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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Twisted helix of a problem

Parents, educators and genetics-responsibility organizations from across the political spectrum have their genes in a twist about a new program at the University of California-Berkeley. But far more important than the conspiratorial possibilities surrounding genetic information is this question: In order to consider an issue, must one be personally involved?

At the University of California-Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science, coordinators of the On The Same Page Program are requesting a cheek swab from consenting incoming freshmen. The program, whose mission is to “”give new students in the College of Letters and Science something to talk about,”” plans to analyze the samples for three genes related to how the body breaks down lactose, alcohol and vitamin B6. The college says it hopes the request will help students be more engaged in the program’s theme of personalized medicine by giving them a personal investment in the issue.

While these incoming college freshmen will certainly find out how their bodies handle alcohol soon enough by more traditional means, the other buzz surrounding this program is criticism from groups who are concerned about its implications. Numerous advocates for genetics responsibility and privacy are calling for the school to abandon the program.

The Center for Genetics and Society, an advocacy organization based in Berkeley which works to “”encourage responsible uses and effective societal governance of human genetic and reproductive biotechnologies,”” wrote in a press release: “”Many doctors, bioethicists, and public interest advocates caution that genetic information should be collected and interpreted in a medical setting in order to avoid situations in which results encourage either overly alarmist or overly complacent reactions … (we) are also concerned that direct-to-consumer genetic tests can exaggerate the importance of genes to behaviors and traits that are importantly shaped by social and environmental factors.””

Despite criticism, the college plans to continue with the program. Mark Sclissel, dean of biological sciences in the College of Letters and Science, said in an e-mail: “”What happened more broadly in the media is what I was hoping would happen on campus this fall — this only adds to it.”” Michael Eisen, an associate professor of molecular and cellular biology, defended the program less delicately on The Berkeley blog: “”I think it’s a great idea. There’s nothing like giving students a personal stake to get them interested in a topic. … Apparently these guys need to be reminded that a university is a place where we teach students how to think about things. And we’re actually quite good at it.””

There is no reason to collect this genetic information. It will not help students “”learn how to think.”” One of the main purposes of a liberal arts education is to teach students how to thoughtfully consider numerous issues in which they have no vested interest. To go through the complicated, lengthy and expensive process of analyzing this genetic material just to “”give students something to talk about”” is wasteful and insults the intellectual capabilities of these students. Though UC-Berkeley did not release information on the cost of each test or who will be administering them, the U.S. National Library of Medicine lists the cost for genetics testing to be between $100 and $2,000 per sample.

In the past, this same program has asked students to read books by authors such as Michael Pollan and Stephen Hawking in order to generate discussion. The switch from a scholarly pursuit that requires effort and critical thinking to a pursuit that requires less effort and skill than brushing one’s teeth is not progress. But as this author’s genetics remain untested, at least according to Berkeley, a thoughtful consideration of the issue remains impossible.

— Anna Swenson is a junior majoring in English.

She also writes for The Desert Lamp. She can be

reached at

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