Home Genome Kits Create Online Eugenics Networks

Everybody is buzzing about 23andme, one of many startups aiming to hit the consumer market with "read your own genome at home" kits. Most of these companies want to cross the happy-personalization language of the iPod with barely-there biotech to bring in millions of customers. People are desperate to understand themselves and looking to their genes for answers. But with genomics in its infancy as a science, and most of our knowledge of gene functionality dubious at best, what companies like 32andme are really selling is social networks based on the principles of eugenics. I show you my genome, you show me yours, then maybe we can be friends.

Believe me, I'd love it if home genome kits could really help us in a scientific way. It would be great if we knew enough about the human genome to say things like "this gene gives you a predisposition to depression." Once we know that, it's only a matter of time before we'll get customized pharmaceuticals, a personalized pill that combats your unique form of genetically-hardwired depressive tendencies. But we don't. In fact, most doctors don't even understand how to interpret prenatal genetic tests.

Indeed, most genomics experts agree that a genetic predisposition to something is hardly a prediction. Environmental factors play a key role in gene expression. So a sad childhood might trigger those depression genes, or a polluted environment trigger genes for cancer. Plus, as I said before, we still don't really know what most of our genes do. So what if you have a gene that scientists think might be linked to a tendency to take risks? Should you be more careful? Should you be given drugs to calm you down?

Worst case scenario: people doing home genome testing will start treating themselves for bogus disorders. Best case: they turn their genomes into a form of social networking, the way 23and me encourages them to, and start dating people with compatible genomes. That's nothing more than eugenics, when you think about it.