xrematon

September 22, 2019

Making it big

How do you view the world and which criteria do you use to determine who is ‘top dog’? If you focus on landmass, then Russia does pretty well; if you look at GDP, it’s the US that comes out as number one; taking population brings China to the fore; and so on.

And then if we think about how these countries got there, it changes the picture yet again. I like thinking in terms of systems and stories, but having just read Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall, I have understood there is another way to frame country narratives. And thinking about things in this way has made some current dynamics clearer/easier to comprehend.

This is best exemplified by focussing on Africa. Over the years, this continent is subject to great paeans about its future potential (as yet unrealised) but which are now ‘almost there’. Why is this?

Well, it’s worth remembering that Africa actually has a head start – it’s where Home Sapiens originated 200,000 years ago. Though Africa is a great place overall and in terms of the specific regions within it (which contain a huge amount of diversity across many different dimensions), what they have in common is isolation: isolation from each other as well as from the outside world. This is significant as this stops the all-important flow of ideas that drive progress.

Let’s come in a little closer. There is the Sahel which cuts across the top third of the country, and whilst the north, in particular those places with access to the Mediterranean and technologies, agriculture innovation and trade from Europe, managed to develop and change , below the Sahel, it’s quite different. Here, there are few plants willing to be domesticated, and animals even less so. Much of the land is jungle, swamp, desert or steep-sided plateau, none of which is good for growing crops or grazing for easy livestock, such as sheep. There is a good quote from Jared Diamond which reinforces this point: “History might have turned out differently if African armies, fed by barnyard-giraffe meat and backed by waves of cavalry mounted on huge rhinos, had swept into Europe to overrun its mutton-fed soldiers mounted on puny horses.”

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And then there is challenge of getting goods in and out. Africa has lots of rivers, but they aren’t much use in this regard as they begin in high land and descent in abrupt drops which thwarts navigation. Going to the sea doesn’t improve the situation much: there are few natural harbours – the coast line across much of Africa is too smooth (where can ships aggregate safely together if that is the case?) and around the beaches the water is too shallow.

However, perhaps some of the ‘challenges’ can now come into their own as the means by which we rely on sharing ideas and goods have changed. For example, those same rivers that hampered trade are now being harnessed for hydro-electric power. That’s one bright spot in the prison of geography. Let’s see how long it takes for more to make a real difference.

 

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August 26, 2019

Choice or no choice – which path to take to make all the difference?

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I think we are used to the idea – in fact take it for granted – that we can make choices across many different aspects of our life, going from the routine, such as choice of breakfast cereal, to the more significant, such as choice of school or doctor.

In an earlier journal entry, I highlighted the extent of choice now available in the world of pensions. And what I wanted to emphasise was that this choice is full of complexity and very hard to navigate. There is, in fact, an argument for saying that, in certain situations, individuals and/or society might be better off if choice was removed and the default made the only option.

In the world of sustainability, which is another area full of difficult choices hard for the layman to accurately evaluate in terms of what is best for them or the planet, similar dynamics are at play. In some cases, it is ‘better’ all round to take choice away and put the ‘best option’ as the default. Free-range eggs are now sold in greater volumes than cage-farmed ones in the UK, in large part because major players, from retailers, such as Sainsburys, to food service operators and manufacturers, for example Hellmann’s mayonnaise from Unilever to MacDonalds, have gone free-range, reducing demand for caged eggs.

In pensions, both the share and absolute number of people saving into a pension has increased massively. This is not to do with more choice but a default option being brought in – namely auto-enrolment. And now there are plans to introduce ‘choice reduction’ in other elements of the retirement journey. As part of a recent extensive review of retirement outcomes, the FCA proposed that pension providers offer non-advised customers a choice of four investment pathways to best meet their retirement objectives – much simpler than having to work out if/how much money to take out now or later and what/how to save for later.

