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Astrobiologist: Medical genetics hype a “public enemy”

methylated DNA molecule/ Christoph Bock/CeMM

From Nathaniel Comfort at Aeon:

While inflated medical promises are hardly peculiar to molecular medicine, that field does seem particularly prone to breathless rhetoric. You can almost hear K Eric Drexler panting when he writes, in his manifesto Engines of Creation (1986), that protein-based nanomachines ‘promise to bring changes as profound as the Industrial Revolution, antibiotics, and nuclear weapons all rolled up in one massive breakthrough’.

Bluster, overstatement and aspirations masquerading as hard targets have no single cause. One reason, surely, is the heady sense of impending omnipotence that accompanies major technological and scientific advances. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s laws of heredity, the cracking of the genetic code, genetic engineering, the Human Genome Project, CRISPR – all were followed by grandiose claims of the imminent total control over life’s fundamental processes. Every generation of scientists looks back and shakes its collective head in condescending disbelief at how little the previous generation knew, rarely stopping to reflect that the next generation will do the same.

In our particular moment, biology is the king, and the perennial desire for simple solutions to complex problems leads people back time and again to biological determinism: it’s all in your genes. It’s all in your neurons. This new discovery changes everything. More.

And genetic fundamentalism is going down in flames anyway. Our genes are way more malleable in our lifetimes than we used to think.

See also: Epigenetics: Researchers think small shared changes underlie varying types of autism

Polyploidy: Genetic fundamentalism is still looking for a job?


Epigenetic change: Lamarck, wake up, you’re wanted in the conference room!

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