“I don’t understand it; it must be magic”

By way of Andrew Sullivan we discover that the folks at Slate have been reading popularized science again.  Yeah, go ahead and start facepalming right now.

Just from the title.

Noting that fetal DNA sequencing is becoming simultaneously more popular and less expensive — funny how that works; capitalism strikes again! — our Intrepid Reporter Maria Hvistendahl does Underpants Gnomes genetics:

What fetal genes might one day suggest about a baby’s eye color, appearance, and intellectual ability will be useful to parents, not insurers. But with costs coming down and insurers interested in other aspects of the fetal genome, a Gattacalike two-tiered society, in which parents with good access to health care produce flawless, carefully selected offspring and the rest of us spawn naturals, seems increasingly plausible.


The process Hvistendahl has in mind looks like this:

  1. Sequence a baby’s DNA into genomic sequences that look like this: […] GAC ACC GTC ATT TTA CTA CTT […]
  2. ???
  3. Gattaca!  Look it has nucleotide initials in it!  Sciencey!

As you might expect, step 2. is doing all the heavy lifting.

If I’m lucky, LabRat will pick up this story and have the time to fisk it so hard NEST will be sifting through her dogs’ poop for the next decade and a half.  But even so, let’s simplify the problem outrageously and turn it into a programming analogy.

Suppose someone gives you a shiny disc, heavy, about 3″ in diameter.  You can carefully install it in a box you barely understand and it’ll make the box do magical, wonderful, insanely complex stuff like display porn from the other side of the world.  After decades of research you might come up with the hypothesis that instructions for making the box do stuff are somehow encoded on the disc.  You spend another few decades carefully examining the disc, and after poking around with an electron microscope you discover regular patterns on the disc, which might be translated into a base-two numeric system like so:

[…] 10110100 00101001 11000100 11010101 0000000 […]

You announce your discovery to the world, and people like Hvistendahl start wailing: “OMG ONOZ now we can control the magical wonderful box, all the magic and wonder is gone, soon we’ll be telling the box it can only display straight porn, O the horror!”  But really you’ve just found a sequence of numbers, and guessed (not entirely unreasonably) that they mean something.

Fast forward through a few more decades of heroic effort.  You’ve discovered that those ones and zeros correspond, more or less, to eight-bit segments, which combine to form integers, or offsets along something you expect might be a tape, or instructions in a programming language of some sort, or some absolutely horrifying combinations which eventually turned out to be floating-point numbers, and were met at every step of the way with OMG ONOT IT IZ TEH GATTACA.  Finally you’re able to more or less build a model of the programming language, and you discover to your resigned exasperation that most of the programs are in fact used to generate statements in other programming languages, which appear to be vastly more complex than those you’ve discovered to date:

infixl 1  >>, >>=
class  Monad m  where
(>>=)            :: m a -> (a -> m b) -> m b
(>>)             :: m a -> m b -> m b
return           :: a -> m a
fail             :: String -> m a

m >> k           =  m >>= \_ -> k

Distressingly, there seem to be millions — at the least — of these programs floating around the magic wonder box at any given point, all of which interact with each other in various forbiddingly complex ways, and any of which may (or may not) be vitally important at any given time.

And the jackasses at Slate are still going on about how you’re destroying the mystery and gravitas of the magic wonder box, as if it’s as easy to command as an LED on a breadboard!

Without even getting into the issues surrounding abusus non tollit usum, the flagrant ignorance behind the notion that “if we can sequence a baby’s DNA, we can engineer super-babies!” is sufficient to peg my stupid-meter.


4 Responses to ““I don’t understand it; it must be magic””

  1. 1 TMI
    April 28, 2012 at 10:11

    How did they get the virus in the alien computer in “Independence Day”?

    Still curious about that.

    • April 28, 2012 at 11:01

      They hooked it up to a Mac, right? Alien computers probably aren’t built with enough anti-smug shielding to withstand that sort of direct contact. It’s like static, but worse.

  2. 3 Nick P.
    September 12, 2012 at 18:21

    More to the point, if and when we CAN manipulate DNA to create super babies and the like…

    …so what?

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