert mating between classes, castes, regions and ethnicities."

There will be no such surprises. At best genetics will confirm what we already know from looking at people's faces and from ethnic stereotypes about their behavior.

"The few who really understand the genetics will gain a more enlightened, live-and-let-live recognition..."

I thought evolution was actually all about live-and-kill-kill-kill. OK, even I'm not going to call that enlightened, and it's not the world I want to live in, but THAT's the recognition you're going to get if you honestly look at genetics. For alternative views one would look at religion.

Mike Mendoza said...

The real reason that these studies fail so often is that the gene-centric approach is ultimately a dead end. It's like mistaking a cookery recipe that lists ingredients and a few basic instructions with knowing how to cook.

David said...

A scientific truth will be discovered. Our knowledge will be increased.

It's a horrible crisis! Quick - pass laws!

Anonymous said...

If Climate scientists are willing to lie, cheat, and bully on a grand scale in order to preserve their beloved hypothesis of global warming, you ain't seen nothing yet from the geneticists regrading the blank slate theory. The key to a breakthrough in discovering the genetic origins of intelligence and violence will rely on securing and preserving all collected genome data in a public database so that skeptical scientists can analyze it before it is hopelessly massaged, filtered, and abridged by ideologues.

keypusher said...

More likely, we just won't hear much about it. For years, I've been hearing that as the evidence piles up, the dominant ideology will have to adapt to it. Why? Why not just lie more and persecute more? A lot of people find covering up the truth to be more emotionally satisfying than learning it.

Bingo. Opinions on topics like this don't turn on anything so prosaic as evidence. Darwin, after all, came up with his theory of evolution while wholly innocent of the existence of genes. Belief in what is now called HBD was universal before there were such things as IQ tests, to say nothing of genome studies. The belief was based on simple observation, which is a pretty strong support for HBD even today. But people have always believed many things that are contradicted by their own eyes, and they always will.

Jimmy Crackedcorn said...

If you're a member of one of the high IQ groups - the type necessary for unraveling the genetic puzzle - how motivated are you to solve that puzzle when you know that doing so might eliminate you and your group's inherited advantage, and will eliminate your advantage at ever being able to afford that vacation home in Lake Tahoe or Aspen?

The incentive is to find other uses for your skills.

sabril said...

The evidence for HBD is already pretty much overwhelming.

Suppose they find that 10 genes which together account for 80-90 percent of intelligence. And suppose further they discover what we already know, which is that the higher-iq alleles of these genes occur in far greater frequency in whites than in blacks.

What will the liberals say? For starters, they will still be able to trot out the "race is meaningless" argument.

Also, it's likely that if there are number of genes which control intelligence, there will be a few alleles which increase intelligence but occur more frequently in blacks. Liberals will seize on this evidence too.

I think what needs to happen first is that egalitarianism as an intellectual fad needs to fizzle out. It seems to me that's pretty likely to happen, since egalitarians don't seem to be too keen on making babies.

kurt9 said...

The implication that is not mentioned in the Economist article is that very little disease is caused by genetics. This, of course, flies against the medical orthodoxy, which is even more rigidly defended than the equality of ethnic groups.

David said...

keypusher said

> But people have always believed many things that are contradicted by their own eyes, and they always will. <

Yes, as the deeply religious character Rosie (played by Kate Hepburn) said sternly in "The African Queen":

"Nature is what we were put in this world to rise above."

That type of person doesn't give a d*** about science, and never will.

Ronduck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

There are REAL genetic differences betweeen races and ethnicities, because they developed in different places and climates. Will science have the courage to tell the truth?

Chief Seattle said...

As long as it's one vote one man, or some approximation thereof, there's not going to be any profit in politicians supporting the intellectual elite. And since the government is an ever-growing slice of the economy, you can bet that this new evidence wont make much difference to the IQ debate.

