This week we bring another new episode of the After On Podcast here on Ars. The broader series is built around in-depth interviews with world-class thinkers, founders and scientists and is usually very technical and scientifically heavy. You can access the excerpts on Ars through a built-in audio player or by reading the accompanying transcripts (both are below).
My guest this week is medical geneticist Robert Green, and our topic is the promise and danger that could come from reading your entire genome. The cost of whole genome sequencing is falling so rapidly, and the actionable insights it can reveal are growing fast enough that these data will eventually become as widespread as cholesterol levels (perhaps within a decade or so).
This will reveal the exact contents of your 20,000-like genes to you and your doctor. Since some human genes have literally thousands of known mutations, that’s a lot of data — and the day you first receive them, we still don’t know how to interpret the overwhelming majority of them.
Whole-genome sequencing will nevertheless become a mass phenomenon, because in sufficient cases it is better to know something than nothing to justify the effort. But not in all cases! For example, your genes can reliably predict a horrific short-term fate — a fate you can do nothing about. Conversely, you could expose a horrific condition that can be painlessly avoided with a few simple steps.
Green and I discuss contemporary examples of both outliers. We also discuss how psychologically inconvenient the ambiguity of personal genetic data can be. In fact, it’s strange enough that some knowledgeable and caring people consider genetic information to be medically toxic information. While that sounds like a euphemism, medical genetics behaved as if toxic information was a literal phenomenon for years, and many in the field still do.
Today’s episode opens up all of these songs, which we’ll explore in more detail over the next two days. If you like the conversation, you can access the full podcast archive of over thirty episodes on my website, or just search for “After On” in your favorite podcasting app.
Finally, if you’re curious about the latest episode in the main After On podcast feed, this week’s interview with Yale ornithologist and evolutionary heretic Richard Prum. Prum boldly and brilliantly disproves much of the common wisdom about sexual attraction, aesthetics, and more. And the source of his unorthodox ideas is… Charles Darwin himself. Even if you’re not into birds at all, you’ll find this interview intriguing if you’re interested in the deep roots of human behavior and biology.
This special edition of the Ars Technicast podcast can be accessed at the following locations:
https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-ars-technicast/id522504024?mt=2 (May take several hours after publication to appear.)