Christine Kenneally is an award-winning journalist and author who has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate, Time, New Scientist, The Monthly, and other publications. Her books, The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures and The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, are published by Viking Penguin. Before becoming a reporter, she received a Ph.D. in linguistics from Cambridge University and a B.A. (Hons) in English and Linguistics from Melbourne University. She was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, and has lived in England, Iowa, and Brooklyn, New York (ckenneally at ckenneally dot com). She is currently a contributing editor for Buzzfeed News. [Bio courtesy of christinekenneally.com]
Dr. Kenneally will be delivering the keynote address at this year’s CEHG Symposium on Monday, February 29th at 10:40am in Paul Brest Hall (on Stanford campus). Registration is currently full, waitlist is open. In honor of her visit, 50 copies of her 2014 book, The Invisible History of the Human Race, will be presented to the first 50 registrants to arrive at the check-in table Monday morning. Check-in opens at 8am and Dr. Kenneally’s talk is at 10:40am, so set your alarms and get your morning cup of coffee at CEHG16!
The Invisible History of the Human Race, you write “although we have debated for years about the ways in which DNA shapes society…it is far more obviously the case that society shapes DNA.” As a brief introduction to your book and your keynote, can you mention a few of the ways society informs and shapes our genetic biology?
For all of human history, we have shaped the DNA of our descendants by mingling it with someone else’s and passing it on. Now we read the history of the human world in what has come down to us. The choices that were made about who to mingle with—whether it was in our own village, or with the next one, or across the seas, through the mountains and down on the beach—are still there in our genome. Sometimes that shaping was not by choice. We see this when an invading group, like Genghis Kahn and his horde, leave their Y-chromosome in the genome of different local populations. Over time, we have come up with more and more ways to shape DNA—contraception, particularly the birth control pill, stops DNA from getting passed on. IVF technologies facilitate it. Any kind of life-saving medical treatment—vaccines, surgery, drugs—that allows someone to grow up and reproduce impacts the human genome. Now with the advent of CRISPR, we are about to start shaping the DNA of individuals more directly.
Have the past 15 years of genetic research changed public perception of the difference between the visible and invisible components of human variation? Why or why not?
Very much so. We’ve moved from conversations about which single gene explains which single trait to conversations about the complex interactions within a genome: from the idea that Neanderthals were a sub-species to the knowledge that many of us carry a legacy from our Neanderthals ancestors—and that different groups across the world carry different amounts of that legacy; from the idea that all the Celts were one wild hoary bunch of genetically similar individuals to realizing that there were different Celtic groups. All of these conversations shift how people understand an idea like race. It becomes increasingly impossible to hold in one’s head the notion that a discrete part of our genome underlies our “race” when we see how genetics really works.
The 1960s and 1970s saw an emphasis on genetic determination of traits like intelligence, based on twin studies, for example. Are we in danger of a return to this deterministic view of such traits? Why or why not?
I don’t think we will go back to a place where we look to genetics to fully explain traits like intelligence. We know, first of all, that intelligence is a complicated, high level trait. It’s likely to emerge out of genetic and environmental factors, and each of those is likely to be extremely complex. On the environmental side, there are developmental considerations. Trauma and nutrition may impact not just the well-being of an individual but the way their genes are expressed. Any real measure of intelligence would have to take this into account. There’s also the real-time impact of social injustice. We know that performance on tests may be affected when the test-taker’s gender or race is explicitly commented on by the test-giver. The purely genetic side of the equation looks just as complicated. Think about something like autism which affects people across a broad spectrum. Some autism is associated with de-novo mutations, some by inherited alleles, and all kinds of autism are thought to be affected by small variation across many regions of the genome. It’s hard to imagine with all we know now that intelligence won’t ultimately be explained in a similar way.
Since your book came out, the world has been awash in “gene editing”. How should social science approach the inevitable refinement of such techniques?
With great excitement, great caution, and a tiny bit of terror.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? You reference your two children in your book. Has becoming a parent changed your process or the way you approach or view writing in general? Do you have advice for parents in the audience who may be struggling to balance writing and childcare?
