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Growing up, my favorite author was Michael Crichton. I loved Jurassic Park the movie as much as I loved Jurassic Park the book, and I read all his other sci-fi stories when I was a kid. One of his more overlooked works was a novel called Next, which includes storylines about a transgenic chimp that can talk and an orangutan that exclusively speaks in swear words. But it also discusses plot points like corporate espionage, patents on specific genes, corporations’ obligations with regards to bio-waste, and to what extent a person’s genetic history can explain their behaviors.
The book raised more questions than it answered, and a lot of these questions came rushing to my mind when Spotify announced that they were entering into an agreement with Ancestry “to offer playlists based on your DNA.” Ostensibly, the purpose of this partnership is to “help Ancestry users better understand their ethnic history through music, giving users the ability to input the different ethnicities and regions that comprise their heritage and then listen to the music from those places.” So it seems like something of a novelty for Ancestry users, but it raises some big questions about whether a company can freely buy or sell your genetic identity.
Luckily, Spotify isn’t actually getting your genetic code but just basic information about your ethnic heritage that is not stored on any of their servers, and it’s opt-in. However, you might be surprised to learn that, while there are many states with laws that protect your genetic privacy, many states do not consider your DNA, once freely surrendered to be your private property. This means, theoretically, that since you gave a company like Ancestry your DNA, they might not have any obligation to you if they sold it to a company like Spotify.
That seems unlikely, but what if your DNA is given to your doctor or a lab for testing, and they discover that it could be used to develop a new drug or procedure? Can they do so without your permission? Do you have a right to the profits that new drug or procedure could produce? Not necessarily.
Although the Supreme Court, in 2013, ruled that individual genes and gene sequences cannot be patented–one of the major worries from Next–they did hold open the possibility that altered or manipulated genes could be patentable. So a company can use your DNA freely, and patent it if they do something more than just isolate it. Once you give it away freely, a company could theoretically use it or manipulate it for profit and you might not have a right to those proceeds. This was an issue that Crichton raised, where a company found a patient had a unique genetic makeup that they could reproduce and use to create a more effective cancer treatment. In today’s world, it might be possible to do this without the patient’s knowledge, permission, or any duty to them other than privacy protections.
Another troubling implication, beyond the “ownership of genes” question, is to what extent Spotify can use the information to tailor playlists to you. Spotify already has an algorithm that evaluates your listening habits by artist and genre. Combined with your ethnic profile, is it possible that Spotify will determine that people would prefer certain types of music based on their genetic background? More importantly, what are the implications if it turns out that people from similar ethnic backgrounds have similar likes and dislikes when it comes to music? Does this mean that our taste in music is, to some extent, determined by genetics? And if that is the case, what does that say about free will?
This is another question that Next raises when a lawyer advises one of his clients that his genetic profile shows a predisposition for “risky” behavior, which they can use in his upcoming criminal trial. The client begins to engage in daredevil behavior to support the defense that, to some extent, he couldn’t help but commit sexual assault because of his genetic predisposition. Of course, that sounds ridiculous, except for the fact that earlier this year a Tennessee jury reduced a criminal’s sentence from murder to manslaughter, based largely on his defense team’s argument that he had an unusual variant of “the warrior gene,” meaning he was more prone to impulsive aggression.
I know it seems insane, but when you hear new research showing that genetics accounts for half of the differences in personality tests and IQ scores, you might question if there is validity to the idea that our behavior is more influenced by genetics than free will. As we learn more and more about the relationship between genetics, behavior, and personality, it’s going to force us to answer those difficult questions. After all, we already have the insanity defense available in criminal courts, and conditions like bipolar disorders have a largely genetic component. Are we approaching a point where there will be a “genetic predisposition” defense?
If this sounds very Black Mirror-ish, well it is. There are a lot of questions–legally and morally–that we as a society have not begun to consider with regard to our genetic integrity. Just like the episode of Black Mirror where a woman had a personal “helper” that was actually an avatar that looked, sounded, and thought like her, but existed only to serve her needs, there could be a time where we are wondering if clones are “people” with rights and identities or if they are property.
We may need to resolve whether we, as individuals, have exclusive rights to our genetic makeup, or whether it can be used freely for a societal benefit. We need to make sure that there is some measure of morality or a check on how much we should genetically influence our population and whether the risk of disaster is worth playing God. And finally, we need to come to an understanding of how much our genetics influence our behavior and to what extent we are willing to excuse some actions by saying “he was born that way.” .