What Do We Want to Know About Other People’s Genomes?
Would genomic information help our relationships be more successful?
Everyone loves surprises - especially when they are unexpected or wanted. An unexpected gift from a friend or a spontaneous dinner date makes life exciting. At the same time, we spend most of our lives trying to reduce uncertainty. Whether it’s by selecting people who share our tastes on a dating app or by budgeting in case we lose our job, we spend a lot of time trying to make life a little bit tamer, a little more predictable.
Knowing something about the genome of a potential partner or employee could help us predict how our relationship with them is likely to go and help make them a success.
To Love is to Risk
If you’re single and looking for love you’ll want to know about a prospective life partner's underlying character traits. Beauty is clear to all but most people look more to compatible personality traits when deciding upon a long-term partner. With enough time we can figure out what our partner is like and whether we’re compatible. But dating is hard – apart from whatever fun we might have, dating is time-consuming and psychologically costly when it doesn’t pan out. Alas getting to that first date is hard enough: we're limited, as we are, to profile pictures and self-aggrandizing profiles – are they really authentic? Do they tell us what we really want to know about a person?
But let's imagine a world where genetic information – that is, information based on DNA which never changes and cannot be altered – can tell us something about our compatibility with other people. Suppose genetic compatibility helped you reconsider that hot prospect whose personality traits wouldn’t match with yours. Suppose genetic compatibility could encourage you to take a chance at that shy animal lover you might otherwise ignore.
While there’s only a limited amount of information you can get from someone’s genetic profile, it’s conceivable that genetic profiling will become more valuable and more common as our understanding of genomics increases. A virtual reality system that gauges compatibility – like the Black Mirror episode “Hang the DJ” – may never come to pass. Nor does it seem likely that the imagined world of British sci-fi series “The One” where would be paramours are matched to one another genetically with ensuing drama and chaos.
Still we can already imagine how genetic compatibility scores might be used as one consideration among many, alongside musical preferences and favorite restaurants, to tell us something about each other and take a chance at love.
Indeed, Pheramor a company founded a few years ago by a geneticist, hoped to create a dating app that matched people based on genetic compatibility. The company failed not because of the science, but because Apple pulled the app due to a policy that prevents dating apps from procuring DNA samples. While the science of genetic compatibility is still young, there is already evidence that people do pair up based on educational attainment and other highly heritable traits. We often say that opposites attract, but in reality, we pair up with genetically similar partners.
Work: One Chance is All You Need
We know that intelligence and personality traits are moderately to highly heritable, and genome wide association studies can already help us predict educational attainment. Employers might want to use genetic information for some insight into what prospective employees might be like.
Such a development might be welcome news to whose latent talents might never be discovered. Just as the SAT test allows smart students from low-income households or poor public schools gain admission into elite universities, genetic testing might be one among many pieces of information an employer might use to give someone a chance who might otherwise be neglected because he did not hail from the right schools or sport the right haircut or belong to the right country club. Not every employer would genetically test her prospective employees but those who do might realize that this genomic edge is potentially Moneyball for business.
As in the case of dating, genes will never tell the whole story, though they are likely to reveal information some employers would want to know. If we are confident in our abilities we will likely want to share our genetic data with a potential employer.
The possibilities of what DNA analysis can (or should) tell us about ourselves and other people are indeed provocative, especially when it comes to something as multi-faceted as personality and compatibility. But whether learning about other people’s genomes is creepy or empowering comes down to a matter of perspective: Is this knowledge just about finding out who the “winners” of the genetic lottery are? But focusing on this frame assumes that DNA analysis merely adds to what we already know: After all, it is not hard to pick out the genetic winners for looks, smarts, and athleticism, even without knowing anything about their actual genomes. You don’t need to know anything about the genetics of hair color to know that your neighbor’s hair is brown.
No, the possibilities for what DNA analysis can tell us are far greater and calls for a different frame: Is there is an optimal course for everyone given their genetic endowment, whatever that endowment may be? Current assumptions about success in love and work often come down to looks and talent. But love and work are ultimately about human relationships, and when it comes to human relationships, there are so many universally recognized qualities that matter more: patience, sense of humor, resilience, drive, loyalty, kindness.
Having the information to take a different, unprecedented look at our abilities and propensities helps us make love and work a little less fraught and, perhaps, a little more joyful. The rest of life is challenging enough.