After all, you don't need DNA sequencing to know that traits are heritable. Anyone who has lived on a farm or bred dogs or interacted with nature at any deeper level than buying a save the rainforest bag at whole foods realizes this. Seriously - go to a dog show some time. Most of that diversity was coaxed out of the same ancestors over a span of a few hundred years in England and Germany. You can either see that and think through the implications or not. If you can't then a lot of complicated statistics across billions of base pairs of DNA isn't going to clarify things for you.

RKU said...

The evidence for HBD is already pretty much overwhelming.

Suppose they find that 10 genes which together account for 80-90 percent of intelligence. And suppose further they discover what we already know, which is that the higher-iq alleles of these genes occur in far greater frequency in whites than in blacks.


Well, I'm no specialist in this subject, but my strong impression is that this isn't correct. I think we're talking about something like hundreds of "smart" genes, of which maybe the biggest contribute only 2% or so to the total. So probably the top 10 only determine 10-15% of the variation.

Probably some other commenter knows this issue better than I do...

jody said...

it is disappointing if there actually was not that much new information revealed about genetic disorders and diseases.

Dave R. said...

Anyone else catch this at the bottom of the article?

Readers have commented on this article (the window for new comments is now closed).

View all comments (1)


Clicking through reveals this explanation for the comments being closed:

Reader comments on this article are listed below. The 15-day commenting period for this article has expired and comments are no longer being accepted. Review our comments policy.

Imagine that! Only one comment on an article on genetics in a fifteen day period. Must not be a very interesting topic.

Kudos to The Economist for publishing this in the first place, but it looks like they blinked at the very last minute.

albertosaurus said...

It's not hard to understand why genetic mapping is not as effective as was expected. The reason is that Cochran, Harpening, and Ewald are right. Very few important human diseases are genetic. Most are caused by some as yet unknown infectious agent.

Consider if we had done all this genetic research about 1870. At that time there were a lot of deaths from tuberculosis in Europe. Most cites in England and France were drenched with the tubercular bacillus. This means that most of the variance in susceptibility to TB was the result of differential inherent (genetic) resistance. So a "cure" for TB before you understood the existance of the bacillus would be to somehow through some sort of eugenics program to breed more people with superior inherent resistance to the bacillus. Not likely.

Knowledge of genetic resistance is a very poor sort of knowledge. If you don't understand an infectious disease process you are not likely to understand how the body resists it.

Anonymous said...

This blog post and associated comments have probably already been forwarded to The Economist, whose editors have already forwarded it to the author, with the following message: "See! The racists are already using your article to further their agenda!"

Sean S.

FakeName said...

The "problem" with HBD is that it justifies racism, and the people who promote HBD won't acknowledge this, and deal with it...If you don't believe me then are you willing to buy beach front Haitian property?

sj071 said...

'...securing and preserving all collected genome data in a public database...'
Public? Yeah, that's exactly how system works.(snark off)

'...and much more than feared about human evolution..'
How to strike a balance between the science and prevailing dogma? It often leads to a heartbreaking experience for most vulnerable members of our communities, those who share our belief in tolerant, open societies. We can't have that, can we?

Dutch Boy said...

Scientists have been spending loads of time and money trying to find the gene(s) for autism susceptibility without much luck (family and identical twin studies suggest it has a significant genetic component). The genes involved are likely multiple thus there is no simple correlation. These kinds of studies have continued despite the dead ends so that attention will not be paid to the environmental factors that trigger the disorder in the susceptible (too many powerful and influential toes to step on there!).

blue anon said...

RKU and 'Saurus

What about the relatively few rare and deleterious alleles theory. I don't see why this is excluded for either IQ or disease. I don't recall Cochran and Ewald addressing that but its been a while since I read their very fine major paper together.

sabril said...

"Well, I'm no specialist in this subject, but my strong impression is that this isn't correct. I think we're talking about something like hundreds of "smart" genes, of which maybe the biggest contribute only 2% or so to the total. So probably the top 10 only determine 10-15% of the variation."

Assuming that's true (and I have no reason to doubt you) that will make life even easier for the liberals.

nooffensebut said...

Steve Sailer said: “It would be interesting to know what traits are the most promising targets intermediate in complexity between lactose tolerance and IQ.”

