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New gene discovered for misinterpreting genetic evidence!

September 13, 2010

There’s a fantastic article in The Guardian debunking some commonly held myths about genetically acquired traits:

People’s understanding of genetic effects is heavily influenced by the way genetics is taught in schools. Mendel and his wrinkly and smooth peas make a nice introduction to genetic transmission, but the downside is that we go away with the idea that genes have an all-or-nothing effect on a binary trait. Some characteristics are inherited this way (more or less), and they tend to be the ones that textbooks focus on: for example eye colour, colour-blindness, Huntington’s disease. But most genetic effects are far more subtle and complex than this[…]

What are the implications of all this for the stories we hear in the media about new genetic discoveries? The main message is that we need to be aware of the small effect of most individual genes on human traits. The idea that we can test for a single gene that causes musical talent, optimism or intelligence is just plain wrong.

It’s great reading, and includes an explanation of the way scientists evaluate genetic determinism in humans (in mice it’s much easier, we can just delete a gene and see what it does), and why it’s hard to evaluate definitively.

[h/t Mindhacks]

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