In other tricky markets, such as energy and other utilities where consumers can switch and choose but often don’t, other developments are afoot. In October 2018, Ofgem announced that it would be introducing price caps. This has meant that suppliers have to cut their prices to the level of or below the cap, forcing them to scrap excess charges for people on poor value default deals. https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/publications-and-updates/ofgem-proposes-price-cap-give-11-million-customers-fairer-deal-their-energy

In the face of increasing use of defaults and market intervention, strengthening the paternalistic perspective (‘we know best’), has peak choice had its moment?

 

July 27, 2019

Older and none the wiser

If I mentioned ‘pensions’, it’s likely that your mind will go blank, or you might start thinking about what you will have for lunch/dinner/snack on instead. But even if you try to think about pensions, it’s not clear that you will be able to make much progress. Pensions, over the past decade or so, have really become much more complicated and this means it is hard to keep track of what the situation is. There is complexity across many different dimensions and the overall result is that there are many choices to make and lots of uncertainty implicit within those choices.

Crudely, pensions were about paying money in and then getting a regular set sum back again once you had retired at some point in your early sixties. But this is no longer the case. For a start, you won’t be able to get your State Pension until you are 67 (well, I won’t!). And, as we have all been told many times, you really shouldn’t think that you can rely on the State Pension to survive in old age, unless you are very keen on leading a minimalist lifestyle.

So you need to set something up additional. This is where the questions and uncertainty kick in. You go for some private pension provision and most this is probably done through work – but how do you know what is best? And what if you have changed jobs and have an existing pension with another employer in another scheme? Can you remember who that is with? And should you consolidate them? How do you work out which offers best value? Do you know the charges? What about returns? What about other costs that are hidden away?

And, thinking about this additional pension provision, you won’t get a set amount (a proportion of your final salary) at the end. The times of Defined Benefit pensions are over. I am not going to go into all the background of why (perhaps for another time), but now the majority of schemes set up are Defined Contribution (where you put a set amount in but what you get at the end is far less certain).

And now for more decisions and choices. When you retire, you don’t simply get some money, you need to work out what you will do with the big lump of money you have carefully saved up. Before most people would buy an annuity, which gives someone a guaranteed sum paid out each month. Now you can take a substantial cash sum out in one go, but then again, you need to be careful as you might start paying a lot of tax on that if you take out too much as this is taxable income.

But if you took some out, you don’t want to put it in a bank as it will effectively lose money with interest rates so low. So instead you might decide to do something more sophisticated, such as keep some money invested so that it carries on making better returns, but will your current provider let you do this? And then perhaps you could take a regular small sum from that for current expenses. But do you know how to split up the amount saved – how much to invest and how much to take out?

And then another element to consider is how to get financial security for your final years, for example some kind of annuity. But the challenge here is to second guess when would be the right moment for this, and then what sort of amount would you need to live on? Most people tend to overestimate how much they will need at this stage and die with unspent funds.

I’m just hope that by the time it comes for me to grapple with all this, that the perfect product has been launched and I can live happily after thanks to it.

June 22, 2019

Totemic objects

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Things are never just ‘things’, are they?

There are some objects that manage to transform daily life into something very different to what was happening before they appeared on the scene. Now it would be very tempting to call out the internet here but not only is that not really ‘a thing’ (it’s too big and messy to be that), I am not actually sure it has radically changed my everyday life experience. As someone who grew up with a childhood that was internet-free and only encountered email, web browsers and more in early adulthood, I have to point out that I still seem to be living in a house built with bricks with tiles on the roof, with a car in the drive, a fridge in the kitchen full of the same kind of foods etc. Perhaps I might feel differently in a couple of decades.

No, I was thinking more of the objects found in Tim Harford’s book Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy. The book starts with the plough, which is a particularly striking example of a catalyst for change: as the author claims, it was the plough that kick started civilisation in the first place. The plough made farming much more efficient, thereby freeing up a large proportion of the population to do other activities and specialise in these, whether baking bread, building houses, constructing bridges and roads – in other creating civilisation. In addition, the agricultural abundance that existed as a result (people were no longer foragers living at subsistence levels), meant powerful people could confiscate food and thus reinforce their power. This enabled the rise of kings and soldiers, bureaucrats and priests etc to live off the work of others.

