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Podcast Review: Mapping Humanity – How modern genetics is changing criminal justice, personalised medicine, and our identities

21 September 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1064

Genetic technologies, particularly the fears and ethics surrounding them, have this fascinating capacity to capture the public's imagination. This explains why Aldous Huxley could discuss genetic hierarchies and selective reproduction two decades before the discovery of the structure of DNA, or why Andrew Niccol's 'Gattaca' presented a eugenics-driven society three years before the first rough draft of the human genome was published. Since then, though, progress surrounding genetic technologies has exploded, and suddenly these dystopian societies don't seem so far-fetched. Consequently, facilitating productive discussion between scientists, policymakers, and the public surrounding these genetic technologies, and their applications, is more crucial than ever.

This is the goal of the Genetic Literacy Project (GLP), stated on their website as 'aiding the public, media and policymakers in understanding the societal implications of this burgeoning revolution'. As part of their podcast series, Science Facts and Fallacies, GLP managing editor Cameron English interviews Dr Joshua Rappoport, whose recently published book, Mapping Humanity – How modern genetics is changing criminal justice, personalised medicine, and our identities, seems almost designed for them

Dr Rappoport, a molecular cell biologist and executive director of research infrastructure at Boston College, believes that there has never been a more essential time for public education of genetics. Dr Rappoport opens with 'Right now [...] is a very important time for people to be learning and talking about issues regarding human genetics', which is not just due to the volume of technical innovation, but also the impact on our daily lives which is gradually becoming ubiquitous.

Likely similar to the book, this podcast seeks to educate listeners via a one-stop-shop for all of your genetics enquiries. Five minutes here spent explaining how genetic databases and genealogy techniques are aiding in criminal investigations; three minutes there explaining how analysing circulating fetal DNA can provide non-invasive prenatal testing; another four minutes on integrating embryo screening with genome editing. Whilst Dr Rappoport speaks with the authority of someone who has just written a book on this topic, albeit unedited from a buffering Zoom call, it felt like this podcast was a somewhat exhausting attempt to condense 336 pages into thirty minutes.

The two also mention some of the limitations of current work, including off-target effects of current genome editing techniques, and isolated flouting of ethical considerations, such as human embryo editing in China. However, their discussion seemed skewed towards human error in interpreting genetics research, from eugenics and the politicisation of genetics, to 'people taking studies that talk about associations and ascribing causality to them'. This probably suits both Dr Rappoport and the GLP, as these are problems which they are dedicated to solving.

There is, though, a glaring hole in their discussion of these limitations, because their focus on the individual suggests that simple 'awareness' of the science will ensure that these powerful developments are applied reasonably and responsibly. I can't help but find this perspective slightly naïve: how far can public understanding go in ensuring that these technologies are harnessed solely for the greater good?

English poses questions surrounding this issue a couple of times during the episode, including at the beginning where Dr Rappoport admits 'I don't pretend to be a bioethicist', followed by a few tepid suggestions about avoiding 'complete moratorium shutdown' of this research, and 'setting up processes for approval and safety'. This is understandable, as Dr Rappoport's book, interests, and expertise lie in the science. However, if the end goal is more productive public discourse surrounding genetics, the context of this research, and the potential pitfalls, must be stated explicitly.

I fear that, in an effort to display the phenomenal benefits of genetics, English and Dr Rappoport gloss over the real threats, and the most pertinent issues in the public's eyes. For example, this episode does not once mention how, as of 2019, it was estimated that over 25 million people had not only offered their genetic data to corporations such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA, but paid for the privilege. They do not mention how GMOs, despite their significant potential to improve global food security, have led to accusations of monopolisation of agricultural industries. Even during their discussion on forensic genealogy, they seemingly ignore how this procedure is fraught with ethical landmines and privacy concerns.

The adverse consequences of these potentially immoral, exploitative incidents are substantial, and ought to be of serious concern to the public. Therefore, the question of who uses these novel technologies, and how they are used, is not only the million-dollar question: it is potentially the only question worth asking.

This is stated most strikingly at the end of the episode, when English asks if concerns could be eased due to scientific research progressing incrementally. Dr Rappoport, citing the recent explosion of COVID-19 research, states that science is not designed to work incredibly quickly, saying 'things seem to be moving frustratingly slowly but that's what you need in order to do it right'. Unfortunately, if any research field is moving too quickly for its own good, it is genetics, and the potential fallout goes far beyond a rogue scientist editing human embryos.

Undeniably, increased public understanding of important genetic concepts will always be beneficial, and I don't doubt that, with Mapping Humanity, Dr Rappoport provides this. I also, admittedly, cannot speak about the content of the book itself. However, I am unsure if pure scientific information alone is what will drive positive public engagement. Whilst this podcast provides a general introduction to the existence of an interplay between genetics and our daily lives, it is fundamentally incomplete. I believe that, until the public are also informed about the ethical, political, and social implications of these technologies, progress towards facilitating these discussions will remain stunted.

Mapping Humanity – How modern genetics is changing criminal justice, personalised medicine, and our identities
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