Nature vs. Nurture: A Social Scientist Looks Deep Into His Own DNA

Human behavior fascinates me. In it I see beautiful patterns that are repeated over time and/or space. We are proactive and reactive beasts. Sometimes predictable but often seemingly random. As a result, there is a complexity to human behavior that is at least as unique as our fingerprints.

No social scientist has worked long before they consider the question - nature or nurture? While there are all types - most I know believe that this is not a simple either/or. But if you are to look at most of our (social scientists) studies, we rarely account for nature in our measures. And when we do, they are often filtered by a social construct.  For example, when we ask about a study participants health - do we get actual health measures, or do we just get their perception of health? 

I often wonder (sometimes out loud) what we could do to embrace the sciences of nature more directly into our research.

One simple answer is in improving the detail, frequency, and scope of our data collections. Collecting environmental measures (weather, toxins, cultural messages, etc.), bodily functions (heart rate, blood pressure, sleep patterns, etc.), and even biospecimens (blood, urine, breath, etc.) is more common today than it has ever been.  Technology brings us the ability to capture such data often in frequent or even continuous ways. Mobile technologies have added space to that equation. I have written about these innovations before.

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Another approach may be with DNA. An exciting new trend is emerging with recent advancements in genetic technologies. Scientists can now read the instructions for life itself - DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). The first complete human genome sequencing, a process of documenting all of the information currently known to exist in DNA, was completed in 2003 after 13 years of work and roughly US$1 billion in funding. Today, it is possible to have your own full genome sequenced in a few days for costs as low as US$999And less expansive genetic tests, specifically targeting key health measures and ancestry, are available for under $200. (23andMe.com, ancestry.comHelix / Geno 2.0)

This technology raises ethical, moral, and what I would call "duty to science" questions that I find fascinating, and worthy of exploration by social scientists.  What happens when people peer inside of their genome? Will it be too much information to handle? Can it be useful for decisions (medical or otherwise) that they make? Are there special risks or warning signs that one must look out for when this is done? And ultimately, is it valuable data for social scientists to use? 

I have been lucky enough to be involved with several collaborations with an amazing research team at the Genomes to People (G2P) Research Program.  At G2P, they have been involved in research to study the impact of these personal genetic tests on the people who get them.  Two projects specifically - the PGen Study (which followed a cohort who participated in a direct to consumer genetic test) and the PeopleSeq Consortium (which is following ostensibly healthy individuals who have obtained full genome sequencing) are building an understanding of how healthy humans handle such experiences. 

I immediately see a link to the social sciences. If individuals can have their genome sequenced, and if that data could be shared, we could begin to use this instruction manual for life in our research.  If genes play a role in the color of our eyes, whether or not we can smell asparagus pee, or the diseases that I may get or pass on to my children, then there must be genes in there that contribute to how we perceive the world around us.  Personally, I suspect there is a "survey nonresponse gene" that leads some people to avoid surveys at all costs!  

Imagine adding a genetic component to nonresponse bias studies?  I can see the paper now "Genetic risk factors in recurrent nonresponsism: A multilocus, population-based, prospective approach."  (No, that is not a real paper... yet.)

It did not take long, however, for me to pause and realize what I would be asking of a participant in a study.  There is nothing more unique in our human bodies than our DNA. This is not just asking about a preference or an opinion.  It isn't just asking for a person's weight or heartbeat.  It also isn't just asking for a blood sample to get iron levels. 

Consider this, if you have the time and resources - collecting someone's DNA is exposing that individual to a level where if you randomized everyone in the world, and then lined them all up, you could systematically test each one and eventually you could find that person with no other clues other than this data. Mind blown.

So where am I going with this?  I'm writing about it because I felt the only way to explore these issues directly is to experience it myself.  I have decided to get sequenced!  And I intend to share my experience, from the perspective of a social scientist, here on this blog.

By the time this post is released, I will have been sequenced, received my results, and well, if I haven't run away screaming, then you will get to read about it all here.  I took extensive notes along the way, observed my feelings (fears, excitement, disappointments, etc.), much of what I learned, and where possible, I noted things that I thought may be helpful someday if I am on the other end of a research study and I am asking others to do this exact task.

Some posts will be told chronologically as stories - some posts will be informational and hopefully useful for your own research.  I hope that all are entertaining in some form.

I am going to do something unusual for this blog - I am going to open up the Comments section below.  I would love to hear your questions, and maybe a post of two may come in response to what you ask!

If you are a geneticist or scientist with experience around genetics, please forgive me if I misinterpret anything about your science.  It is not intended - it comes from ignorance, and I appreciate corrections, as the lack of understanding is a thread that will come up, so it is very relevant to address head on.

Also, a fare warning, if you know me and you think I'm a well rounded and sane human being with no flaws - maybe these posts are not for you. :) I will try to be as honest as I can about my experience, baring all, and that may not always sit well with everyone.  I apologize if I shake your opinion of me in the process.

(Note: I love sarcasm, I do realize that it is not likely I will shake anyone's opinion of me. If you need proof, I have included a picture of me to the right.)

Let me settle into something more comfortable and I'll be back with more soon...