On the Policing of Genetic Porn

Katrina Voss

In February of 2006, I consented to have my cheek swabbed, my finger pricked, and my picture taken. The scientific study in which I was participating, “The Genetics of Human Pigmentation, Ancestry, and Facial Features,” was somewhat unusual in that each participant would later be provided with his or her own genetic ancestry results and an explanation of how to interpret them. These included proportional ancestry from four parental populations: West African, European, East Asian, and Indigenous American. Although the particular ancestry test these researchers used does not provide subjects with medically relevant information, it often can reveal clues to fascinating personal histories, as well as verify or cast doubt on family legends of Cherokee great-grandmothers.

A few months later, I received my rather uninteresting composite, 98 percent European and 2 percent West African ancestry, along with the explanation that the 2 percent likely represented nothing more than statistical noise. I also learned that others in the study had received much more unexpected information. This was the case for the principal investigator of the study himself, by all visible indications a “white” man, Dr. Mark Shriver (whom I incidentally later met and married). With the genetic test he himself had developed, he discovered his roughly 13 percent West African genetic ancestry, much to his and his family’s surprise.

I have not been discouraged by my disappointingly unscandalous genetic ancestry test results. I continue to try to uncover other—and I hope more exciting—genetic information about myself. That is, I have participated in yet more research studies, including one on Marcus Gunn Jaw-Winking (an autosomal-dominant condition involving involuntary upper-eyelid movement) and another of my husband’s, “The Genetics of Personality and Sexuality” (testing for correlations between genetic profiles and behavioral traits such as risk-taking). I also intend to poke around my own DNA for possible explanations of other nonmedical curiosities (why my hair is curly, why my eyes are so dark, why I’m a night person, why I like purple) whenever the opportunity presents itself through my husband’s or other scientists’ research. In recent years, private companies such as 23andMe, deCode, and Navigenics have been making such exploration possible, affordable, and intensely interesting. After all, the burgeoning business of “personalized genomics” is all about one’s favorite subject: oneself.

However, despite the lay public’s increased interest in genetic self-probing, personalized genomics companies and even researchers with government grants have been confronted with accusatory finger-wagging: there is something decidedly wicked, it would seem, in doing something merely out of curiosity or worse, merely for fun: in this case, sifting about the genome simply because it amuses us. The argument is eerily familiar, eerily traceable to that expert infiltrator—religious doctrine: it sneaks in, masquerading as an ethical mediator, a societal organizer, or a preserver of public health and welfare. It may never give the slightest hint that lurking behind the curtain is Jesus, or Allah or some generic nameless but equally domineering deity. Yet it is everywhere, and when it is silent, it is often at its most insidious.

Its agents, the Pleasure Police, attempt to legislate any activity that might have no utility other than diversion. It is behind our drug laws, even when the drug in question tends to keep one indoors in a happy haze, disturbing no one and supporting local pizza delivery enterprises. It is behind objections to noncaloric sugar substitutes and liposuction, because, after all, people who are so naughty as to indulge their palates ought to be punished with obesity. It is behind sodomy laws, appallingly still on the books and actionable in some states. It is behind public disapproval and regulation of pornography, since, after all, pornography serves no function other than the entertainment of bundles of nerves in one’s nether regions.

And like pornography, personalized genomic inquiry has found critics that extend beyond the blatantly religious and even include some atheists. Indeed, if art’s naughty stepchild is porn, science’s is now the scornfully named “recreational genomics” trend with its own legion of wet blankets, from pious watchdogs to academic ethicists, sociologists, physicians, and lawmakers. Papers and essays in major science journals continue to attack this mushrooming industry on scientific, ethical, and legal grounds. Meanwhile both California and New York recently took action to limit the sale of genomic tests to private citizens, and it is certainly not unlikely that other states will follow suit.

It is worth pointing out briefly that nonmedical personalized genomic testing can have “legitimate” applications, both for the public and the individual. Forensics and education are just a couple of examples. But assume for the sake of argument that the new wave of personalized genomic research is, in fact, a matter of clear-cut frivolity. Granted this concession, the strict and unadorned religious objection is clear enough: who are we to poke merrily around in God’s secret tool bag? The secular one is a bit thornier, albeit no less peripherally tied up in a history of religious squeamishness. First, critics who disapprove of “recreational” inquiry into one’s own genome declare a whole host of risks, from discovering uncomfortable information to simply misunderstanding the science. But it is worth remembering that nearly every source of fun has its risks. Provided these risks are strictly to the fun-haver him- or herself, it should be up to him or her to decide whether or not to assume them.

