By Scott Sullivan
No one knows better what we’re born with kills us than genealogists. DNA, those telltale double-helixes bearing instructions for life, growth and functioning, rats us out in the end as well.
Take the Golden State Killer, who committed at least 12 murders, more than 50 rapes and 100 burglaries in California from 1974 to 1986. Based on DNA evidence, police charged 72-year-old former policeman Joseph DeAngelo April 24 with eight counts of first-degree murder.
Good news, right? We all want a serial killer caught, even 32 years after. Cops have solved other cold cases too using online genetic data.
There are other uses. More and more services say they can take a swab of a buyer’s genetic material to find long-lost family members, early warning signs of disease and more.
Aye, but there’s a rub. Who decides where that data is stored, who has access to it and how it will be used later? Add records gleaned from your online and credit card orders, medical treatments, cell phones, security cameras and more. Do you want public access to your most-intimate information?
People value privacy for a reason. There is a line between fair-minded searches for truth and one-sided witch hunts. Use publicly-harvested data to bully, threaten and intimidate — much as rogue cops and journalists do — and you’ll terrify some people into sainthood. Do churches approve that method? When bullies let out their bottled genies, how do victims get good names back?
David Bowie’s 1972 song “The Jean Genie” was not about Gregor Mendel, the Moravian friar known today as the Father of Genetics. Not with lyrics like:
Strung out on lasers and slash-back blazers and
Ate all your razors while pulling the waiters
Talking ‘bout Monroe and walking on Snow White
New York’s a go-go, and everything tastes nice …
The name was a bad pun on Jean Genet, who was neither a friar nor genealogist. After being expelled from the French Foreign Legion for indecency, he spent time in and out jail writing works that advanced French theatres of cruelty and absurdity.
“I recognize in thieves, traitors and murderers,” Genet wrote, “in the ruthless and cunning, a deep beauty — a sunken beauty.” Who wouldn’t celebrate that in song?
Magic made known and commonplace equals science. It can crush us as much as liberate. Spit in a kit bought for 99 bucks online, send it in, and, Voila!, you learn your origins.
“I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt,” Kyle tells AncestryDNA. Swap online, they have more data. Other tests can help you find long-lost relatives — game them right you can lay claim to Bill Gates’ inheritance. Or find kin you wish had stayed lost.
“You are made of lots and lots of little cells,” says University of Findlay assistant biology professor Abby Levitt. University of Findlay? I don’t have a Ph.D. but I knew that.
If you stretched all the DNA in your body — the 10 trillion cells in each person — “you could make it to the sun and back four times,” she says. That’s a lot of data to swath in sunscreen.
Sol is 93 million miles away, which I’ve known since a solar system mobile hung in my boyhood bedroom. Drafts from the windows moved the nine cardboard planets. Or I could push them so they revolved around a plastic sun in their center.
My powers have since diminished. Were I God I might pause the planets to persuade their occupants not to march backwards into the future.
At this rate, who knows where we are borne?