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Book Review: Here is a Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics by Misha Angrist

Review by Tina Hesman Saey

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Genetics isn’t just a dry, academic pursuit — it’s getting personal. In Here is a Human Being, Angrist, a geneticist, introduces people who have already started living in what he calls the DNA Age. They include Angrist himself, who is one of 10 volunteers in a Harvard project that will publicly post participants’ DNA blueprints online along with personal information such as medical records, personality traits and pictures.

The title suggests an exploration of Angrist’s genome, but in fact, the book is just as much about the pioneers of personal genomics. Angrist covers the rise and decline of genetic-testing companies and the technology that makes knowing your own genetic makeup possible. He also explores the privacy concerns and other ethical questions that arise whenever DNA comes into the equation.

The book’s tone is conversational. Angrist is funny, irreverent, sometimes profane, and right on the money, such as when he discusses the impolitic remarks of James Watson, codiscoverer of the structure of DNA. “One wants to kick him under the table or pull him aside and say, ‘Dude. Stop.’ ”

Although Angrist is dedicated to sharing his DNA openly so that people will realize that “we are not our genes,” he admits feeling angst when he first saw his genetic information. He was relieved that he does not carry a potent risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, but a bit disconcerted by his higher-than-average risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Since this book was finished, hundreds more complete genomes have been announced. As the DNA Age comes fully mature, the rest of humankind will have Angrist and his fellow pioneers to thank for helping make sense of it all. 

Harper, 2010, 352 p., $26.99.

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