UW-Madison offers new course on social genomics

The human genome is like a blueprint which lays out how each of us are built, how we function in society and sometimes even how we die. The rapidly-expanding field of genetics encompasses everything, from the nucleotides that write the code to the way we treat one another.

Social genomics is a new field that merges sociology with genetics. It asks how our genes affect our functions in society. Social genomics is a topic of interest to Jason Fletcher, professor of public affairs and sociology in the La Follette School of Public Affairs at UW-Madison. He will be teaching a sociology class on this topic this fall, called Molecular Me: Social Implications of the Genetic Revolution.

A significant number of people who haven’t had much experience with genetics are fearful as the field expands rapidly. One of their main concerns is eugenics. The idea that genomics may change a person’s race was severely perverted by Nazis in World War II. Learning more about social genomics is important to avoiding these atrocities in the future.

“Race doesn’t capture genetic differences very well at all. The mechanism of discrimination isn’t directly genetic; it is completely human and made up,” Fletcher said. “People are very reasonably scared, but one of the main ways to combat it is to get educated,” Fletcher added.

Getting educated about social genomics can help the public understand how sociology is impacted by genetics in the past, today and in the future. Fletcher’s course, Molecular Me: Social Implications of the Genetic Revolution, aims to give students a well-rounded education in sociology with a genetic twist.

The influence of social genomics is far-reaching. Education itself could be drastically changed by applying social genomics. For example, personalized education isn’t far off, where the educational needs of the individual are tailored for them at a very young age.

“Maybe we find an early diagnostic tool in the genome for diseases like dyslexia, autism or ADHD. They would be able to be uncovered genetically very early in the person’s life. So there’s some possibility that as the genetic tools of prediction get stronger, we could provide additional resources for people who have those disorders at a much earlier age,” Fletcher said.

The plausibility of personalized education programs are increasing rapidly. Along with it, there may be a rising need for people to address any issues that may arise because of these programs. In order to be equipped to deal with potential issues, these pioneering sociologists and policy makers will need to be educated in the field of social genomics.

“Genetic information is not a deterministic factor, just a predictor. ADHD and autism, for example, are not single gene mutations. You’re going to miss some cases and misdiagnose some. So we need the policy makers to consider this when making decisions about implementation,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher’s unique course will help prepare future policy makers for such circumstances, when genetic information alone isn’t sufficient. A basic understanding of genetics and how it plays into policy will be essential for well-informed decisions in the near future.

“It could be that only kids of wealthy parents are able to take advantage of those kinds of tests. Maybe it’s mostly wealthy families or schools that can pay, which would increase stratification because low-income children wouldn’t have access to those resources,” Fletcher said.

It is imperative that the next generation of social workers, childcare specialists and teachers are cognizant and informed on the issues that may arise due to personalized education. This will allow them to advocate for people in situations like the one Fletcher described.

Environmental factors are also becoming more and more important in genetics, and the total merger between the environment a person is raised in and their genome is very near. Epigenetics looks deeply into how a person’s environment affects who they are and what they pass on.

“Epigenetics really brings back the environment to be central. It plays a major role. Anything from nutrition or stress could be flipping switches that turn up and down our genes,” Fletcher said.

The epigenome controls how your genes are expressed and when. That means they can change minute to minute and are dependent on a person’s circumstances. Examples of this can be found in acquired traits that famine survivors passed down to their grandchildren. Geneticists and biologists will need to keep in mind epigenetics and sociological differences when researching, because the synergism of sociology and genetics is becoming increasingly evident.

Another trend on the rise today is genetics in social media. Fletcher isn’t concerned with sharing his genetic information with sites like 23andMe which can become public. In fact, he predicts that a dating site based partially on genetic traits is coming sooner than we think. Non-private DNA seems to be around the corner.

“I’m less concerned with confidentiality-—it’s like how a lot of people use social media, which definitely isn’t private. Same thing for DNA companies; it’s not private. I think there’s a big chance of a data hack on these companies. Where you’d be worried is if you had genetic traits that increase your chance for disease,” said Fletcher.

The advent of non-private DNA will raise some important legal issues. Will people be able to access DNA from their partners or spouses to learn what diseases they are predisposed to? Will people be obligated to know if they themselves carry certain genetic traits that predispose them to a disease? Lawyers may have an increase of cases like these in future, making an understanding of social genomics ever more important to strengthen their ability to serve the public. An education in social genomics will be vital to almost everyone in the next generation of the workforce.

If students are interested in enrolling in Jason Fletcher’s social genomics course, search “Soc 496” on the course guide in MyUW for the Fall 2017 term. It is an advanced level special topics sociology course and is L&S credit type C.

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