Mike McNamee - Sporting genes

The latest tests promise to tell parents whether their kid is cut out for certain sports and activities. But are they worth it?
10 October 2016

Interview with 

Mike McNamee, University of Swansea


Most of us have probably wondered at some point what our kids might be like - whether we want to actually have them or not. But could a genetic test predict their ability on the football pitch, in the art room or in the orchestra? The latest direct-to-consumer kits promise to tell eager parents whether their kid is cut out for certain sports and activities. But, according to Mike McNamee, Professor of applied ethics at Swansea University, they're wasting their money. Kat Arney spoke to him at the recent British Science festival, also in Swansea, to find out why...

Mike - Well, they make a number of claims but I think essentially they come down to this: that we can identify the predispositions of your child towards certain kinds of athletic activities. It's my belief and those of my scientific colleagues that they're predicated on an evidence base that's nowhere near robust enough in order to make those kinds of claims.

Kat - What sort of traits are they looking at to make these claims? What sort of things are they analysing for?

Mike - Well, they're looking for genes which predispose people for example to endurance activities. So they would hope to predict the volume of oxygen uptake or for example, a gene which has been associated with speed and power, ACTN3. But I think in each of these cases, one might query what the precise relationship is between forms of gene expression and the activities to which they're supposed to be predisposed. So, take sprinting. ACTN3 is the gene that's talked about as a gene for speed. But certainly, there's a world famous case of a Spanish world class long jumper who did not express the gene ACTN3. So, can it be a necessary precursor to sprint based activities? It seems not. But even if you do have that gene and lots of us might express it, being a world class sprinter requires a million other things. So, do you have the motivation, dedication, the commitment?

Kat - Do you like sprinting?

Mike - Actually, I chose that one because I think people would say, there is more robust evidence for the association between that gene and the output in terms of the athletic activity. For the others, here's a case of a world class distance runner who had like a 28 per cent output versus 72 per cent output for sprinting activities. So, let's say I was the parent of said world class world record holding distance runner. I'd take my child along to do this genetic test and say, "Okay, sprinting is the future for you. The world would be without this world record if that were the case, in long distance running." So, one has to be careful generating dialogue and discussion from a single case but this is a profoundly damming case offered up by the direct to consumer genetic company themselves.

Kat - How much do these tests cost? And if they can't really tell us that much, it doesn't seem like they're terribly good value.

Mike - Well of course, it's a market. In a market, there are lots of different operators. Certainly the one that I've just shown on the slide there was 100 bucks. That strikes me as an awful lot of money to get something, the results of which are not desperately robust or precise. So if you have a 100 bucks to spare and you wish to do it, that's absolutely fine. I myself, wouldn't.

Kat - There are direct to consumer genetic tests that can tell you about all sorts of things - your risks of different kind of diseases, your ancestry. There are some tests that are now talking about traits like which sport you should do. How do people kind of find their way through this and work out, "is any of this worth doing? What can I get that's actually telling me useful information and what is kind of genetic astrology?"

Mike - Just stepping back for a minute and thinking as a philosopher as it were, the idea that complex human activities are in some way reducible to some particular genetic makeup strikes me as fallacious. To excel in any human activity and let's just think whether it's painting, art, sprinting, whatever, requires such a combination of human characteristics and traits that it strikes me as preposterous that one could reduce these to single genetic expression markers or whatever. So for me, they're an interesting aside. I think any geneticist or sport scientist working within genetics would say for example if you want to be a sprinter, "have a look at the kid and see how they run. You'll get more information from that than you're going to get from the test of one of these swabs?"

Kat - Who are these tests aimed at? Why would someone want to find out these things about a child?

Mike - One might have an idea that one wants the best kind of possible future for one's child. But that's a very, very abstract concept. Moreover, Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher wrote, "life can only be understood looking backward. The trouble is, you've got to live it forward." How do we know what our children for example would be best suited to until we know what kind of people they are? It's a complex one, isn't it? Because the choices we make early on in life as parents will help to shape a child's future. In that shaping, will open up certain possibilities, will foreclose others. My big worry about these tests is that people will think they have a greater precision and reliability and therefore power, and use them to shape children's lives at such a young age in a naïve belief about early specialisation in its powers that they may have foreclosed all sorts of possibilities that would've made that child's full and meaningful and valuable. And so, the idea of a right to an open future, although it's a liberal idea - you know, there may be other kinds of communities and social forms of organisations in which this doesn't have such a space - but it has a really widely applicable, acceptable, wise - I want to say - fulcrum. That is, don't foreclose opportunities too early. Have a chance to explore not merely what a child is capable of being good at but what they enjoy, what gives meaning to them? And that may well be partly a social kind of thing. What do their friends do? Who are their parents? What were their families doing? In which part of country do they live? I mean, what's the point for being predisposed to be a great skier - whatever that might mean - if you live a million miles from a mountain? So, the idea of these rather complex decisions being somehow tracked back to or reducible to certain genetic markers or predispositions strikes me as a folly.

Kat - Obviously, with something like sport or even art, or music, the instrument you play or the kind of art that you like or the kind of sport that you like, as you say, there's many more factors in it. Are your mates doing it? Is there a running track or a rowing lake near your school? Are there any kind of things we can predict from the genes or should we just let kids try out stuff to see what they're like?

Mike - The latter would be the case for me, but I would want to make the following kind of distinction that the possibilities of finding genetic precursors to certain kinds of clinical conditions, that might be a much richer possibility for these tests. It may be the case that there are some conditions which have so strong a genetic component that we are much more confident about identifying those at an early stage and at least having the opportunity to intervene. Now, it might be the case that you might find the genetic predisposition to a particular condition and not want to intervene. It doesn't follow from any particular genetic test that you must do X, Y, or Z. That will be a human and an ethical choice based upon particular sets of circumstances. One family might choose for example that they did not want to have a child with a particular disabling condition. Another might say, "We don't have a problem with that." So, even when tests are reasonably reliable and valid, there is always a kind of human choice and very often, that test must coincide with some kind of genetic counselling which advices the people making decisions whether it's parents or the individual themselves, as to how best interpret this data in the round.

Kat - In some ways, maybe having a thing on a piece of paper that says, "Go this way. Don't go that way." It's kind of a direction in life rather than this, "Oh my goodness! What do we do? Where do we send you?"

Mike - Well, it would be for people who don't like thinking for themselves. Being a philosopher I'm rather against that kind of predisposition but yeah, I suppose that's part of it, the idea that we can go to some kind of technique or technological expertise which will make the decision for us. That will be attractive to a good group of people. That kind of disposition has to be understood against a much broader canvas about the role of technology in our society, about how we use technology to kind of shape our futures in a way that we think will have greater control. Human life is contingent at its core though. I suspect that that's the kind of sobering one liner for any company that wants to sell their genetic technologies.

Kat - Mike McNamee from Swansea University, speaking to me at the British Science Festival.


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