The plough also changed domestic arrangements. Ploughing was awkward and required men’s strength, whilst the wheat and rice grown required more preparation than nuts and berries, which became women’s work at home. And as these women were no longer out and about foraging all day, they were more able to look after little children and thus had more frequent pregnancies. This was supported by the guaranteed good supply of food, helping to increase population size significantly.

And that’s not all – there are other impacts set in play which are perhaps less positive: switching from foraging to eating grain was actually less nutritious and average height dropped, whilst living more closely with many other people increased the chance of disease, parasites and other challenges to good health.

That’s a lot from just a plough.

There are other types of objects which are notable not for what they trigger but for what they represent. This came through very clearly in an interesting piece from Vox on the rise of granny panties and why this happened. It’s about a number of different things: the rejection of hypersexualisation, the rise of female empowerment (you can wear what you want and feel good), the advent of new garment technology permitting seamless underwear, reinvented granny panties can be also folded into the athleisure movement as women now look for comfortable clothes suitable for everything from working in an office to working. It’s about more than ‘just underwear’.

What totemic object would you want to put on a pedestal?

April 23, 2019

The future was present – at the V&A

Was it really? The above is a mangled abbreviation of a quote from sci-fi author William Gibson. The full version (“The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”) is much beloved of people who work in ‘futures thinking’ (I’m avoiding the labels ‘futurists’ and ‘futurologists’).  Occasionally, yes, this statement does come through as a pretty good way of looking at the world.

My latest reinforcement of its validity came when I visited a recent exhibition at the V&A rather impressively titled ‘The Future Starts Here – 100 projects shaping the world of tomorrow’. I record my impressions through a series of observations.

Firstly, I should acknowledge that it was a good excuse to go to the V&A and inspect the new entrance – a rather interesting mixture of textures with different shades of white stone, as well as some fine wood structures (but those was only temporary, I think).

Then there was the descent into the exhibition space itself – a dark area with no natural daylight – is that telling about what is envisioned for the future? But luckily there was lots of lighting and colour to bring out the exhibits around which you gradually wound your way.

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Unsurprisingly, there were the obligatory techie items – robots, AI, smart objects that capture and analysis data – but also, later on, objects which are low-tech versions of the technologies we now have come to rely on – phones and internet access. I applaud a view of the future which sees the need for regression as well as progression in innovation.

There were a fair number of objects which were familiar to me, either the items themselves or the core concepts behind them. Examples include a restaurant setting meant to be inviting to the increasing number likely to be living ‘single’ and thus wanting to be able to eat out alone without feeling uncomfortable. There was also a bottle of Soylent on the table too – not sure about that one.

There was also a special personal cleansing care range, designed in response to the fact we now go to considerable effort to stay very clean and effectively remove all bacteria and dirt from the skin, despite the fact, just like the inside of our bodies, our skin also relies on good bacteria to be healthy. Hence the need for Motherdirect, which uses special bacteria called AOB (Ammonia Oxidizing Bacteria) to help convert the irritating components of sweat and turn them into beneficial byproducts like Nitrite and Nitric Oxide, which help to calm and soothe the skin.

Motherdirt was an item that is already being commercialised. There were some exhibits that have been in existence – conceptually at least – for many years but as a completed project, remain indefinitely in the future. See here a fabulous city – clean and smart – which uses the latest technologies and will be completely powered by the sun, or something like that.

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There were objects that are more about hope than rigorous assessments of what might be possible in the future. In contrast to the shiny technology devices, one case contained the pink ‘pussy hat’ which was developed to make a bold and powerful visual statement of solidarity in support of women’s rights and against Trump, ideally to be worn at the Women’s Marches that have taken place in numerous countries in recent months. Yes, a symbol for hope because Trump is still around and who knows how much has actually changed for women?

My final observation is very simple – I have chosen it to illustrate the fact that looking ahead into the future, we have to recognise that actually lots of how we live we still be very similar. There are certain aspects of everyday living which are remarkably resistant to change, in particular what we eat and drink. There was an exhibit displaying a coffee machine designed by Lavazza to allow people in space to still be able to have a good cup of coffee. Probably quite important actually!

