Maynard Olson on Dangers of Genomic Research
  Maynard Olson     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

he social dangers you are really referring to? The—well, that’s a good question and, of course, it’s a big question and you’d get a lot of answers to that question. I think that there are, of course, the much focused on issues about genetic privacy, about insurance and employment and discrimination. Those problems—they’re problems, but I actually share the view of, I think, quite a number of people who’ve studied this question more professionally than I have that the situation there in genetics on the whole is not so different than lots of other problems that we manage. And the idea that genetics is somehow going to make those problems unmanageable is not perhaps a strong concept.

But I think there’s a big issue here. And actually my views have changed a bit in the last few years as I’ve kind of watched a lot of things happen. We’re in the process—and the genome is a big part of this. It’s certainly not the only part of it. But we’re in the process of actually understanding human biology at the level of detail that is going to just fundamentally change the way people think about themselves. And so the question is; is that dangerous? And I think, yes, it’s dangerous the way history is dangerous. I mean everything we’re doing is dangerous. Human are dangerous. But I’m strongly of the view that knowledge is good, that objective knowledge of the natural world is good. And I think we shouldn’t be afraid of it. A hundred years from now—fifty years from now—maybe ten years from now we’re going to have much more knowledge than perhaps many people would be comfortable with about why people are the way they are. I think this is good that—the subjective ideas haven’t served us particularly well. You know, you take some issue like race. So right here at this meeting there’s been some flare-ups of highly divergent views about how to deal with human genetic variation as it relates to race. And of course, there’s the fear that greater knowledge of objective differences between different human groups, you know, will fuel racism. I think that there is, of course there’s risk with new information. But we have to keep reminding ourselves that traditional subjective ideas about race have not served humanity well. And why are we so afraid of actually having some more objective knowledge about race, and about human nature. We shouldn’t be so afraid. Objective knowledge is good. It’s people who have no facts but very strong passions that have historically caused the really big problems in human history and are causing the big problems today.

Maynard V. Olson received his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from California Institute of Technology and Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Stanford University (1970). After five years on the chemistry faculty at Dartmouth College, he shifted his research efforts to molecular genetics at Washington University in St Louis and the University of Washington in Seattle. He now serves as Director of the University of Washington Human Genome Center, Professor of Genetics and Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Computer Science & Engineering.

A pioneer in genomic research, Dr. Olson launched the ultimately successful effort to construct a detailed physical map of the yeast genome in 1979. He also led efforts to develop yeast artificial chromosomes (YACs) that allowed for the study of large portions of the human genome and proved invaluable in the tracking of disease-related genes, and he introduced STS-content mapping which led to the first physical maps of whole human chromosomes.

Dr. Olson is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has been awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal, the City of Medicine Award, and the Gairdner Foundation International Award for his scientific contributions to the Human Genome Project.

Influenced by Watson’s book, Molecular Biology of the Gene, Olsen started working with the genome in the 1970’s. He met Jim Watson when they both served on Bruce Albert’s Committee of the National Research Council. Olsen also helped to organize several genome meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory during the 1980s.