White Coat, Black Hat

The Ethicator Interview: Misha Angrist

Angrist and the EthicatorNote: This is the first of what I expect to become a series of interviews with various writers and academics seeking to utilize my fame. If you are important and would like to be interviewed by the Ethicator, feel free to send me an email.

Misha Angrist interviewed Carl a couple of weeks ago. In the interview, Carl called me "disturbed" and ridiculed my groundbreaking academic writing as "hilarious." Courageously, Angrist agreed to make amends by facing me for an interview. We communicated by email.

E: Thank you for facing the Ethicator.  First question:  Please state your name, profession, and the book you are attempting to sell us.

MA: Hi, Ethicator.  My name is Misha Angrist. I am an Assistant Professor in the Duke University Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy. My book is called Here is a Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics.

E: Interesting.  And you wrote this book yourself? 
I'm just asking because, you know, there are some academics out there who can be cavalier about this sort of thing (authorship), if you get my drift . . .

MA:  I'm not sure I follow you. Anyway, yes I wrote it myself, although I couldn't have done it without the generosity and talent of a lot of other people. And by the way, your brother's terrific article, " Guinea-Pigging," is mentioned in the book.

E:  You mean the New Yorker article allegedly written by my brother?  Right, I know all about that.  A lot of familiar stuff there.  Reminds me a lot of these "jobs" he kept enrolling me in at the U, back when we were living in Chicago.  ("Hyde Park rent is expensive, you know." "It won't hurt," "I'm just a post-doc, I don't make that much - Gotta pull your weight!" and so on).  Strangely, my name does not appear in the article at all.  Anyway, water under the bridge.

Your book is on genetics.  I've heard it said there is a genetic basis for cruelty and bullying behaviors,  such as those we often encounter with siblings.  Is this true, and what are your thoughts about this?

MA: Aggressive behavior in humans almost certainly has some hereditary basis, but it's not clear how important genes are in these types of traits. They are terribly hard to study and in most cases whatever genes are involved are probably interacting in ways we don't understand yet. It's a tough nut to crack. My colleagues Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi are among those who've been trying to unravel this stuff for a long time...I love them and admire their intelligence and doggedness, but I worry about them.

I should say that there's also a pretty strong evolutionary argument to be made for niceness. In any case, I think most geneticists expect most of these sorts of behaviors to be the product of the action of many genes plus a huge environmental component.

E:  Well, that's where you're wrong. I hadn't given this  matter any thought until just now, but my brother and I obviously share some genetic material.  He is an overly aggressive, bullying pharmascold with no moral compass whatsoever -- damn near a full-on psychopath, according to many in the field.  Yet, I share none of these repulsive traits.  How can that be?  So I disagree with you that it has a hereditary basis.

But OK, for the sake of argument, I'll play along. I understand you had your own personal genome mapped.  Do you carry any of those bullying genes you apparently believe in?

MA:  I don't think so. That said, my brother would say that I do, just as you do about your brother.

I can't claim to know your brother very well, but I will say that he is deeply concerned about you. He thinks you need to be on medication.

E: Yeah, I read that quote in your interview.  Yes, Carl is concerned:  Concerned that one of these days, I'm going to show up at his house with an invoice for all the work I've been doing.  He'll be all, "Oh, no! Where's Nurse Ratched?  My brother won't do shit for free!"

But enough about me. You're in the genetics game, right?   There's big money in that, I hear.  Have you found a good corporate sponsor?

MA: Not yet, though not for lack of trying. Unfortunately most of the small startups I take an interest in end up in Chapter 11. But since a WalMart VP suggested a few years ago that the company try to avoid hiring fat people in order to reduce its health care costs, I was thinking they might be able to use my services in Bentonville.

E: Wal-Mart!  That shows some pretty impressive, out-of-the-box thinking on your part.  Yet, I suspect there are some dinosaurs out there in the bioethics industrial complex who would love to ruin your plans.  Seriously, though, isn't it hard for an independent-minded visionary like you to get by without eventually giving in to pious, overweening pharmascolds?  How do you do it?

MA: Dude, you're breaking my heart. Was there something that went awry in your childhood that led you to have such contempt for your brother? Is there no way to heal this rift? I mean, the Everly Brothers got back together.  Will the Elliott brothers not share Christmas together?

E: Hey, water under the bridge.  Unlike some people, I've moved on.  When you speak hard truths to stubborn people, as I do, you just have to expect some resentments and petty jealousy to come back your way.  It's just the nature of the game. 

Speaking of bold truth-telling: Have you been following my website and twitter feed?  What do you think of it?

MA: I do look at your website. The production values are high and the graphics impressive. That said, I might argue that it's hard to read that and your twitter feed and then conclude that you've "moved on."

E:  Do I remind you of Steve Jobs?

MA:  Um...I don't know. The turtleneck and the petulance maybe?

BE:  Well, I'm just thinking of the effusive praise you had for the user interface on my website, plus the runaway viral success of my work thus far.  And of course the fact that Jobs and I are both considered renegades and trailblazers. I sometimes think of myself as the Steve Jobs of bioethics.  Not that I would put words in your mouth or anything.

MA: Well, I guess if the shoe fits, right? But I imagine that that's quite a heavy burden, no?

BE: Yes, a heavy burden indeed -- but not as heavy as Carl's burden, which is being known only as the brother of the Steve Jobs of bioethics.  I'm sure he can manage that, though.

On to your book.  What is it about -- genetics or something? I forget

MA: Yes, my book is about genetics or something. More important, it is about ME. And even more important than that, it is available in hardback, paperback, e-book and large-print-Sanskrit formats.  And it makes a swell gift for any occasion! And since it's published by HarperCollins, you can rest assured that most of the money from every copy sold will go directly into the Rupert Murdoch Defense Fund.

E: Sounds interesting.  If the library has copies on the shelf, maybe I'll look at it.  Thank you for your kind, effusive praise of my work, and congratulations on being the first interview on the most popular site in bioethics.

MA: I trust that you and Carl will bury the hatchet--it's the bioethical thing to do, after all. Thanks so much for having me on The Ethicator! It's been a dubious honor!

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