Well, I consider it quite telling the degree to which studies are focusing on the sequences that are most influential on neurotransmitters, like HTTLPR, COMT, MAOB, and MAOA. The hypotheses seem to be coalescing around an axis of internalizing/externalizing versus individualism/collectivism.

Perhaps this and the genetics of the endocrine system will demonstrate a balance between having an enormous amount of genetic complexity with a limited number of especially consequential variants. I am currently researching a blog post for hormones research, which will be of interest to Steve Sailer fans.

Geoffrey Miller said: “GWAS methods so far focus on relatively common genetic variants in regions of DNA that code for proteins.”

Not only that, but they also lack the dexterity to test gene-gene and gene-environment interactions. Plus, research on abdominal aortic aneurysms and prostate cancer suggest that GWAS cannot rely on blood samples to accurately represent healthy tissue mutations.

RKU said: “Well, I'm no specialist in this subject, but my strong impression is that this isn't correct. I think we're talking about something like hundreds of ‘smart’ genes, of which maybe the biggest contribute only 2% or so to the total. So probably the top 10 only determine 10-15% of the variation. Probably some other commenter knows this issue better than I do...”

I think there has only been two IQ GWAS (not including GWAS of regions of interest). The first and largest showed that the strongest IQ single nucleotide polymorphism accounts for 0.4% of IQ.

Geoffrey Miller said: “The few who really understand the genetics will gain a more enlightened, live-and-let-live recognition of the biodiversity within our extraordinary species—including a clearer view of likely comparative advantages between the world’s different economies.”

Live and let live? I shall probably miss Baby Boomers when they are dead. But seriously, what does it mean to live and let live if you know that there is a violence gene?

Anonymous said...

Good luck with that. We have known for a pretty long time that men actually have a different chromosome than women...but the Mainstream is not willing to acknowledge that genes on that chromosome have anything to do with thought processes...I don't expect that large scale studies of the genes contained on other chromosomes will change their minds either...

JudgeStone said...

Nah.

Global Warming didn't become the bizarre fixation it is now until about a decade ago, and these revelations will slowly kill it.

Likewise, there are too many people who understand privately that black educational underperformance is the result of discrepancies in innate ability. When all the scientific evidence confirms it, no one will believe the Affirmative Action Bitches.

Bob said...

I was going to suggest "height" as a heritable (90 - 95%)phenotype that might be intermediate. Perhaps not, though. Razib reported in 2008 about GWAS studies on height. They found ~20 loci that altogether accounted for ~5% of the variation in height.

Cheers,
--Bob

Mark said...

Steve, I think you have a tendency to underestimate secular liberal's appreciation for science. Back them against the wall with hard genetic evidence about HBD, and many will admit it, and immediately start talking about such differences should change x or y policy. And they are absolutely justified in arguing that HBD should not in anyway trump our responsibility to help those less off than ourselves. I think if we address the concerns that liberals have regarding the misuse of HBD, alot more will come out of the closet as believers once the genetic evidence is there.

Anonymous said...

And they are absolutely justified in arguing that HBD should not in anyway trump our responsibility to help those less off than ourselves.

Often the primary argument for redistribution of wealth across racial lines is that one race's shortcomings are the result of injury caused by the other. What gives leftists the right to change their (ostensible) morality so suddenly?

Dahlia said...

"This blog post and associated comments have probably already been forwarded to The Economist, whose editors have already forwarded it to the author, with the following message: "See! The racists are already using your article to further their agenda!"

Sean S."

I believe Sailer has reviewed both "The Mating Mind" and "Spent" (I remember them both being discussed here) and I'm pretty sure the two are friendly.

Mark said,
"I think if we address the concerns that liberals have regarding the misuse of HBD, alot more will come out of the closet as believers once the genetic evidence is there."

I tend to believe it is so much about philosophy, too. One can embrace hbd and not eugenics, for example.
Lately, I've become cynical, especially with the outright fraud in climategate and I wonder: If I fancy myself a Godless Nietzschean superwoman for whom society is mine to play engineer with, why would I upset my supporters by embracing something that says they're inferior? I'd keep importing them and breeding these dullards who would give me, or people like me, the power I crave. They can't hurt me; the Morlocks mostly hurt my enemies, so why would I be interested in any science that could get in the way of attaining power?