Of course, critics may also claim a risk to society at large (as is the case for pornography’s supposed damage to society and the thoroughly passé argument that it propagates rape). For example, some fear that making genetic information available to individuals will foster genetic determinism in the public imagination generally. True, there may be broader social consequences inherent in any activity: no genomic recreationist or porn enthusiast is an island. But one’s responsibility for one’s fellows should neither extend to the sanctity of one’s DNA profile nor to the privacy of one’s DVD player.

Second, recreational ancestry testing has received particularly harsh secular criticism as scientifically flawed or inherently racist. While these arguments and their counterarguments are beyond the scope of this essay, they warrant a brief commentary. The first objection is certainly debatable and, as the scientific accuracy of such tests improves, should carry less and less weight. The second is much more myopic, and its rigidity would be impossible to exaggerate. For example, my husband has shared his own (recent) West African ancestry publicly, hoping to expose the inanity of the one-drop rule, indeed, of “race” itself as a typological concept. Using their own genomes as examples, he and like-minded scientists have made great efforts to disseminate the long-overdue message that we are all “mixed,” that there is no “purity,” and that the genome is multiplex, as particular genes can differ in frequency across populations while most genes are the same. And somehow, these admirable and public statements have done nothing to quiet naive accusations of “racism.”

Regardless of their legitimacy or flimsiness, the above arguments against recreational genomics are likely convenient and showy scapegoats for a more fundamental prudery. That is, critics may beat cleverly around the bush, but the bush in question is still the same secularized version of American Puritanism that makes all outright gratification suspicious and condemnable. To make matters worse, the similarly secularized Protestant work ethic delineates a no-fun zone of delayed gratification and future rewards: we must not probe the genome’s sacred code, unless, of course, we do so making grand claims about disease risk and health benefits. All the while, avenues of scientific inquiry that cannot be linked to the most righteous of claims are dismissed cavalierly and with prejudice. Genetic ancestry testing for mere curiosity, not to mention genetic investigations into eye color, hair texture, earwax consistency, or even behavior and preference, are often seen as the idle preoccupations of eugenicists and hacks. With a haughty sweep of the hand, secular critics conclude that if it has no immediate curative or preventive purpose, it isn’t worth the lab space or the journal ink.

But like art, science can be an end in itself. Again, take pornography. Is it not, in a sense, the purest form of art—if we define “art” as a mission of sensory delight, unencumbered by moral instruction? (That said, it is now not unheard-of for pornography to include “green” messages, so I may soon have to retract this.) Likewise, recreational genomicists and their clients seek knowledge for the sheer pleasure of knowing. And why shouldn’t they? Is finding a cancer gene nobler than finding a curly hair gene? Perhaps. In fact, probably, if relieving human suffering is a common value. However, the possible benefit from one project does not render ignoble another. Science, at its core, is about imagination and open-minded curiosity. No good will come of the blanket condemnation of these impulses, even if mere “fun” is the ultimate aspiration.

Science is also about letting the chips fall where they may. When we know so little from the outset, we cannot afford the luxury of picking and choosing (or unfairly condemning) our avenues of inquiry. That is, when we accept our fundamental ignorance, we welcome the muses of science. After all, basic research is often the springboard for discoveries made many years later. Who’s to say recreational genomic research cannot provide valuable, albeit unanticipated, insights for loftier, nonrecreational pursuits? In fact, it would be absurd to assume that it won’t.

Until then, if there is fun to be had in exploring our genes, by all means, let us have our fun. Let the trendiness of taking ancestry tests and displaying mitochondrial haplogroup membership on T-shirts keep the business of genetic science booming. After all, sometimes the right question only becomes apparent after we happen to trip—however playfully—over the answer.

Katrina Voss

Katrina Voss works as a bilingual broadcast metrologist and holds the AMS Seal. She is collaborating with her husband, a Pennsylvania State University physical anthropologist, on a book about evolution, genetic ancestry, and society.

In February of 2006, I consented to have my cheek swabbed, my finger pricked, and my picture taken. The scientific study in which I was participating, “The Genetics of Human Pigmentation, Ancestry, and Facial Features,” was somewhat unusual in that each participant would later be provided with his or her own genetic ancestry results and …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.