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Genetics Unzipped podcast: The natural lottery – How our genes shape our lives

In the latest episode of Genetics Unzipped, presenter Dr Kat Arney chats with Professor Paige Harden from the University of Texas about her new book, The Genetic Lottery, exploring how genetic variations might affect our chances in life, and what – if anything – we should do with this information.

Harden argues that variations in our DNA that make us different, in terms of our personalities and our health, can affect our chances of educational and economic success in life. Rather than ignoring these differences, or simply saying “well, if it’s genetic, what can you do about it?”, she puts forward some ideas for how we can use our knowledge about genetics to achieve more equitable outcomes for everyone.

Nature, nurture, or both?

Life is all about luck, from the time, place and circumstances in which we were conceived, to the random assortment of genes we get from our parents – and the random assortment of genes they got from theirs. But are we ready to have a conversation about how our random allocation in the genetic lottery might also be playing a role? And can we even separate the influence of nature from nurture for such complex issues?

“In my mind, the goal of cleanly separating nature and nurture is really the wrong goal,” Harden says.

“The ‘effects of nature’ are always bound up with what is our social context and vice versa. People who live in the same social context, who even are raised in the same home with the same parents go on to live different lives.

“So, I guess I would just reframe the question. We’re not kind of surgically peeling away, we are not wielding some scalpel that says this is the purely biological bit, and this is the purely social bit. It’s more like tracing If you start in different points, genetically, how does your life then kind of wind its way through the social environment, such that those initial starting points can, in part because of how they’re responded to by the social environment, end up being consequential in the long term.”

Don’t ignore genetics, increase diversity

Harden’s book has been controversial among people who don’t want to accept that genetics may have any influence on life outcomes and point to systemic inequalities and racial bias within genetic research. But, Harden counters, that’s a good thing – and an argument to make genetic studies far more diverse.

“It is a blessing in disguise that when you do a genetic study of educational attainment in predominantly Northern European populations, it’s easy for people to look at that and say, well, of course that doesn’t generalise,” she says.  

“We can’t say that we know something about the genetics of the same traits in the broader share of the population. And yes, they’re exactly right. And that’s also true for medical genetics – that’s also true for everything below the neck too. So the fact that behavioural genetics focuses people’s attention on the problems that are inherent in this lack of representation of diversity, I think that’s a good thing because those problems don’t just attend psychological studies, they attend all of our studies.”

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Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator Dr Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media.  Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

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