We are still developing genetically

Why the concept of "race" is genetic nonsense

Genes can tell us a lot about populations and our history as a species, but very little about individuals. That's one of the reasons I wrote this book: to increase the public's understanding of genetics, to get away from this deeply cultured notion that genes determine destiny.

In 2012, geneticists were asked to examine the DNA of the gunman Adam Lanza for evidence of the cause of his violence. Why do you think this is dangerous?

It says something about us that we are looking for simple answers to complex questions. Humans have inevitably turned to the relatively new science of genetics to find an explanation for otherwise incomprehensible human behaviors such as rampages and murders. But the idea that there is a deterministic, genetic component in someone who went out and shot 20 children in a school like Adam Lanza did is incredibly misguided.

There is a genetic basis for human behavior. But there is also an environmental component. We said earlier "nature versus nurture“(Literally Nature versus education, i.S.v. genetic predisposition to environmental influences), but we could rather say "nature via nurture". Almost all gunmen show similar symptoms of broader psychological problems, and Adam Lanza was typical in this regard.

Some of these problems have a hereditary component. But we don't understand the genetics of this behavior well enough to be able to say that this gene triggers this behavior. It is absolutely possible for two people to have the same genome but one of them will become schizophrenic and the other will not.

If we sequenced Adam Lanza's genome, we would just find out that he has a human genome and that all of the gene variants in him are found in other people who don't run amok. Turning to genetics to explain why this guy murdered all of these children in this horrific act is completely wrong!

The only common factor in all rampages is access to weapons. I think that's pretty straightforward.

Are we still developing? If so, what will we look like in 5,000 years?

There is a simple answer to this, and that is that evolution is simply change over time. If we continue to have children the traditional way, then we will still evolve because all of our genomes are unique and our children's genomes will be different from our own. So in this sense we are changing.

The real question behind this, however, is whether we are still developing further under the sign of natural selection. This question is much more difficult to answer, partly because evolution is slow. The adaptation to a certain pressure of the environment generally takes place very slowly, over many, many generations.

This is basically a history book. Our new ability to extract DNA from the long-dead has turned geneticists like me into historians with this new text source that complements any traditional form of knowledge about the past.

I've been in science for 25 years and have never seen a revolution as persistent as that of genetics in the past five years. A new study comes out every week that amazes me, but also makes me sigh because I have to rewrite my book as a result. I will probably continue to paraphrase this for many years to come. [Laughs]

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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