Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Genes for domesticability: All creatures great and small?

A nifty story by the Times' Nicholas Wade tells of evidence that the genetic potential to be tame and domesticated exists in the pool of all sorts of vertebrates we consider quintessentially wild. Through generations of selective breeding scientists have made whole colonies of foxes, minks, otters, rats and other typically fractious species eager to please as all get out. Somehow in the wild, the variant alleles that combine to make all things wise and wonderful seems never entirely to disappear, even in an environment where being nice seemingly never ever pays. The retention of these variants across diverse species suggests the genes have a biologically very basic function that no vertebrate can do without. In the Times the suggestion is they figure in development of the embryonic neural tube, which is a structure that appears not long after the blastula stage and gives rise to the central nervous system. The Times story suggests furthermore that even we homo sapiens are civil only thanks to good breeding our ancestors practiced.

To me the fact that sociopathy often emerges in early childhood suggests we're not a pure breed in that respect. If so, I think we'll want to know. "Crime gene" testing is part and parcel of investigating how much of behavior is genetic and how much is development and environment. Even if all serial killers carry a set of the same four alleles, so too could thirty percent of the population at large. If we don't identify in particular the genetic carriers who haven't killed, we're unlikely ever to discover what environment and what care prevents serial killing. Clearly there exists something that does when the correlation between genotype and phenotype is low, but we'll never know that unless we test and "type" people.

Do I trust my government and my insurers and my potential employers to do that? Not at the moment. Do I trust individuals not to use knowledge of a person's genotype to discriminate against him or her solely on that basis? Not ever. But preventing societal ills and individual woes are worthy goals, so why don't we think about what kind of governance and what confidentiality laws might make it reasonable for us to pursue it?

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