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Knowledge of Genome Can Both Simplify and Complicate Knowledge of Self


Do people's understanding of themselves hinge on knowing the quirks of their genomes? Are the SNPs, mutations, and variations, the collections of genes, proteins, and RNAs the essence of who people are, or are they only tools that people can use to make of themselves what they will? These are the questions that drive science writer Lone Frank's new book, My Beautiful Genome — an exploration of her own biology, with the hope of gaining a deeper understanding into her social context. "This is not about biological man standing in opposition to cultural man," Frank writes. "Instead, the goal is to find a more comprehensive familiarity that integrates all the products of human behavior and ideas … and considers them in a biological context. And vice versa."

Frank starts out by recounting her interview with a researcher, during which she rehashed memories of her parents, particularly her father's -alcoholism. But what are routine questions for the researcher cause Frank to wonder how much of her parents' problems will be revisited on her. She sends DeCode Genetics her DNA, and receives a genetic profile, which causes a range of emotions from happiness at not having the ApoE4 gene variant to confusion over whether her coffee habit has affected the size of her breasts. She explores the psychology behind a personal genomic profile, and asks whether behavioral psychologists are sufficiently studying the importance of environment in genetics.

Interspersed within Frank's own personal struggles with her genome are discussions with well-known researchers and retellings of lectures, conference sessions, and even a little bit of hero worship of James Watson.

In turns funny and touching, Frank's beautifully written book reflects both the wonder and trepidation with which many people view genomics. Wonder for the truly amazing discoveries and advances being made at what seems to be an ever-increasing pace. Trepidation for the fear of the unknown that nearly everyone experiences when confronted with something that could ultimately reveal why people are the way they are.

Do people's genes define them, Frank asks, or do people take what nature has given them, and use that to define themselves? It turns out, maybe it's a little of both. "As I can bear witness, seeking and finding out what your DNA says inevitably has the wonderful effect of raising a lot of questions," Frank says. "Now that I have looked into my genes, the result is not a simplified self-image. … [My genome] tells me that I am not totally free, but neither am I completely responsible for who I am and what I have ultimately become."

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