Human genomics is one of those big waves of science and change that I have mostly tried to ignore, in the hopes that it will just wash over me and I will come up, sputtering but alive, after it crashes through.
If you are a non-scientist like me, you also hope that when the term human genomics is thrown out at some dinner party you can deliver one pithy line of commentary and then retreat to the kitchen to refill your glass.
Here Is a Human Being: at the Dawn of Personal Genomics is an entertaining book about one man’s foray into the world of personal genomics – the process of having his entire DNA sequence identified and made public for all.
“All human genomics is personal – that is to say, it is finally about us,” Misha Angrist writes. “Mothers and fathers can negotiate almost anything: marriage, money, careers, sex, cooking, laundry, the Netflix queue, who gives the dog a bath. What they can’t negotiate are their own genomes.”
Here Is a Human Being tracks Angrist’s experience as the fourth subject of the Personal Genome Project. By participating in the project, Angrist would have his over 22,000 genes catalogued and made public to any scientist, administrator, regulator or unknown other to view. To his credit, Angrist makes the story of this highly complex scientific field highly personal.
It is a field that has burst too suddenly upon those of us who spend our days doing more mundane things. A map of the human genome was created in 2001 and fleshed out, so to speak, by 2007. Mapping one’s genes has the potential for significant medical advantages, while also raising huge ethical and practical questions.
If I discover that I carry a gene associated with a certain disease, presumably I can make early moves to offset that genetic tendency. Yet I am also, potentially, given a death sentence by that genetic knowledge. Furthermore, what does my insurance company do with the knowledge that I’m not likely to see (let’s pick a number) 65?
Few people can answer those questions better than Misha Angrist. He has not only had his genome mapped but is a very bright person with the ability to understand and interpret the experience for the rest of us.
It’s clear early on in Here Is a Human Being that Angrist is equal parts scientist and self-deprecating humorist. He talks about wanting to hide his potbelly which he says is probably a result of “genes acting in concert with ice cream.” He claims to be a “thirty-three year old dinosaur” in his post-doctoral study of molecular genetics, where everything “was changing at a pace that, more and more, left me dizzy and exhausted.”
Despite those concerns about his own knowledge, Angrist is just the right guide for this adventure. Like the field of study he explores, Angrist is driven by curiosity. He is aware of the risks and opportunities of having his genome mapped but one gets the sense that it is, ultimately, curiosity that causes him to take the plunge.
What follows is a book that is by turns amusing, engrossing, a tough slog, and enlightening. Angrist shows us that there is no separation between science and the people who practice science. It is no surprise, but a valuable insight nevertheless, to learn that a cast of quirky characters with diverse motives, emotions, abilities and deficiencies is driving the science.
We learn about the people, the organizations, the corporations, the genetics labs in detail. In the process, we perhaps absorb a wee bit of science. For a non-scientist like me, there are certainly sections where my brain is overwhelmed by the waves of unfamiliar lab talk.
Angrist is telling a story of immersion – his entire life is immersed in the story of personal genomics. At times, the reader wants to call out ‘too much information’ – particularly in sections that detail the behind the scenes manoevering of various researchers.
For the most part, though, Angrist is a considerate, charming and insightful guide to the weird new reality of personal genomics. He cracks jokes, he tells stories, he shares his fascinations and frustrations. He writes well.
When reflecting on his brave and fascinating journey, I kept coming back to a Paul Verlaine quote offered in the book’s front pages: “When one goes on a journey of self-exploration, one should go heavily armed.” We are all, like it not, venturing into the world of human genomics. Arm yourself with a copy of Here Is a Human Being.
Book Cover Image From Misha Angrist’s Blog
Thumbnail and Feature Imahe – Public Domain