If you could do something as simple as spit into a test tube, and in exchange learn more information about your health than you ever imagined possible, would you?
Millions of people have already said “yes,” making this relatively new trend of genetic testing more prevalent than ever. You can request genetic tests from your doctor, or bypass him or her altogether and order kits online for a mere $200.
It’s tempting to think that for a few hundred dollars, a world of knowledge about your potential health risks could be right at your fingertips. Here’s why…
Your body contains upwards of 50 trillion cells. Each of these cells contains important information that makes you uniquely you. This information is encoded in ladder-shaped molecules called DNA.
Think of your DNA as an instruction manual. Inside the manual are genes, which serve as the actual instructions for how your cells are to function and behave during your life. Information from your genes is used to make proteins, each of which has a specific job to do in order for cells to function properly.
If you have dark brown hair, it’s because your genes are instructing your hair follicles to activate the pigments responsible for that hair color. The same process occurs for every single one of your physical traits. Genes play a role in health too.
Most of the time, your genes function as they should and provide clear instructions. But sometimes they contain mutations. These mutations cause wrong instructions to be relayed, leading to the creation of proteins that work improperly. Usually, these genetic mutations have little or no effect on health…but occasionally they do.
According to GeneTests.org, there are currently 63,102 tests that can look at 4,572 disorders, examining 5,403 genes carried out by 683 laboratories. That, my friends, provides a lot of very complex and, often, extraordinarily confusing information.
There’s everything from prenatal and newborn screenings for rare genetic disorders, to tests that tell you your genetic ancestry, to “predictive” testing that looks for mutations linked to diseases that often appear later in life. You may recall that back in 2013, actress Angelina Jolie-Pitt underwent a preventive mastectomy, and a couple years later the removal of her ovaries, due to her high genetic risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers. She had a mutation on her BRCA1 gene. This is one example of a genetic mutation that could be problematic in people who have it.
One important area of research is how genetic variation impacts your response to eating the modern Western diet. These studies ultimately will determine which individuals and racial/ethnic groups are most harmed by a bad diet. So I certainly believe there can be great value in understanding genetic information, and particularly the genetic variations that have the potential to cause certain traits or diseases. However, with all this emerging research, there are profoundly complex philosophical, ethical, and scientific questions that must be taken into consideration before you or your family takes one of these tests. My biggest concern is philosophical, even spiritual.
My Biggest Concern…Free or Not Free
When it comes to genetics, many people believe that their genes completely control their life and they have very little impact on its outcome. When this happens, people lose their free will.
It may surprise you that many biologists, psychologists, and philosophers called determinists believe that we have little, if any, free will with regard to our health and decisions. According to these camps, genes in our DNA and our early life experiences determine all of our body and brain functions as adults. Together, these genetic factors pre-program our bodies and brains in a manner that completely dictates everything from the diseases we get to our reactions and thoughts. Consequently, we have little, if any, freedom in any aspect of our life.
I don’t believe that, and I actually think the science points in a different direction.
A child inherits his or her genes from two parents. These genes are packaged together to create what is called a structural genome—the essential blueprints that form a human being. The structural genome builds every cell in the body and is the critical underpinning for practically every physical, cognitive, and behavioral characteristic a person will ever have. Information in these blueprints orchestrates assembly of the foundational elements of our bodies, including our brains. Barring a rare mutation, this information does not change.
However, there is a part of our genetics that, up until relatively recently, we could not have imagined. This new field of genetics is called epigenetics, and it has shown us that the chemical structure of our DNA and the genes that get expressed are constantly changing throughout our lives as we adapt to our environments. These new findings emphasize the incredible adaptability of human genes to different environments. One of the things I find most fascinating is that our thoughts can change the structure of our DNA. So how we view our situations can have an incredible role on the outcome of our lives, including the diseases we get. It is this flexibility we have with our bodies and brains that makes us truly remarkable and complex.
It’s not uncommon for people who undergo testing to jump to drastic conclusions about their health, especially if they don’t have the guidance of a doctor or genetic counselor to explain what the findings mean to them. And often, the concern is unnecessary and unwarranted because we researchers are finding that the genetics that we routinely measure play a much smaller role than we think in what we become and what diseases we develop.
On a more philosophical level, I believe, and the science now supports, that thoughts, morality, consciousness, experiences, and the diseases we get are so much more flexible than a predetermined set of genetic processes and resulting reactions. However, I still believe there are often compelling reasons to take some of these tests.