The blending of genome studies and the social sciences: UNC professor speaks on controversial issue

Avery Blasko, Contributing Writer

The University hosted Professor of Sociology Guang Guo on March 5 for a talk on recent genomic studies and advances on their relation to the social sciences. Guo explained that his study of work is called sociogenomics and is “the complete cellular genetic complement of an organism from a top-down approach.” Sociological studies that use genetic information include twin and sibling studies, candidate gene studies, and genome-wide association studies.

Guo explained the progress sociogenomics has made recently: 10 to 15 years ago adding molecular genetic information in studies of the social sciences at the individual level was unthinkable. Now it happens routinely.

The overall objective of Guo and his research partners, as well as others conducting similar research in his field, is to investigate the genomic and environmental sources of cognitive ability, which has never been done with DNA data. Guo and his partners decided to work on this specific subject because for decades the social sciences have assumed that all individual differences are caused by environmental differences, which would mean that all individuals are the same at birth. Guo said that although they had hunches, this was incorrect as there was no concrete evidence. Once genomics underwent rapid advances, strong enough data to challenge this assumption finally appeared.

It was recently proved that there are many things affected by genetics, including behavioral issues such as addiction — with substances like tobacco and alcohol — as well as health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and other illnesses.

“It’s really interesting to see that things we think are only influenced by our parents and peers are actually in our genes” Emily Taylor ’21 said. “The fact that things like addiction and obesity aren’t just caused by influences in our surroundings is something I think our society needs to study and take into more consideration.”

When asked how much our genes actually affect things such as our behaviors and health, Guo said, “When we first started I was skeptical at first like you, but as soon as 2016 it was shown that genes actually do affect things like obesity and likelihood to smoke.”

The research Guo and his colleagues conduct is considered controversial among many people. Lectures by Arthur Jensen, a psychologist who published books on a similar subject including the study of why people behave differently from each other, have been boycotted on many college campuses.

“It was really interesting to see how much research has been done on such a controversial topic,” Assistant Professor of Anthropology Allen Tran, said.

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