I felt a terror when I saw a button labelled “download DNA test results”. It’s a file on my desktop now – ‘genome_Matt_Haworth_Full.txt’ – slightly less than 25 megabytes, or about half the size of the last album I downloaded to the same laptop.
Seeing that code – the actual letters of it – affected me more than the arresting health risk predictions. Leaps in technology means it’s now possible to look into the smallest pieces of what makes us us. No matter who you are – or even what living thing you are – what you find is a beautiful, simple code of just four letters. You look at it to try to see yourself, but you end up seeing something so much bigger: your connection to life around you.
It all just seemed too profound to let some problems with regulation and privacy law get in the way. The potential so much more tantalising than the pitfalls.
This sense of wonderment broke abruptly to a snort of laughter as I remembered Ben Goldacre’s novel invitation for everyone to find this feeling through science. At home DNA testing wasn’t around back then, though, so he suggested looking at your sperm under a microscope. He wrote how a sense of being connected to something bigger was part-and-parcel with understanding science. What I’m interested in is how can we use that sense of connection to make the world better?
In other words, how we can turn DNA data into donations? Genetics into giving?
Having been through this, I think it’s inevitable that access to this data will change the charitable causes people feel an affinity with, earlier in their lifetimes.
There was just one nagging question left to answer: Is this the way anyone should give?
At best it seems that letting your DNA decide your donations is employing enlightened self interest, at worst pure selfishness, overcoming the very meaning of charity in the first place. Isn’t this something else, more watered down, a sort of health insurance? A transaction. Not a donation.
It’s not clear cut.
That personal connection, being moved – or forced – to empathise with others in need, has always been a feature of giving choices. Instead of a moving story, or hearing the experiences of a family member, this just seems to be another, albeit futuristic, way to achieve the same result.
Perhaps one day we’ll know exactly what will affect us in future. If we do, and just give to that cause, perhaps my feelings would be different.
Yet that’s the one thing these results didn’t take account of: the unknown. The results don’t consider lifestyle, or just pure chance. Nothing is quite that finite – even our genetics.
Regardless, one thing that’s for sure is that seeing these results is giving millions a visceral sensation, one that says “these things doesn’t just happen to other people”.
That means we need to ask ourselves the questions, because this change is happening.
Wide scale DNA testing is inevitable and it will affect people’s behaviour, and the charities they support.
So, join in, try it. Donate to a cause that’s close to your…DNA. Or don’t. The choice is up to you. Or perhaps, at least, your genetic code.