By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Christine Kenneally
Narrated by: Justine Eyre
The science of DNA is at once enlightening and frightening. It reveals the essence of human life while exposing intimate and potentially destructive information about individual lives. Perfecting DNA sequencing may cure the worse diseases of humankind. However, perfect sequencing invades one’s privacy in a technological world that disseminates information indiscriminately.
Christine Kenneally thoughtfully reviews the current (2014) science of DNA analysis. She notes how it is being collected, defined, and used. Kenneally suggests that DNA analysis is a time machine; i.e. it reveals much about the origin of humankind. One who chooses to have their DNA analyzed can determine a great deal about their ancestry. In theory, if everyone on earth had their DNA analyzed, it would be possible to precisely determine how every human being relates to other human beings. It would offer clues, but not certainty, about how they came to live where they live, feel like they feel, and act like they act. (Because human beings are influenced by their environment, genetic inheritance is not the sole determinant of where one lives, how one feels, or acts.)
DNA analysis shows that humankind originated on the African continent. Possible outliers are Neanderthal man, and Denisov man in Europe, and a recent discovery of hobbit-like human remains in Asia in 2004. DNA sequencing suggests these three human ancestors disappeared and constitute less than 3 percent of modern human DNA.
Kenneally recounts some of the history of Australia and Tasmania to reinforce the validity of her argument that DNA analysis is a time machine. Australia, with a small indigenous population, became a penal colony for the United Kingdom in the 18th century. Because of the isolation of Australia and Tasmania, they became ideal laboratories for DNA research. In concert with government subsidization and records of convict transport to Australia, DNA analysis provides experimentally repeatable evidence of human evolution. Heritable human features and environmental preferences can be experimentally connected to DNA analysis of the Australian and Tasmanian populations.
Not only could the travel experience of ancestors be tracked through DNA analysis, genomic evidence of diseases [spread through family and community generations] could be followed.
Kenneally notes that a new industry has grown from the early research done on DNA analysis. Some of the growth is riven with charlatans looking for a quick buck by suggesting they have evidence of ancestry profiles that connect “Joe Smo” with Genghis Kahn. More importantly, ancestral information errors demean and mislead customers who want to know more about themselves.
However, Kenneally argues that legitimate DNA companies contribute to the understanding of human history and ancestry. Putting aside charlatans, even honest public and private DNA researchers pose a threat to the public. One threat is in the DNA analysis that identifies genes that carry potential for illness or death.
Kenneally recalls the history of a family with Huntington’s disease. It is an inheritable fatal disease that can strike at any age depending on the number of faulty genetic repetitions of a DNA strain. If this faulty strain repeats itself more than 42 times, the patient will contract Huntington disease symptoms. The more times the DNA strain is repeated, the younger the patient will be when he/she dies. Intimate personal information on one’s DNA, if released, could deny a person the right to insurance, deny them opportunity to work, and relegate them to a life of poverty.
Further, an ominous negative potential lurks in the idea of genetic manipulation to customize human progeny. The principles of eugenics imply perfection of human beings through genetic manipulation. Also, there is the darker potential of eliminating human beings based on DNA strains that are deemed harmful to humankind. Social engineering by government has happened before; and not only in Hitler’s Germany, but in America with court ordered sterilization.
Because these are the early years of DNA sequencing, laws have not caught up to the science. Companies that provide the service are subject to all the temptations of money, power, and prestige inherent in society. Dissemination of information is ubiquitous in the internet age. It is a brave new world with a dream of eradicating disease; while the nightmare of “Big Brother” manipulation endures.