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Genetic Testing to Behavioral Predestination: Can Neuroscience Predict Lifetime Outcomes?

So now genetic testing has become de rigueur amongst the jet set, the biological equivalent of Google Glass. As well it might be since Google has invested in this area also (is there anything that Google hasn’t invested in?). What does this mean for everyone else?

Well there was a time there when it looked like once you could read the human genome, you could predict exactly what would happen to everyone in their lifetime, from a health perspective at least. But then science reared its ugly head again and we discovered that there is a thing called epigenetics (see my recent post on one aspect Did You Inherit Your Management Style from Your Parents? The Epigenetics of Leadership).

What epigenetics tells us is that your DNA isn’t quite as important as we all think. Even the Feds don’t believe it anymore and are going after some of the more exaggerated claims of the genetic testing companies. But don’t worry, paternity testing is still safe.

But that doesn’t mean prediction of lifetime health outcomes is dead. It just means that it’s more complicated to do it than we thought because now we have to consider epigenetic changes in the mix. But in principle it’s still feasible and with the stunning advances in genetic technology we might be getting uncomfortably close to it. How close is reflected in the fact that the FDA is getting close to introducing regulations into the whole area.

So some of this is actually ancient history by now. Here’s where I am going with this. Since in principle we seem to heading in the direction of accurate prediction of lifetime health outcomes, is there another new frontier opening up? To wit; can new advances in neuroscience, behavioral science and cognitive biases allow accurate prediction of lifetime personal and professional outcomes?

I guess you could legitimately have a very big “wow” reaction to that question. On many fronts. First, is it possible even in principle? And in the (unlikely?) event that it was, wouldn’t that be the most dangerous thing a society could even do? To predict what a person’s life would entail? Eugenics on steroids. What are the ethics of trying to change these outcomes? Who is allowed to have this information? And so on.

Before we go on, what do I mean by "lifetime outcomes"? Of course, I am not talking about the precise events that would occur in a specific person’s life, just about the types of events. Will they get married or not? What type of job will they get? Will they keep it? Will they be successful, professionally and personally? All big issues to be sure, even if not precisely tied to particular events.

First let’s look at the question of whether it’s even possible to predict lifetime personal and professional outcomes in principle. What’s the argument for that anyway?

Well first we are making big strides in neuroscience and in being able to tie neurology to behavior using techniques such as MRI and various types of implants. Second we can link specific genes to particular types of behavior and lifetime outcomes other than health outcomes, e.g. for predicting risky behaviors. Third there’s a huge amount of research into cognitive biases and their impacts on behavior and behavioral outcomes.

So the platform for developing operational models of behavioral predestination is under construction. This would develop a framework that involves the hardware, the software and the wetware of the brain that we need to understand to be able to go to the full prediction phase.

Of course that’s still a big leap away from actually being able to predict lifetime outcomes. There’s a pretty big obstacle in the way. That is, that we don’t even know how the brain works right now.

It’s clear that the idea that the brain is just a collection of neurons working electrically is grossly over-simplified. But there’s a lot of work going on there too with big science brain projects both in the US (courtesy of President Obama) and in Europe. So while we are a ways away, there’s progress afoot.

But there’s a pretty reasonable argument that you don’t have to understand exactly how the brain works in order to predict lifetime outcomes. As long as you understand inputs and outputs, you can treat it as a black box.

There are even some advantages in utilizing this route. You don’t have to get involved in the messy details of brain structure to understand what the brain is actually doing. So as long as you do the right experiments in a rigorous enough manner, you can link inputs and outputs to get a working model of lifetime outcomes as they link to genetics and cognitive biases.

Yeah, I do understand what some people would see as the pejorative implications of predestination as well as the possibly (very) unpleasant ethical issues involved. But we can’t just stick out heads in the sand.

Like it or not, all the areas of research I mention above are active right now in numerous university and corporate laboratories across the world, not to mention in the military and intelligence areas of numerous countries. Some of the latter might not have the benign motivations we would all prefer in getting involved in these areas. No doubt some of the military and governmental backers would see this blog post as being tame, not remotely addressing the really scary issues which could just possibly be occupying their minds.

Right now behavioral predestination is on the global agenda, unwritten or otherwise, of many people. We have to wake up and smell the coffee.





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