The only thing I can think of that counters this is the hope that there are enough liberals high in conscientiousness (like those who were passionate about corruption and campaign finance reform) who would embrace hbd and thwart the totalitarians.

Doctor Jones said...

"As Matt Ridley once said, your genes didn't evolve to kill you."

Yet that seems the only explanation for the peoples of Europe and their diasporic kin.

Toadal said...

albertosaurus said... It's not hard to understand why genetic mapping is not as effective as was expected. The reason is that Cochran, Harpening, and Ewald are right. Very few important human diseases are genetic. Most are caused by some as yet unknown infectious agent.

Yes its viruses and bacteria that have the heaviest burden on our health. I, like many, systematically search pubmed to gather the pieces of the longevity puzzle. I've recently discovered younger people can postpone or avoid many of the assaults nature made on their parents health thorough a simple vaccination every five years.

David said...

The PC line is that genes affect only physical traits, not mental traits. Eye color, height, skin color, yes - but intelligence, aggression, memory, no.

This line is tantamount to saying evolution stops at the neck (as someone once pointed out).

The brain is the locus of personality and will, so expect the greatest conceivable resistance to hard science going there (as against soft sciences like behavioral psychology).

Anonymous said...

The "problem" with HBD is that it justifies racism, and the people who promote HBD won't acknowledge this, and deal with it..

Blank slates and one-worldism are also used to justify racism...anti-white racism. They don't acknowledge or deal with that either.

Dutch Boy said...

Toadal: My late father-in-law was convinced that coronary artery disease was triggered by bacterial infection and he would take a short course of azithromycin at regular intervals as prophylaxis. Alas, he managed to avoid the MI but succumbed to a fall he had while moving furniture down a stairway (at the age of 85!).

Mr. Anon said...

"FakeName said...

The "problem" with HBD is that it justifies racism, and the people who promote HBD won't acknowledge this, and deal with it..."

The problem with racism, is that it is used to justify suppressing HBD. I don't give a damn about racism. It is an empty talisman, used to warn people off of unpleasant topics (unpleasant for some, that is). If whites in this country stopped recognizing that word, and the power we allow others to invest in it, it would not be a problem.

Truth said...

One can be taught passivity, one cannot be taught "blue eyes."

Anonymous said...

"Your genes didn't evolve to kill you."

Yep, but you'd never suspect this based on the money thrown at gene studies, would you?

Sanders at Northwestern got a whole bunch of money from the NIH to see if he could replicate Hamer's claim that the mystery of homosex is somehow to be found on Xq28. It's a five year study that's now into its 6th year, I think.

So, let's say that the results do show some "linkage" either with that gene or another. Then what? Will they be able to tell us (or would they even dare)to identify just what that gene "does". For instance, what if they discover a correlation between being gay and a particular immune system gene? Think the reporting of the implications of that would be made clear or obfuscated?

Meanwhile, has any NIH money gone to researchers looking more specifically for a more direct non-genetic cause--like infection?

The genetics crowd get all the money--taxpayers deserve more bang for their bucks.

David said...

> One can be taught passivity, one cannot be taught "blue eyes." <

You'd have a better shot teaching Ghenghis Khan to wear contacts than teaching him to be passive.

Truth said...

Not in the 12th century.

David said...

> Not in the 12th century. <

Then substitute yourself for the Great Khan.

Ivy League Bastard said...

Wouldn't conclusive identification of IQ genes (or IQ viruses, or other causative agents) also imply the ability to manipulate IQ? How expensive is gene therapy these days and how much cheaper might it be as technology improves?

If high (maybe unimaginably high) IQs were available for less than the cost of a house, most of the population would go for it, and it might well be rationed in order of priority: the retarded, the poor, etc.

Of course, it could also turn out that monster IQs are attainable but don't make as much difference as we think today, accustomed as we are to a world where low intelligence predominates.