 

March 14, 2019

Data-rich in the analogue world – challenging grey-tinted glasses perspectives on the times gone by

It is all too easy to slip into lazy thinking and simplistically assume that pre-internet, Big Data, cookies, mobile phones and so forth, it was like the Dark Ages and that options in terms of tracking and surveillance were limited. Well, think again. My own such assumptions were challenged from an unlikely source: a detective novel written in 1929 (“The Man in the Queue” by Josephine Tey).

Instead, the enterprising, thoughtful and rather dapper detective (Inspector Alan Grant) was able to get hold of many little elements of data, all of which provided valuable clues. This was possible because he was operating in the smaller scale, slow, pre-globalised and pre-AI world where people still wrote things down by hand and carried out many transactions in person.

Here are some examples to bring life what I mean:

Critical to uncovering to the identity of the murder victim was his tie. As things still got made in the UK at this time, the Inspector and his team went off to the tie manufacturer for some insights. The manufacturer checked their books and found out to which shop this tie with a more unusual design had been sent off. The next stop for the team was the identified department store on Nottingham. The Inspector spoke to the young man who worked on the tie counter, who was able to recall what the gentleman who had bought the tie looked like. There was no need to spool through hours of CCTV footage, hoping to find the right moment, which would have no doubt been caught only in limited grainy detail and at an odd angle. People remember people and, more importantly, are able to describe a person not just in terms of appearance but what ‘they were like’, giving valuable clues as to their character and state of mind.

In the 1930’s there was no digital social media but instead real-life community networks. And this turned out to be very useful for finding out where the suspect might have gone off to hide holed up by their family or friends. One of the Inspector’s team pretended to be a struggling soldier looking for some odd jobs to do in the neighbourhood and deliberately targeted the vicar. It was a smart choice as the vicar’s household knew all about their congregation and their backgrounds – a little flattery to some gossiping servants went a long way. No misleading fake posts here.

Another important point to note is that the analogue world still ‘did’ data but in different forms. Fingers prints abound, used left right and centre, whilst more ingenious and interesting, was making use of the serial numbers on bank notes. The suspect left a significant wedge of cash in their room and the Inspector took these notes to the bank. The bank tellers were able to look back at their ledgers and check who had actually withdrawn this money. This turned out not to be the suspect, thus providing another valuable clue.

But you know what – at the end of the day, none of this data was actually useful and more of a distraction or red herring! The guilty party turned out to be someone not caught up in this trail of records, files, community chat and so forth – but that kind of surprise twist is what you expect from a detective novel. Some things don’t change.

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December 22, 2018

Eating less meat – what could this look like?

At this time of festive overindulgence, perhaps it’s good to think about opting for the opposite – ‘underindulgence’ – in particular the growing momentum around reducing meat consumption.

This is not a new idea but the dynamics swirling around it have changed. Whilst the key motivation when I was growing up was moral and centred around the idea of not wanting to inflict cruelty or be responsible for the death of animals, the environmental rationale for opting for a more vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is now paramount. Fresh evidence appears in the headlines almost daily:

‘Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.’

However, it seems that there are variety of different trajectories a meat-reducing world might go.

Let’s get insects out of the way first. Some people are very excited by the prospect of either making insects themselves palatable or grinding up them up to use as a nutritious flour of some kind. In fact, in November 2018, Sainsbury’s was proud to claim it was the first UK supermarket to stock edible insects, making packets of Eat Grub’s smoky BBQ crunchy roasted crickets available in 250 stores across the country. However, to produce insects at scale and for large swathes of the population to eat them is another matter, There is currently limited experience or knowledge about how to do this or what the impact might be. This is in terms, for example, of allergic reactions, microbial risks or even what welfare standards to apply to rearing arthropod livestock.

Others hope that cutting-edge science will have the answer and give us meat that either is not real meat or else real meat but does not involve rearing and slaughtering livestock as currently takes place.