I’m really happy to talk about my job and children—I love both of these things and working out how to give my best to each is an ever-shifting challenge. I know some people get upset that it is usually working mothers who are asked this question but I don’t think the solution is to stop asking the question. Rather, we should ask working fathers how they do it, too. My main advice on balance is hang in there. Your writing will pass through many stages, as will your parenting, some times are harder than others, but eventually, usually, slowly, it gets better. If that’s a bit too Zen, then try this, if you are freelance, work outside the house whenever you can. Now, I find that some of my most thrilling moments as a parent come from when my children and my job intersect, when I take my children on a reporting trip and we explore the world together, when I get to tell them about what I’m learning for the first time, and when sometimes I come back from a trip and tell them a story and I later hear from one of their teachers that it found its way into their writing at school.
CEHG is an interdisciplinary research center, working at the intersections of many fields of study, including (to name just a few) genetics, biology and evolution, ecology, medicine, computer science, and mathematics. Your writing is also located at a key intersection (or set of intersections), between the sciences and the humanities. Can you speak a bit on the ways you see these two seemingly disparate schools working together in your writing? (I am especially fascinated by the role of moving personal narratives in your book and the way they flow seamlessly into scientific histories and theory).
For me, the most interesting stuff in academia comes from the intersections. Researchers who go outside the silos in which they were trained can see from the outside what assumptions they are influenced by and where they come from. I feel very strongly that news of all the thrilling discoveries being made in genetics today should be available to everyone, and the only way that’s going to happen for many people is if the findings are part of a story (usually the domain of the humanities not the sciences).
Do you think we need more writers and researchers bridging the seeming divide between the sciences and the humanities (or even the arts)? Why or why not?
Yes, I would love to see more bridges between sciences and the humanities. A few decades ago the schism between the two was a subject people were publicly quite upset about, but now a despondency seems to have settled over the divide. Perhaps we should have some knock-down, drag-out debates to light that fire again. Make scientists and humanities scholars say what they really think: Seriously, what do the humanities give us? When was the last time a philosopher of ethics actually saved a human life? What use is science if it’s primarily funded by industry? Do scientists have any training about how much capitalism can distort democracy? Once the dust has settled and the dross arguments on both sides have been finally dispensed with, we might be able to see more clearly where the bridges can be built.
How can we scientists work, in our writing, to both inform our readers and enthrall them? Do you think it is important we strive to do both? Why or why not? [click here for video of enthralling nonfiction panel discussion]
Many scientists don’t have the time or the inclination to write, they just want to get on with their research, and I would never suggest they do otherwise. Still, it’s wonderful when any scientist writes a book or an article or even gives a quote that helps thrill and educate people. There is a lot of shared space among young scientists and science writers these days. Many scientists are blogging, tweeting and talking among themselves on social media. A lot of this is rich and fun. I really enjoy tweets from @jillpruetz and @Jamie_Woodward_ (The Ice Age). But there are dangers here, too. I often come across blogs and tweets from PhD scientists about bad science journalism that say something like this: “All science journalists generalize.”
On STEM diversity:
CEHG’s new outreach program is committed to doing our part to increase diversity among students and professionals studying and working in STEM fields. We are currently working with a group of undergraduate coordinators to bring Expanding Your Horizons, a one-day STEM conference for local middle-school girls, to Stanford in January 2017. As a woman who has found professional success writing, in part, on science topics, do you have advice or words of encouragement for girls and women who are considering (traditional or non-traditional) careers in STEM fields?
I think you should kick off the event by reviewing a few recent papers about how real and persistent sexism is, like this paper about female co-authors of economic papers being given less credit than their male co-authors or this study reported in The Washington Post that showed many male undergraduates assume their fellow male students know more than female students, even when the female students have higher grades.
Then I think you should get the middle-school girls to stand up and together say: “This is fucking ridiculous.” I believe in the curative power of cursing, especially for young women.
When they go back to their schools, the girls should share the studies with all their male friends—all those sons of mothers like me. Then they should all stand and repeat. If they do it often enough, I think they’ll find a way to fix the mess themselves.
It may help, in the meantime, to point towards pioneering young women who are changing the world just by doing what interests them. I recently read about the extraordinary Limor Fried, founder of Adafruit Industries. She is super smart, she understands electronics, she has pink hair, and she started an amazing company.
When I was in middle-school, there was no one like that to look up to. The only woman I can remember from high school science was Marie Curie, and even then, she did not seem like an interesting human being. No one asked me to think about what it must have felt like to be her, to blow off tradition and follow her hunch, no one told me how thrilling it would have been for her to develop her own ideas and test them in the real world, to hell with the cost.