Unselfish Genes

Telling someone that she has the gene for Parkinson’s or the gene for restless leg syndrome is a bit like telling her that her house has termites or sits on a toxic dump. It implies that her misfortune is that she has something that most people don’t have, and further that all would be well if only she could get rid of the termites or toxins.

Genes are not like that, though. They are not things that some people have, and others do not. Approximately 23,000 genes are in the human genome, and all of us have pretty much the same number, give or take a few dozen. What we actually have are different flavors of genes. The technical term for a gene flavor is allele, pronounced ah-lee-el: Whenever you read the word “allele,” think of ...

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