The former, a meat-like product, is actually quite advanced in some markets, the US in particular. Companies such as Impossible Foods have created ‘foods’ which act like meat in every sense – they look, smell, taste and even bleed like meat – but are in fact newly manufactured foods. In case the case of Impossible Foods, they have created something magical reliant on their star ingredient, leghemoglobin. This ingredient is found naturally in the roots of soy plants and derived in a fermentation process similar to brewing. However, as this is effectively a genetically modified organism which has never been eaten before by humans, Impossible Foods sought approval from the FDA to confirm leghemoglobin was safe to eat and this approval was eventually given. Whatever reservations some might have about the safety of such products and in particular risks of allergic reactions, as well as the resource costs involved, the scale and ambition of Impossible Foods is impressive. Whilst it is easy to pitch non-meat options to affluent, health conscious and well educated individuals, it is a much harder sell to those who don’t have the means (neither the time nor the money) to be so selective and discerning. Impossible Foods has made a start to address this: its burgers are now being sold in the outlets of fast food chain White Castle across the US (albeit priced at one dollar more than their standard burgers).

The other way to get real meat but without all the usual associated negative impacts is to effectively ‘grow’ meat in a lab. This ‘clean meat’ is still at very early stages of development, but already significant progress has been made. Costs have dropped dramatically: from $325,000 for a burger in 2013 to $11 five years later with the potential to go lower. More importantly, clean meat is attracting the interest of investors already big in the meat world. In mid 2018, the American meat giant Tyson Foods announced a multi-million dollar investment in a cellular meat startup. This is a sure sign this kind of meat is to be taken seriously.

However, there are also challenges here, which relate to the fact that currently growing meat in this way relies on animal stem cells which are typically fed with a serum derived from the blood of calf foetuses – in other words, clean meat uses animal products and is not vegan.

Now, for our third meat-free path, let’s go back in time to when this involved going for something that didn’t have any pretense at being meat – a veggie alternative that was clearly veggie. I’m thinking of something like a good old-fashioned nut roast or veggie burger made of beans and the like. From having spoken to colleagues, it seems there has been a shift in expectations between one generation and the next. Some Millennials expect going meat-free to mean having something else that is just like meat, whilst older generations expect meat-free to look ‘veggie’. I wonder how this will pan out and whether there are also comparable regional differences in attitudes.

The final trajectory for meat-free is to put forward to the idea of preparing dishes that are designed to be vegetarian or vegan from the outside. An example here is the cuisine from Asia which makes use of vegetable and vegetable forms of protein such as bean curd, nuts and pulses. This seems like a much simpler path – we use ingredients that have been tried and tested over many generations, with the promise of lots of spice to keep things interesting.

However, no one would try to claim that anything can match up to the smell and taste of a proper bacon sarnie! I wonder if Impossible Foods is working on that.

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September 19, 2018

Change in the financial sector – three observations

Over the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to dabble in numerous projects for FMCG clients. Recently, however, this pattern has shifted and I have worked on several projects in the financial services sector, giving me a chance to engage with the challenges and dynamics impacting this sector.

Across all areas of commercial activity, there is increasing focus on innovation. In mature markets, growth is slow and it seems that the best opportunities to deliver against revenue targets come from not simply tweaking the existing but taking a fresh approach. When it comes to the financial sector, innovation is undeniably taking place, but a lot of this is driven by the external context, rather than established players deciding for themselves to do things differently. How money is managed is changing rapidly – thanks to changes in technology and the accompanying shifts in consumer expectations and habits. What is most interesting of all is the way that this new of ‘doing things’ is most apparent in emerging and developing markets, with mature markets lagging often behind.

Think about mobile money – this initially got going in Kenya. And now look at where the most sophisticated mobile payment ecosystems exist – there are in China. In mature markets, we are hobbled by our legacy systems which make switching to quicker and more convenient processes hard. Moving to contactless payment didn’t require waiting for the technology to be invented (that was around a long while ago); the delay came from having enough retailers who had installed the pay points that could accept this payment method. In emerging markets, it has been possible to build the infrastructure from scratch, using only the latest and best, which can work seamlessly across all types of digital processes and systems.

