Preceding the performance of Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Lyceum Theatre on the evening of 12th April, writer and presenter Simon Watt interviewed noted biologist Steve Jones at an event titled Nature, Nurture or Neither? Both events part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, the play focuses on the ethics of cloning, Watt opening the discussion by prompting Jones to talk about his own more commonplace experience of the phenomenon.
“My mother was a clone. She’s an identical twin. People tend to forget that.” Pointing out that Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin and noted scientist in his own right, had called twins “nature’s experiments,” Jones said that as a young child he had been unable to tell his mother and his aunt apart and that this perhaps prompted his interest in genetics.
Having studied at the University of Edinburgh himself and researched his PhD in Fife, examining the shells of thousands of snails, Jones considered the connections of Edinburgh to cloning and the media’s lack of understanding of science, recalling the unexpected announcement of the creation of the cloned sheep Dolly and the call he received from the editor of Radio 4’s Today show asking whether he felt it was worth including in the programme, Jones responding that the development was so significant that it should be their lead story.
Admitting that in the long run the impact of that advance has been less than anticipated, he said that human cloning was “a long way away, and I can’t see the point. If you want your child to be a clone, send them to Eton.”
The play first performed fifteen years ago and inspired by the Human Genome Project, predicted to have great effects on the human race, it has not as yet although the estimated cost of a full sequence has dropped from $100,000 to $1,000, and within another five years it should be around $100 which is when large numbers of people will be sequenced routinely and the volume of data will begin to become relevant.
A Fellow of the Royal Society, Jones commented that on average everyone carries three or four faulty genes which would lead to fatal conditions, though only one copy, the healthy parallel gene keeping them safe, but a concern within small communities where children could potentially inherit two damaged copies, though in real terms the age of the mother has a more significant impact than “marrying your cousin,” traditionally frowned upon even before the genetic reasons were understood. “In Britain there are now more woman over forty having babies than women under twenty having babies. This is something new.”
Asked about the fact that the DNA of tomatoes and cabbages has more genes than that of humans, Jones said “Every time I eat a tomato I wonder if I should be doing this or if it should be the other way around,” before moving onto the “young science” of epigenetics, the theory that the experiences in a lifetime can effect which genes are switched on or off, potentially carrying forward into later generations.
With Jones himself having been taught by the man who coined the term epigenetics, he agreed that it was known that environmental stress such as hunger and conditions such as depression can affect gene expression but while it could be carried forward in plants such as tobacco and animals with fast reproductive cycles such as mice it had not conclusively been demonstrated in humans, though there are indications it may be so.
Thankful that the epidemic of smoking now seems to be lessening, Jones’ concern was with the coming epidemic of obesity stating that that with the poor quality of food consumed by the masses for the first time in history “the rich are thin and the poor are fat.” Calling Britain “the fattest country in Europe,” Jones remains concerned that the full effects of this have not yet been felt.
An entertaining and wide ranging talk, the subject of grammar schools came up which Jones was dismissive of, particularly in the way they segregate society, he and his own brother having very different courses through life because of the results of their “eleven plus” exam which he passed and his brother failed, one going on to university and the other denied the chance and becoming a bricklayer.
Saying that inheritability of intelligence is 90% how a child is raised and 10% genes, Jones felt that the child which already has the advantages is then further advantaged with preferential schooling, while a greater difference could be made by concentrating resources on those who are seen as less able. Similarly, certain individuals will have combinations of genes which with proper training will allow them to excel in sports beyond their peers, regardless of how much effort those less genetically gifted.
A specific difference in expression of genes which Jones spoke about is that of the X and Y chromosomes, with men far more willing to indulge in risky, even dangerous behaviour, more likely to die in an accident and three times more likely to be murdered than a woman and ten times more likely to commit murder than a woman; even taking into account the overpowering environmental factors this remains true, with the murder rate a hundred times higher in Honduras than Singapore, but men ten times as likely to be the perpetrator in both places.
The subject of the recently released film Mad to be Normal starring David Tennant, Jones shared an anecdote about the Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing, whom he met at a party along the road at a flat in Lauriston when Laing downed a whole bottle of whisky and promptly threw up – on Jones.
A controversial figure throughout his career, he described Laing as “one of the school who believed that schizophrenia was the result of bad parenting rather than a variety of factors including genetic factors,” and felt this misguided belief from Laing and others had caused much misdiagnosis and damage to patients and their families, and that modern approaches using large amounts of data such as the Human Genome Project would speed the process of correctly diagnosing individuals with others showing similar markings allowing swifter targeted medication rather than trying different approaches and hoping for success.