by Greg Mayer
Concerns have been raised by several people (PZ Myers, Sam Harris, Russel Blackford, Steve Pinker, and Jerry) about the appointment of Francis Collins as NIH director, mostly to do with whether he might let his strong religious convictions interfere with scientific judgments. A different point is raised by Ken Weiss at The Mermaid’s Tale (and expanded on here).
…on the surface it [Collins’ appointment] suggests a complete and total victory for the genetic view of life. That might have been fine for the Genome Institute, but seems much less so for NIH overall, because many if not most problems in both medicine and public health are not about genes or genetic variation (though they involve them at least indirectly) but are about environments, many kinds of therapies, prevention, and so on. One doesn’t have to ignore the fact that genetics is certainly fundamental to life, and that molecular biology will become increasingly important, to know that (for example) most common diseases have little to do with genetic variation in any sensible way. [emphasis added]
(Hat tip: John Hawks)
Few diseases are caused by a “gene.” Most diseases, in fact, are caused by the invasion of the body by another organism (bacteria, viruses, protozoa). Our susceptibility and resistance to disease may often have a genetic basis, but these too are usually the result of multiple genes in interaction with the environment. Even when a disease does have a singular genetic cause, finding the gene does not necessarily lead easily to treatment or prevention (e.g. cystic fibrosis).