Mature markets are not only behind the curve in innovation. Some might argue there is a backlash as well as momentum to maintain the status quo. In an article earlier this year, Victoria Cleland, the Bank of England’s chief cashier, mentioned that she does not use contactless payment cards for personal spending – in part because she is yet to trust the technology completely. In Sweden, though the country is making rapid progress towards becoming the world’s first completely cashless society, there are growing concerns it is causing problems for the elderly and other vulnerable groups, as well as recognition that phasing out coins and notes could put the entire country at risk should Sweden encounter a serious crisis or war.

My final observation relates to how our relationship with money, and those organisations whom we talk to about money, is changing in the core fundamentals. In the UK, being able to buy a house is not a realistic aspiration for those in early adulthood. First-time buyers now wait longer – on average, they are seven years older than in 1960, and likely to be in their late thirties. In the face of this situation, some decide they will simply rent. Likewise, buying a car no longer seems such a critical entry milestone to adult life. Instead, there is great aspirational appeal in not being tied down, and instead taking the opportunity to experience life and work in a more flexible manner. I paint an extreme picture but only to bring out what challenges this presents for financial organisations.

If people are no longer buying houses or cars, gone is their opportunity to establish a long-term relationship with customers by providing them a mortgage or loan; if people are not slotting into standard regular jobs, gone is the opportunity to have salaries deposited in a nice and steady manner to build up bank capital; and with a desire to travel and focus on experiences, gone is the need for credit cards and other vehicles to facilitate spending.

It is a world for the brave, with the greatest innovation found not quite where and how you might expect it.

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April 21, 2018

Hairy business

Filed under: Business,Consumer Trends,Futures,Innovation,Marketing,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 10:34 pm
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Over the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to work on projects in the ‘personal care’ category – think all things hair, skin and other forms of beauty care.

Now, my first learning was actually that I had a lot to learn. Unlike food, where I not only have done many pieces of work over the years, but I am also deeply personally engaged given that I generally cook from scratch at least 10 meals a week, for personal care, I have limited exposure. I have bought the same brand of shampoo for the past 25 years and the same brand of facial cream for the past ten, and apart from other bare essentials (toothpaste and deodorant), I’m done. I have in effect opted out of some whole categories – make-up, more sophisticated hair care, treatments and styling and skin care (the latter, I realise now, is a particularly bit gap given that I am of the age when I should spending a good proportion of my disposable income on anti-ageing products. (For the record, I am currently relying on addressing wrinkles from within by eating lots of avocadoes).

But it turns out that personal care is a fascinating category which has some dynamics it shares with food and some which are quite specific to personal care. Let’s start with the similarity:

Personal care and food are both deeply influenced by the local cultural context. How and what we eat will, to a certain extent, vary depending on where we are: in the US, the UK and increasingly Europe, we shop from supermarkets and are happy to a certain amount of ready-made foods, going from dried pasta and bread all the way through to ready meals, and the food we eat will be quite diverse with many non-native items. In other countries, there are often stronger food cultures and more variety within that culture of food, for example think of all the different types of curry in Asia, but curry will still dominant, with fast food nibbling away at the edges.

In personal care too there are culturally-dependent preferences, for example beauty regimes in Asia are more complex and a lot of effort going into achieving fair skin. Interestingly one might argue, that just as with food, there is starting to be some globalisation/less variation across geographies. Think of the impact of social media on the convergence of aspirational aesthetics – everyone wants to look as lovely and beautiful as the Duchess of Cambridge or Meghan Markle etc.

However, there are important differences between the dynamics of food and personal care.

A key one is the direction of influence. In food, though we have ‘hot’ food cuisines, which become trendy for a year or two, for example it was Korean recently, but perhaps the crown has now gone to Scandi food, in general, food is becoming more ‘Westernised’. By this I mean that people are cooking less from scratch, there is greater consumption of processed and ready-prepared food, people’s food routines are changing with more snacking, whether to fill hunger gaps between meals or to replace meals entirely. And that’s not to mention the irresistible temptations of delights such as burgers, pasta and pizza.

