By Stuart Newman

Experimental Man: What One Man's Body Reveals about His Future, Your Health and Our Toxic World
By David Ewing Duncan
John Wiley & Sons, 2009; pp. xi + 370

In a famous story recorded in many ancient cultures, an elephant is examined by six blind men who come to vastly different conclusions about its manifest characteristics and, in some versions, wind up in a brawl. With advances in scientific understanding and professional specialization, and the rise of 'translational research' delivering partially digested knowledge into clinics and commercial venues, a comparable project would now require an extraordinarily patient elephant and an army of sensorially limited experts. In his highly instructive and readable book, Experimental Man, What One Man's Body Reveals about His Future, Your Health and Our Toxic World, the journalist David Ewing Duncan offers himself up as the elephant and permits us to follow him on a privacy-invading tour of the current state of technological analysis of (his) body, mind and environment, and some of their discernible interactions. The result, if not the open scuffle of the blind analysts, reminds us that we are still groping in the dark when it comes to fathoming our biological nature.

Duncan's project was a serious one, though ultimately anecdotal and inconclusive. In the course of his assisted self-study he had the equivalent of a quarter of his blood volume withdrawn for analysis, was tested for more than 7 million genetic markers and 320 chemical toxins, spent a total of 22 hours in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines and ate enough fish over the course of one week to raise his tissue mercury levels to alarming levels. Some of his tests were performed by commercial ventures like consumer genetic testing company 23andMe and a stand-alone CAT scanning operation, but many were done in government and academic settings like the National Institutes of Health Chemical Genomics Center, New York University, and the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.

The expedition held a certain degree of drama: although the author is in good health, early on he is confronted with the finding by the Icelandic company deCODE of a genetic variant he harbors which, according to the company's founder and director Kari Stefansson (one of a fair number of prominently placed interviewees/interpreters that add interest and occasionally substance to the unfolding story), increases Duncan's risk of a heart attack by as much as 60 percent. The subject, looking on the bright side, tempers this bad news with his results for other markers, some of which point to a lower than normal risk for a cardiac event. Since none of the experts or entrepreneurs he consults has any better model than his for integrating these data, his anxiety is temporarily allayed. Only when another company, using analysis of serum lipids in conjunction with a subset of his genetic tests, pronounces that a weight gain of a pound a year by the 52 year old Duncan would give him a 100 percent risk of a heart attack by the time he reached 66, does he begin to reel.

The third of the book that deals with genetics is clearly presented but, satisfyingly, resists a facile reductionism. The human body is an entity formed and operating on multiple scales, and the author imparts no suggestion that the genetic level is a privileged one.  The information presented to him is just too chaotic (and since of only one sort, probably inherently so), to constitute anything like the "blueprint" promised by the Human Genome Project. The word does not appear in the book. 

Duncan attempts to deepen the analysis by recruiting some family members for the genetic testing portion of the project. His brother has been chronically affected by fragile bones throughout his life, which essentially ended his career as an outdoor photographer and his pursuit of strenuous favorite avocations. None of his genetic tests, including ones for the usual brittle bone suspects, turned up anything useful. Discouraged by this and other non-informative results on him and his relatives, the author names the current period the Age of Genetic Confusion. He anticipates a better future "as software engineers design better programs to crunch through and analyze the data, and as clinicians validate the information on real patients." This hope is partly justified. Genes will never explain everything, but they do explain some things, among which are individuals' abilities to tolerate and respond to certain medications and toxins. It is reasonable to think that analysis of gene combinations will eventually also disclose the basis of obscure congenital conditions.    

The litany of tests would be much less compelling if not for the author's optimism concerning eventual benefits to the public health and his constant desire for good news concerning his personal capacities and fate. But he also exhibits a robust skepticism which increases with each successive battery of tests, including ones in which his body's burden of environmental toxins is assayed and his brain is scanned and mental activities evaluated. He suggests that a reseacher's interpretation of a functional MRI of his brain while being asked questions relating to belief in God may be "a sophisticated version of reading tea leaves." Duncan conveys his doubts not only in his own words, but in interspersed critiques by scientists of the less entrepreneurial stripe and the comments of his personal physician, Joshua Adler, a wise voice among the technobabblers.

The book concludes with an epilogue describing a few more nebulous business models on the horizon (electronic dream monitoring, proteomics), and musing about the prospect of extending life and the quality of life with knowledge gained from the admittedly early-stage tests and assays to which Duncan subjected himself. Here the author widens the frame to consider the global context of humane allocation of resources. This section also contains a spirited critique of Transhumanism, a lately fashionable quest to use technology to transcend human biology. And despite acknowledging discussions with a friend and advisor from academia who not long ago was vigorously promoting the improvement of humans by germ line genetic modification, there is not a trace of that misbegotten notion in this useful book.


Stuart Newman, Ph.D., is Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy at New York Medical College. He has been a consultant to the National Institutes of Health and has testified before Congress, and he was a founding member of the Council for Responsible Genetics.




Further reading (or listening):

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