Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Love me, love my genes

The other day, Ancestry.com, the commercial arm of Mormon-backed Generations Network, announced a new DNA-matching service. Send off for a swab-kit and you could soon be chatting to the distant cousin you never knew you had. Their website promises,

As the DNA Ancestry database grows, we will automatically compare your result against each new entry. If a close match is found, you will receive an e-mail with a link to a page that describes how your two test results match. You can now begin communicating with your genetic cousin using Ancestry.com's Connection Service as the first step towards comparing the genealogies of your two families.

And this isn't all.

Individuals may be able to extend the branches of their family trees, prove (or disprove) family legends, discover living relatives they never knew existed and find new leads where traditional paper trails dead end.

"DNA testing in family history is reaching critical mass," said Megan Smolenyak, Chief Family Historian for Ancestry.com and co-author of Tracing Your Roots with DNA. "As more people add their results, the DNA Ancestry database becomes a powerful asset for users to make connections and discover their family tree."

Initial concerns are likely to concentrate on the security implications. As Privacy International point out in their complaint to the UK Information Commissioner, the ever-hungry authorities would just love to get their paws on Ancestry's DNA database. And how well-protected is the anonymity promised in the publicity blurb?

Still, the way things are going, I'm sure many people would love to share their most private genetic encoding with the whole world. There's no shortage of personal information being dished out every day on Facebook after all, much of it a great deal more compromising and embarrassing than any sequence of hydrocarbons could ever manage. It won't be long before "DNA Subgroup" joins Star Sign, Birthday and Hair Colour in any standard blog profile. Though certainly not on mine.

I'm more intrigued by Ancestry.com's notion of a "genetic cousin". Is that more or less than an ordinary cousin, who may well not share a direct-line male or female ancestor? Will "genetic cousins", connecting initially online, form themselves into artificially constituted pseudo-families, DNA clubs, or mutual-support networks? The scope that this technology offers to the eternal human propensity for cliquishness and snobbery seems endless. More worryingly, will they start dating, re-creating in a modern cosmopolis the immemorial inbreeding of an Alpine village? How soon before specialist DNA detectives start offering to track down your genetic cousins, whether or not they actually want to be found? And what about people who discover that they're related, do a little digging and discover Grandpa wasn't quite the saint he appeared?

In a deracinated urban society, ancestral ties of extended family, clan and village count for less and less, though culture and ethnicity, paradoxically, are stressed more and more. The sense of dislocation felt by the loss of such ties may account in part for the upsurge in the popularity of genealogy and family history. At the same time, much of the appeal lies less in the need for connection with other people than a search for one's own identity. Discover your genes, the theory goes, and you will know who you really are. Heredity is destiny.

As a society we fetishise genetics. Adopted children are encouraged, indeed expected, to go off in search of their "real" parents, as though the combination of molecules counts for more than the work, pain and love involved in actually raising a child. The right of sperm donors to anonymity in return for a couple of minutes masturbating into a test tube has recently been trumped, in law, by that of the resultant offspring to know who they "really are". The somewhat fatalistic assumption that one's core essence can be determined by sequencing DNA now goes increasingly unchallenged, as though we were still born into hereditary castes.

As the scope of genetics continues to expand, we will all come to be defined more and more by our DNA. That much seems inevitable. But do we really want to look to shared DNA as a reason to choose our friends?