In personal care, in particular beauty and skin care, the more interesting ‘stuff’ tends to be happening in the East first, in particular countries such as Korea and Japan, where people are willing to invest considerable time, money and effort into looking after their appearance. Fancy a 12-step skin-care regime anyone? It is from this region that the BB cream came, now a major staple in the beauty product world, as well as many other weird and wonderful products, such as syringe face-masks (not quite as dramatic as they sound!). So look East for beauty tips!

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September 18, 2017

A duo of posts on physiological introspection – Part II

In the second part of these two posts on health/science books I have recently read, I will focus on Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  I was particularly interested in getting to grips with this book as there is lots of chatter about genes. I have become aware of the fact that it is all too easy to merrily throw on some bullet points about genome testing, personalised health plans and diets etc, but what does this actually mean?

In reading Gene, I was struck by the fact that in order to understand how our thinking about genes has developed over time, we need to go back and look at how science explains differences between and among ourselves and also other living organisms. Perhaps, therefore not surprisingly, we spend some time with Darwin, as well as looking back at Greek philosophers/scientists, whose perspectives were always, surprisingly insightful/provocative, despite they effectively ‘knew’ less than we do now.

There was a section on the interest in eugenics in the US in the 1920s. Reading this made me realise how, when we look back in time, we often make simplistic assumptions about what ideas to associate with particular eras. Eugenics – that was obviously the handiwork of those nasty Nazis – well, not just them it seems. A number of medical professionals and politicians in the US were determined to stop ‘bad heredity’ and to set up ‘eugenic sterilizations of the feeble-minded’. In 1927, the state of Indiana passed a law to sterilize ‘confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists’ and other states followed with even stricter laws to sterilize men and women judged to be genetically inferior. This preoccupation with the right heredity was reflected in popular culture at the time, for example, by the late 1920’s, premarital genetic-fitness tests were being widely advertised to the American public. However, it is important to remember DNA testing, as we know it, had not yet been uncovered. Instead, they consisted of assessments of family histories to pick up on incidences of mental retardation, epilepsy, deafness, dwarfism, blindness etc.

It was not until the 1950’s that the chemical structure of the gene was uncovered. I find it fascinating that so much had already happened, eg laws instituted, as described above, around a part of ourselves – the genome – which we had not really ‘seen’ as such and did not know really how it worked. As a child of the modern era, I have the naïve and simplistic assumption that we know everything before we decide to ‘use’ it!

Reading Gene made me realise that there in fact is much more uncertainty around the impact genes have than perhaps comes across in popular media and culture. One aspect to this is that there still seems to be much life in the nature versus nurture debate. This is down to the fairly new area within gene studies of epigenetics. As explained here, “Epigenetics is essentially additional information layered on top of the sequence of letters (strings of molecules called A, C, G, and T) that makes up DNA. If you consider a DNA sequence as the text of an instruction manual that explains how to make a human body, epigenetics is as if someone’s taken a pack of highlighters and used different colours to mark up different parts of the text in different ways. For example, someone might use a pink highlighter to mark parts of the text that need to be read the most carefully, and a blue highlighter to mark parts that aren’t as important….But the really interesting thing about epigenetics is that the marks aren’t fixed in the same way the DNA sequence is: some of them can change throughout your lifetime, and in response to outside influences. Some can even be inherited, just like some highlighting still shows up when text is photocopied.” So it seems looking at what it’s in your genome will only tell you so much; the messiness of real life has an important impact.

Another angle is the fact that only about 1 percent of our genome encodes proteins. The rest is DNA dark matter. It is still incompletely understood, but some of it involves regulation of the genome itself. As a reviewer observed, “Ironically, the more we study the genome, the more “the gene” recedes. … Some scientists are even moving away from the gene as a physical thing. They think of it as a “higher-order concept” or a “framework” that shifts with the needs of the cell. The old genome was a linear set of instructions, interspersed with junk; the new genome is a dynamic, three-dimensional body. The gene is not a Platonic ideal. It is a human idea, ever changing and always rooted in time and place.”

It makes me wonder what Gene – An Intimate History would include if it was written a hundred years from now?

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