06/13/2013 05:12 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2013

Antonin Scalia Don't Know Much About Biology


This morning the Supreme Court rendered its decision in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., a fairly interesting case in which patents held by Myriad Genetics were thrown out on the grounds that DNA that the company had isolated in developing tests for breast and ovarian cancer could not be considered proprietary materials because the DNA was "naturally-occurring" and, in the opinion of the court, "laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas are not patentable."

All of which sounds sensible, but Myriad's stake in the case was actually pretty serious. Myriad had sought patent protection on the grounds that its discovery (along with the subsequent innovations it developed in the wake of this discovery) was the result of enormous investment, in terms of time and money, and they felt that the patents on the DNA itself were a vital means of recouping that investment. Having put down a marker, the Supreme Court could potentially alter the calculus of other innovators in this field.

The Court didn't see things Myriad's way, however, and ultimately ruled that "companies cannot patent parts of naturally-occurring human genes." Their decision was unanimous, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion, and it was all pretty much easy-peasy lemon-squeezy. That is, it would have been, but Justice Antonin Scalia just had to make things wheezy-queasy lemon-WTF:

I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its opinion except Part I–A and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology. I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief. It suffices for me to affirm, having studied the opinions below and the expert briefs presented here, that the portion of DNA isolated from its natural state sought to be patented is identical to that portion of the DNA in its natural state; and that complementary DNA (cDNA) is a synthetic creation not normally present in nature.

Max "Maximum" Read, who provides Part I-A in its entirety for your perusal, explains:

So what is Part I-A? Sounds like some pretty out-there stuff. It begins: "Genes form the basis for hereditary traits in living organisms." It holds that genes are "encoded as DNA, which takes the shape of the familiar 'double helix,'" and describes the chemical structures of DNA. It tells, in basic terms, what DNA is and how it works, ending with: "the study of genetics can lead to valuable medical breakthroughs." It literally makes no other claims—it is a dry recitation of genetic science. High-school-level stuff.

Scalia can't fully join his fellow justices because he doesn't believe in genes.

Indeed, that is all basically "things you need to know to take the AP Biology test."

Still, I guess this is just Nino being Nino, tacking on his vote on the legal issue along with the rest of the SCOTUS crew, but feeling like he's got to get his personal sidebar out there alongside. I would call it superfluous, but there's a reasonable chance that Scalia doesn't believe the science that underpins the concept of superfluidity, either.

Antonin Scalia Does Not Believe in Molecular Biology [Gawker]

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Politicians' Science Gaffes