DNA evidence has saved many a convicted felon and sent the guilty to prison. It’s useful, for sure. But there’s a kind of crazy land grab going on now around consumer DNA, I think.
Hereditary traits have become infotainment. Television and internet ads tout the joy of finding out your ancestry. Movies, books and news articles brim with stories about lost siblings reconnected or terrible genetic diseases stalled. I downloaded a fitness iPhone app that immediately urged me to send off saliva to their DNA partner in order to optimize my workout.
Honestly, I’m tempted. Curiosity is probably in my DNA.
As an optimist, I’d love to discover that I’m related to Beethoven. Confirmation of “unique super-hero traits” would be great, too. Yet caution prevails. There is emotional danger lurking in sending off your saliva to consumer DNA databases like ancestry.com and 23andme. You could just as easily discover you’re related to Benedict Arnold, have familial ALS and a bunch of half-sisters and half-brothers who need a loan. Great.
In fact, the plot of the popular novel, The Forever Summer by Jamie Brenner (Little, Brown and Company, 2017), revolves around the difficulties faced by surprise siblings united by their DNA reports.
I’m more concerned with privacy and marketing issues. This Guardian article on DIY genetics by Arwa Mahdawi lays them out well. Consumer DNA gatherers have figured out a way to market your genetic info while you pay them for the privilege. It’s just like the “game” of Facebook—how many levels of privacy are you willing to be seduced into giving up in exchange for entertainment and information? Imagine if your DNA could be used to predict your party affiliation, spending habits or health insurance risks.
Consumer DNA products have expanded to our pets, too. After Barbara Streisand lost her beloved curly-haired Coton de Tuléar, Samantha, she cloned her from stomach and mouth cells and got three little Sams. The company she used, Viagen Pets, is easily found online. All it takes is one simple click, a compliant pet and about $50,000 a pop (or is it pup?). I do miss my adorable departed Havanese. But dealing with loss is part of life, isn’t it?
Taken to its most extreme, what’s next? The convenience of 3-D baby printing over pregnancy?
I wonder, isn’t identity ultimately a story we tell ourselves? A textured web of love and experience and ancestry and tradition? Personally, I choose the poetry of lived and oral history. It may not be full of scientific details, but it’s rich and beautiful and reassuringly opaque.
Sorry, ancestry profiteers. I’m keeping this spit private.