Nature, Nurture, or All of the Above?

A local author turns his body into a testing ground. Results vary.

David Ewing Duncan is nothing if not self-aware. He knows, for instance, that his brain is shrinking. And he knows that he is among the 25 percent of humans who can't taste bitterness, although he doesn't really know why. He knows that he has enough manmade flame-retardants built up within his body to put out a small fire. Duncan also knows how much DNA he has in common with dinosaurs, and that he carries a gene that may incline him to “seek out novel situations.” He knows what his doctor and his children and his medically afflicted brother think about him knowing all this stuff about himself. And now we know it, and what he thinks about it, too.

For his new book, Experimental Man, the San Francisco author and NPR commentator literally became a laboratory, subjecting himself to hundreds of variously invasive medical tests and earning a peculiar claim to fame as, yes, probably the most thoroughly tested healthy person in human history.

Thus far, the result of his adventure (ongoing, naturally, at is both a rigorously science-minded augury of 21st-century life and as close an inspection of mortality as any literature of this era has yet produced. As we move toward an existence for which everything can be customized, including the incomprehensible minutiae of our physical condition, Duncan's admittedly self-serving stunt seems like a useful, if rather overwhelming, primer.

It's a hugely ambitious project, not least because there are so damn many variables. Maybe it's a gene that causes X. Then again, maybe it's a behavior. Then again, maybe a gene caused the behavior. And maybe X wasn't even caused by a gene, but instead by some environmental factor, also highly variable. Plus, as if nature and nurture alone (and together) weren't complicated enough, now Duncan has gone and factored in the principle of quantum mechanics by which observation itself becomes tantamount to alteration.

The Experimental Man surrenders his blood, scans his body, screens his genes, and flies around the world (in airplanes that might be poisoning him) to meet with researchers and pick their brains, and of course his own. He returns to the area of his boyhood home in Kansas City to discuss with scientists all the crap that has polluted the environment there, and, by extension, the people. He tries to remain optimistic, but some of his conclusions are grim. “People born in the late 1950s and the early 1960s have produced the usual complement of great artists, entrepreneurs, inventors, scientists, lawyers, investors, and engineers,” he writes. “Though, of course, one has to wonder whether an Albert Einstein, a William Shakespeare, or a Franklin Roosevelt never happened because of a few downward clicks in IQ due to lead exposure or hexachlorobenzene or to the synergistic impact of dioxins mixing with sulfuric dioxide being illegally pumped into the air when I was a child.” Meanwhile, he also has to wonder whether he'll have that heart attack in 2017 that was predicted for him by a computer model.

Although dense with data, and so thoroughly reported that it doesn't even have time to strain for Morgan Spurlock–style posed populism, Experimental Man is appealingly unpretentious. On our behalf, and his own, Duncan asks the “How worried should I be?” question a lot, and gets plenty of “We don't know much about this yet” in reply, which does at least reinforce the timeliness of his book. He doesn't shy away from the ethical implications of his research. Another big question remains open: How much do we need to know?

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