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DNA is NOT Destiny

August 21, 2018



A few new twin studies were released comparing identical twins who went on to live very different lifestyles. The results show stark contrasts in everything from weight to muscle-fiber type. These findings suggest that first-principle physiological parameters are not determined at birth.


Other recent research shows that individuals with a favorable lifestyle (not smoking, eating healthy, and regular exercise) who are genetically at high risk for heart disease have fewer heart problems than those who live an unfavorable lifestyle (smoking, unhealthy eating, limited movement) but are genetically at low risk for heart disease.

In other words: DNA is NOT destiny.


Most people can live long, healthy lives by practicing a healthy lifestyle. And, with the right kind of training, most people can get very good (i.e., 95th to 98th percentile) at most things irrespective of their DNA. As our friend Mike Joyner so often says, just about anyone can go under three hours in a marathon with the right training and nutrition.


There are, of course, exceptions.


Certain medical conditions, like Huntington's, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and Cystic Fibrosis, are very much linked to one's DNA. Research in genetics focusing on these diseases is wonderful. Breakthroughs will eliminate suffering and save many lives.


In less important matters, like performance, DNA probably matters if you want to be world-class—especially in physical pursuits. Lebron James, Usain Bolt, Abby Wambach, Katie Ledecky—odds are these athletes have outlier genetic codes. But even so, the amount of hard, hard, hard work they put in is also 99.99th percentile. Even if you have great "nature," you still need to train harder than anyone else on the planet. You've got to nurture it like crazy anyways.


What's the point? Why should any of this matter?


  • Direct-to-consumer genetic testing still has a long way to go before it will be valuable.

    • On medical issues, most of the stuff it measures is far outweighed by a healthy lifestyle. The more serious stuff it measures has a high false-positive rate, meaning these tests do more harm than good. Whatever these tests tell you, you'd benefit from not smoking, not getting drunk (at least not often), eating whole foods, exercising, and prioritizing in-person community. All the data shows that outside of rare diseases (which these tests don't accurately measure risk for anyways) adopting basic health behaviors is more powerful than your DNA.

    • On performance matters, this stuff is bunk. Steve, a 4:01 miler (at the time the 6th fastest U.S. High School mile in history), was told his genetic profile makes him a sprinter. The dude was literally one of the best high school distance runners on the planet. Performance is much more complex than identifying a few proteins at a point in time.

  • Massive efforts to improve the population's health using genetics are honorary in their intent. But there's a real question if these resources wouldn't be better spent on anti-smoking campaigns, urban design to encourage more physical activity, and subsidies for people to purchase healthier foods.

  • From a performance standpoint, we see the end result as an unfortunate one: Parents get eager for their kids to be great, start genetically testing them for "potential," take the results as accurate, push their kids like crazy, and burn their kids out. This isn't a good pattern. And even if you do want to identify talent in a young person, watching them sprint 40-100 yards is a far better predictor of athletic potential than a blood test.

A lot of people hear these thoughts and get defensive, calling us "anti-science" or "against progress." That's not the case at all! If anything, it is because we're in favor of science and progress that we think we the hype around genetics shouldn't outweigh the current evidence. For certain rare diseases, yes, study the hell out of genetics. But for population-health stuff, it's just not that helpful. Perhaps it's politically easier to launch a massive genetics campaign than going after big tobacco or soda-makers, or trying to encourage community-building and compassion. But that doesn't mean it's more effective.


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