George Church has a fancy hammer. You’re all looking a bit like nails right now


George Church is a smart and interesting guy, and now he’s been featured on 60 Minutes. It’s a strange interview, though, and I don’t believe a lot of his claims.

Yeah, right, a dating app based on your genes. I don’t believe it, except as an ambitious eugenics program to give scientists an excuse to do social engineering with fallacious premises. There is such a thing already, as in, for instance, screening in some Jewish communities for lethal alleles; beyond that specific use, though, I don’t see much point in caring about minor variations…unless you want to suppress them. That was only a small part of the program, though, highlighted by CBS because it is so radical and sensational. One thing he does go on at length about is his biomedical goals: “Today, his lab is working to make humans immune to all viruses, eliminate genetic diseases, and reverse the effects of time.”

I have two objections to his dream.

  • I think he’s forgotten about this phenomenon called evolution. Viruses are going to be evolving much more rapidly than he can engineer humans; humans are going to mutate faster than he can tweak their genes.
  • He disregards multifactorial interactions, and seems to think there’s a straightforward linear scale of gene effects that can be optimized. We don’t know whether, for instance, increasing longevity genetically is going to have secondary undesirable genetic effects. It’s definitely going to have horrible effects socially, but those don’t exist in Church’s world.

None of that is an argument for stopping his kind of research, which I think has great benefits as well. I just don’t think he’s very good at thinking outside of an imagined linear progression.

Also troubling was his response to one question. On everything else, he’s glib and confident, and then he got asked about the ethics of accepting money from Jeffrey Epstein…and suddenly he’s hesitating and stammering and clearly trying to think of a way out of this question. His answer is that he can’t be expected to screen donors that rigorously, and that tainted money can be used for good ends, as, for instance, the way tobacco money was used to sponsor legitimate research.

Does he stop to consider that there’s a problem in a system that allows large corporations to thrive on lies and addicting innocent people to dangerous chemicals, and that maybe such organizations are not the best to control what sciences get funding? No.

His is a lab that thrives on huge donations from extremely wealthy people, and getting featured on 60 Minutes is going to raise his profile and probably bring in more donations from extremely wealthy people. That ought to be raising all kinds of concerns about the nature of a system that relies on excesses of wealth in certain classes of people who then have the privilege of distributing some of that wealth in a pattern of personal patronage. That he is the current recipient of such largesse apparently makes it impossible for him to see the flaws in that system.

Comments

  1. woozy says

    is working on a dating app that matches users based on their DNA. The goal: to eliminate all genetic diseases.

    Shouldn’t the goal of a dating app be to help people find romantic partners?

  2. says

    I think that people living in good health instead of dying is such an obvious good that any “horrible effects socially” are insignificant in comparison.

    Of course, that’s a separate question to whether this particular approach has any chance of succeeding.

  3. Dunc says

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    blockquote>I think that people living in good health instead of dying is such an obvious good that any “horrible effects socially” are insignificant in comparison.

    It’s very nice of you to volunteer for enslavement by the immortal oligarchy, I’m sure they’ll appreciate your service.

  4. nomadiq says

    Not sure why people want a dating app exclusively for the purposes of reproduction. What, are we all strict Catholics now and only have sex for reproduction purposes?

    As for scrutiny over the source of funding, scientists have largely been trained over their careers that the measure of success that counts is their funding. The rest just follows from this once you establish ‘funding is success’ as an axiom. Source of funding, outcomes, process – these are barely in the shadows. Big, bold, bullshit ideas that flash brightly too often EIN.

  5. Jazzlet says

    Paul Drrant @#2

    I think that people living in good health instead of dying is such an obvious good that any “horrible effects socially” are insignificant in comparison.

    That simply demonstrates that you don’t understand the kinds of things that may go wrong, for instance, it doesn’t follow that being immune to viruses and bacteria would make you immune to genetic diseases, and might actually make you more prone to them. It also wouldn’t protect you from lifestyle diseases and those are what most of us die from.

    I agree that evolution would be a problem, but the fact that we understand relatively few of the multifactorial actions that take place in our bodies at this stage is what really concerns me when people talk about altering our genes for almost whatever purpose. Sure we have learnt the genetic alphabet, but were still on picture books when it comes to understading, maybe just starting chapter books, we certainly aren’t reading novels yet.

  6. leerudolph says

    we certainly aren’t reading novels yet.

    Moreover, it’s much harder to write novels than to read them.

  7. jim959 says

    Any successful treatment for aging is going to have great social effects eventually, but they will occur very slowly.
    For example, a treatment that stopped aging completely would result in the 1% of people who would die of old age this year surviving, and another 1% next year. So there would be a 1% change each year, a rather slow change.

