Human beings are understandably a bit leery of giving huge faceless corporations their genetic blueprint, especially without their knowledge. Even if it’s for altruistic reasons, it feels a bit too much like living in a bad cyberpunk novel. But, according to one of Google’s top executives, we should stop whining and give Google our DNA to play with.
This particular rant came from Bill Maris, CEO of Google Ventures and the man behind Calico, Google’s biotech arm engaged in anti-aging research. And what’s worrying about it is how disingenuous Maris is.
Take his first statement: “If we each keep our genetic information secret, then we’re all going to die.” Uh, even if we don’t, Bill, we’re probably all gonna die eventually anyway. He then insists that because skin cells flake off in public, our genome isn’t really secret. Which would be true if it were simple and easy to find those skin cells and get DNA out of them, but it isn’t and current methods for that are notoriously unreliable compared to their reputation. Which is why biotech companies generally need a pretty large DNA sample.
Maris isn’t entirely wrong: Researchers have been pushing for wider access to DNA databases for a multitude of reasons. The problem is that Maris’ vision lacks accountability. Look no further than Henrietta Lacks; researchers cultured her cell line to create the first immortal cell line, HeLa. But her cells were harvested without her knowledge or consent, and that resulted in staggering emotional anguish for her family when they found out she’d essentially been exploited without their knowledge for decades.
And therein lies the issue. It’s undeniably true we need more genomes, but those genomes must be freely given and given with the understanding of how and why they’re used, and with control remaining to the person it comes from. Simply put, if we’re going to give out what quite literally determines what we’re human, we need to have control over where it goes and how it used. That’s why privacy laws exist, and if that bothers Bill Maris, perhaps he should consider another line of work.