The One Cognitive Bias That's Holding Back Genetic Research

Scientists may be awesome, but they're still human beings — and they fall prey to the same cognitive biases as everyone else. Now, a group of researchers say they've discovered that the bias known as anthropocentrism is holding back genetic research and severely limiting our discoveries.

Image of the protist Nassula by Gerd A. Guenther

Anthropocentrism is the idea that humanity is the most important form of life in the universe. It becomes a cognitive bias when we project human motivations or values onto other life forms — or even onto the universe itself. We fall prey to the anthropocentric bias quite a bit when describing animals, because it's tempting to go all David Attenborough and treat their lives as scarier, cuter, or more rascally versions of our own.

But this bias can also show up in more subtle ways, such as shaping which life forms we think are worthy of study.

A group of genetic researchers at the University of British Columbia undertook a massive study to investigate what life forms scientists have chosen for DNA sequencing. Published in Cell last month, their work reveals that the vast majority are animals similar to humans. More broadly, scientists tend to favor studying eukaryotes, or life forms that have nuclei in their cells. This includes animals and plants, but not bacteria — despite the fact that bacteria have been proven time and again to be crucial in medicine and genetic discovery.

In a release, lead author Javier del Campo explains:

We're still mostly analyzing the same well-known eukaryotic groups: animals, fungi and plants, in large part because their utility is more obvious, they are closer to us as humans, and frankly because we can see them with the naked eye.

But from a biological diversity and a genomic point of view this anthropocentric approach is irrelevant, and potentially holds us back. We're missing the opportunity to study most of the planet's eukaryotic diversity, which means we're missing the opportunity to study a host of alternative life strategies, novel metabolic pathways, new gene functions.

It's worth thinking hard about del Campo's comment about "missing the opportunity to study a host of alternative life strategies." By focusing on eukaryotes like ourselves, we're biasing research results to make it appear that our kind of life strategies (breathing oxygen, burning sugar) are the only ones that work. You can see a similar bias in discussions of life on exoplanets, where we favor looking at planets we think might have water, which is crucial to the chemistry of Earth life.

But how will we truly understand the diversity of life's possibilities if we aren't even studying life forms on Earth that fall outside the realm of the familiar? We need to break out of the anthropocentric box to find out if there are radically different ways to life as a biological entity. This could help us understand not just life around us, but the forms that life might take on other worlds.

Read the scientific paper via Cell