    Of course, a much more likely scenario is an aging treatment would add 20 or 30 years to the human lifespan if taken by a young adult, and only have a partial effect if you start it in middle or old age. And rather than be universally available, it would most likely be expensive at first. So the impact on society would be 1/100th of a percent of extra survival per year. An aging treatment would have more of an effect on how the rich think and plan, and would annoy many of their kids…

  8. chrislawson says

    You could reduce but not ‘eliminate all’ genetic disease by DNA cross-matching partners because (1) until we have perfect understanding of genetics, we won’t be able to identify every possible at-risk pairing, and (2) even with a mythical perfect understanding of genetics, there will be cases of de novo mutation.

    George Church has learned the Theranos method: make wild, impossible claims and watch the money roll in from people with lots of cash but no ability to filter for bullshit.

  9. anthrosciguy says

    Not having an answer ready for the Epstein funding question is telling. This is something you would have to know you will be asked, and you’ve known it for at least since Epstein’s arrest and death (you would actually know for far longer than that, since his first arrest at least). So this guy has had months, or years, to come up with an answer to this sure to be asked question, and he doesn’t have one. That’s a dumb person, regardless of his intelligence in some aspects of science.

  10. jrkrideau says

    Yeah, right, a dating app based on your genes. I
    He has been talking with the creator of SCAN?

  11. says

    Dunc,
    Wait until you have osteoarthritis in the knees and hips so bad that sometimes you cant stand for five minutes, like I do now. Or have body parts cut off because of diabetic complications, as my mom did.

  12. says

    It’s eugenics by another name. If he does manage to create “pure and disease free people”, what does he or his clientelle plan to do with those who aren’t? Forcibly sterilize them?

    Church is like a supplier who sells to survivalists and end-of-the-world fanatics. He’s selling this nonsense to those who believe rich people are “superior” to poor people, morally, mentally and physically. If disease-free poor people were found by DNA testing, “harvesting” eggs and sperm is more likely than marriage (by payment or taking by force).

    As dwindling lion populations in Africa demonstrate, when the breeding pool shrinks, disease and defects are more likely. Church has a better chance of creating another Hapsburg jaw than a pure, disease free population.

  13. dangerousbeans says

    I think we can conclude Paul Durrant is a cis man, and probably white
    ‘good health’ is a social construction, and a lot of us who don’t meet social norms have our needs disregarded in the interests of keeping us in what others consider ‘good health’. Look at people with uteruses and ovaries denied hysterectomys or tubal ligations because others consider their fertility more important. Or people panicking about trans kids having access to puberty blockers and HRT. (I bet there are racist and ableist examples I’m not aware of too)

  14. says

    Paul Durrant @2

    I think that people living in good health instead of dying is such an obvious good that any “horrible effects socially” are insignificant in comparison.

    Well fuck you, too, buddy!

    Fucking ableist eugenicist bullshit…

  15. cedrus says

    I think there’s a distinction to be made between research funded by entities with an obvious interest in obtaining a particular result (e.g. the tobacco case) and research funded by rich dirtbags who simply want to buy some prestige (e.g. the Epstein case).

    Even if all the scientists involved are scrupulously honest, having a giant pile of money land on one side of a scientific dispute is not a good thing. In the tobacco case, there were scientists who basically didn’t believe in epidemiology, so they weren’t willing to accept epidemiological evidence. If science was left to its normal processes, they would have been sidelined and ignored, with progress being made one funeral at a time. With tobacco money behind them, they got to be a lot louder for a lot longer than their scientific case deserved.

    Had the pro-tobacco scientists had a convincing alternate hypothesis to rally behind, they might well have captured the field. Suppose at the outset, there was roughly equal evidence that lung cancer was caused by some kind of infection that the troops had picked up in WWII (along with their smoking habit). For obvious reasons, the scientists promoting the infection theory get showered with money from the tobacco companies. These scientists don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong; they genuinely believe what they’re saying, and believe that the extra money will help them prove their case. With that money, they make lots of data pertaining to their theory, and train lots of junior researchers who grow up believing that the infection theory is settled science. Meanwhile, the epidemiologists who think tobacco is the problem are puttering along on their tiny government grants. Before long, the tobacco theory looks like the work of a handful of fringe cranks who can safely be ignored. It can take decades to dig out of that kind of systemic failure.

    As a scientific community, we very much want to avoid this scenario. It’s worth setting up a social norm: no, you can’t fund this research, because you have a rooting interest in the outcome. If you insist on funding it anyway, then everyone will assume the work is rubbish and ignore it.

    Then there are the Epsteins of the world. I don’t love it either, but…I don’t think that humoring these people is inherently evil. Rich dirtbags have been funding the creation of prestigious, shiny boondoggles since the dawn of civilization. They get what they want, and civilization advances. I’m not sure that the thin veneer of respectability that Epstein got from funding various science projects actually protected him in any significant way; if that’s false, I might have to change my mind.

    (Disclaimer: I work in a “press release bait” field; I’ve absolutely taken funding from sources I’m not proud of. Corporate green-washing, mostly; we know what they’re doing, but we also believe in what we’re doing, so…for the most part, we shrug and take the money. Given where I’ve been, I may well have taken Epstein’s money too, though all I knew was “donor money” and I wouldn’t have recognized the name.)

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