Steven Pinker: My Genome, My Self
ONE OF THE PERKS of being a psychologist is access to tools that allow you to carry out the injunction to know thyself. I have been tested for vocational interest (closest match: psychologist), intelligence (above average), personality (open, conscientious, agreeable, average in extraversion, not too neurotic) and political orientation (neither leftist nor rightist, more libertarian than authoritarian). I have M.R.I. pictures of my brain (no obvious holes or bulges) and soon will undergo the ultimate test of marital love: my brain will be scanned while my wife’s name is subliminally flashed before my eyes.
Last fall I submitted to the latest high-tech way to bare your soul. I had my genome sequenced and am allowing it to be posted on the Internet, along with my medical history. The opportunity arose when the biologist George Church sought 10 volunteers to kick off his audacious Personal Genome Project. The P.G.P. has created a public database that will contain the genomes and traits of 100,000 people. Tapping the magic of crowd sourcing that gave us Wikipedia and Google rankings, the project seeks to engage geneticists in a worldwide effort to sift through the genetic and environmental predictors of medical, physical and behavioral traits.
The Personal Genome Project is an initiative in basic research, not personal discovery. Yet the technological advance making it possible — the plunging cost of genome sequencing — will soon give people an unprecedented opportunity to contemplate their own biological and even psychological makeups. We have entered the era of consumer genetics. At one end of the price range you can get a complete sequence and analysis of your genome from Knome (often pronounced “know me”) for $99,500. At the other you can get a sample of traits, disease risks and ancestry data from 23andMe for $399. The science journal Nature listed “Personal Genomics Goes Mainstream” as a top news story of 2008.
Like the early days of the Internet, the dawn of personal genomics promises benefits and pitfalls that no one can foresee. It could usher in an era of personalized medicine, in which drug regimens are customized for a patient’s biochemistry rather than juggled through trial and error, and screening and prevention measures are aimed at those who are most at risk. It opens up a niche for bottom-feeding companies to terrify hypochondriacs by turning dubious probabilities into Genes of Doom. Depending on who has access to the information, personal genomics could bring about national health insurance, leapfrogging decades of debate, because piecemeal insurance is not viable in a world in which insurers can cherry-pick the most risk-free customers, or in which at-risk customers can load up on lavish insurance.