Myths of Human Genetics

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2021-08-09 07:00:08

A fun way to teach the basics of genetics is to have students look at traits on themselves. Just about every biology student has, in one class or another, been asked to roll their tongue, look at their earlobes, or check their fingers for hair. Students can easily collect data on several different traits and learn about genes, dominant and recessive alleles, maybe even Hardy-Weinberg proportions. Best of all, these data don't require microscopes, petri dishes, or stinky fly food.

Unfortunately, what textbooks, lab manuals and web pages say about these human traits is mostly wrong. Most of the common, visible human traits that are used in classrooms do NOT have a simple one-locus, two-allele, dominant vs. recessive method of inheritance. Rolling your tongue is not dominant to non-rolling, unattached earlobes are not dominant to attached, straight thumbs are not dominant to hitchhiker's thumb, etc.

In some cases, the trait doesn't even fall into the two distinct categories described by the myth. For example, students are told that they either have a hitchhiker's thumb, which bends backwards at a sharp angle, or a straight thumb. In fact, the angle of the thumb ranges continuously, with most thumbs somewhere in the middle. This was clearly shown in the very first paper on the genetics of hitchhiker's thumb (Glass and Kistler 1953), yet 60 years later, teachers still ask students which of the two kinds of thumb they have.

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