As We Democratize Biology, We Must Avoid Biologizing Democracy

Sequence Yourself After Work Event at Epicenter Stockholm

At Singularity University, where I have been active for almost a decade, we often describe the trend that a range of technologies are rapidly being demonetized and democratized. As a bio-hacker and an active community campaigner I travel the world sharing the insight that almost anybody now can access and apply very powerful biotechnology tools. Now recent scientific insights illustrate that the predictive power of genomics is even greater then we previously thought, and this means we have some difficult considerations to make.

The market for consumer gene testing is illustrative — by now several million people worldwide have had their own genomes partially or fully sequenced on one of the many consumer platforms. A whole genome sequencing can today be purchased for less than $1000, and the market is developing. Recently genome-data broker Nebula Genomics began offering sequencing for free in exchange for being able to sell the data.

There are also national initiatives in for example the 100,000 Genomes Project in the UK and the National Personalized Medicine Program in Estonia which both aim to map large swaths of population genomes to enable personalized medicine.

Sequencing-technology industry incumbents like Illumina (US) and challengers like Single Technologies (Sweden) and Oxford Nanopore (UK) are constantly pushing the limits for ever cheaper sequencing solutions.

The mass sequencing of genomes has far-reaching consequences. For the first time scientists and researchers now have access to population-size genetics data sets allowing for the statistical crunching and discovery of hitherto unknown relationships. Just a few years ago we simply did not have these datasets.

In his recent book, Blueprint — How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin (Professor at Kings College London) convincingly establishes that the genetic makeup we get at the moment of conception is the most powerful predictor of psychological strengths and weaknesses in adult life. Based on large data sets previously not available to scientists, he illustrates through genome wide association studies the ability to predict depression, ADD, intelligence, scholarly achievement and schizophrenia with higher accuracy than earlier approaches available to the medical and psychological professions. The conclusion is, genetic differences — rather than environmental factors — are the major systematic force in making us who we are.

Many of us who have an understanding of the marvelous applications of DNA sequencing welcome its use to bring about personalized medicine. Genetic factors play an important role in the effectivity of different pharmaceuticals, and by knowing a person’s genetic setup, doctors don’t have to test but can apply the appropriate treatments from the start. Genetic mapping also helps making relevant decision in terms of diets, exercise habits and other lifestyle choices that constitute the best options for bringing healthy longevity.

However, we can also see applications of cheap genome sequencing in other domains, where the cost-benefit balance is not so clear as in the health care example.

Are we ready for gene tests as part of job application processes? Surely it is square in the interest of a company recruiting for a business-critical role to uncover the candidate’s disposition for mental health issues? SingularityHub has a diverse international readership and the legislate environments and compliance differs around the globe. Our legislators may regulate against it, but with a truly demonetized access to sequencing technology, what prevents an interviewer to make a quick swipe of the water glass of an applicant after an interview if the stakes are high?

As Plomin illustrates in his book, our individual propensity for depression, general intelligence and scholarly achievement can be clearly read in our genes already at birth. This means we’ll have the ability to personalize not just health care, but also education, based on genetics.

It can be argued that this goes against the humanitarian ideal that everyone should be given equal preconditions to succeed in life. At the same time, it can be seen as a tool to levelling the playing field given every individuals’ unique characteristics. Is amounts to recognizing something which has always been there.

This and related ethical considerations are what we as decisions makers as well as our policy makers will have to grapple with in the years to come. As the democratization of DNA-sequencing allow us to map every man, woman, child and pet and tailor not just the specific diet and healthcare solutions for these persons, but also their role in society.

In practice this may mean giving different treatments and rights to people based on their differences in genetics. I foresee a development wherein as we democratize biology, we end up biologizing democracy. This is a conversation we need to have.

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I wrote this piece for SingularityHub where it was originally published in April 2019. There may be some minor editorial differences between the versions.

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Tech & biohacking activist & speaker / #SingularityU Nordic Faculty

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Hannes Sjoblad

Hannes Sjoblad

Tech & biohacking activist & speaker / #SingularityU Nordic Faculty

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