Every holiday, and on Black Friday and Cyber Monday and Random Discount Wednesday and Oh God Buy Stuff The High Street Is Dying Thursday, a load of miserable Opinions-For-Hire types churn out diatribes about why you absolutely should not buy anyone, including yourself, a DNA test – in the sales or otherwise. And I'm here to tell you why they're wrong.
Before we get to why DNA tests are officially a good thing, let's run through some of the downsides those op-eds always bring up.
Yes, some people have found unexpected skeletons in their cupboards and sparked giant, multigenerational family arguments. But that's very rare – most of us, for better or worse, don't have family histories that'd make a good daytime soap. And even if it does happen, wouldn't you rather know the truth? Where you really come from, and why you were lied to about it? It could have enormous impacts on your life choices.
Another concern is data security. Doom-mongers envisage a future where your genetic information is sold to health insurance companies, who jack up your premium as a result – but that's much more of a concern for countries like the US than the UK, which still (at the time of writing, at least!) has a National Health Service. The NHS itself is on board with genetic testing, getting ready to offer a service of its own in return for contributing your anonymised data to lifesaving research.
Image: Nosha via Flickr CC
It's worth noting, too, that not all DNA testing is created equal. Some services are more geared towards looking at your ancestry and ethnicity information, while others only give surface-level results like "may be slightly more likely to have [X]", in which X can be anything from Alzheimer's to asparagus-scented wee. So depending on which service you've gone for, the information might be all but useless unless someone's trying to prove you ticked the wrong box on the ethnicity form when you applied for your job.
OK, so maybe not insurance companies, but what about your test results getting into other bad actors' hands? Well, yes, every damn company holding sensitive data has security issues, it seems – the NHS very much included. However, I'm not overly worried that someone's going to download my info, insert it into some kind of biological 3D printer and start creating counterfeit versions of me. Even if that were possible, they'd need way more information than they'd get from a home DNA test.
The idea that your DNA test results constitute the source code for everything you are is a misconception. For starters, the tests only look at a tiny fraction of the human genome, but even if they didn't – that's not how genes work. Yes, some problems and tendencies are genetic, but many are only influenced by your genes (often more than one), and some have absolutely sod-all to do with DNA whatsoever, being entirely caused by environmental factors. When you get the flu, does your DNA suddenly say "this person has the flu"? No. Is there a gay gene? No. Nobody's going to post your base pairs on Pastebin and recompile you.
As someone who's done many of these tests, I don't feel that my DNA is some kind of proprietary code I need to defend; in fact I'd open-source it if it meant we could work together on debugging some of the shit bits. Heck, maybe we can even fork me into a better person.
DNA data getting into evildoers' hands is one of those possibilities that sounds awful in theory, and it might well be awful in a few years when the whole system is more refined, but right now it would amount to "the terrorists have found out that you... HAVE A MODERATE CHANCE OF BEING BLUE EYED!" Not such a great Bond movie, is it?
You might also have seen some outcry when a popular DNA site was acquired for the purposes of solving crime, but assuming you and yours aren't massive criminals, that's probably not a huge worry either. In fact, DNA testing of relatives and descendants of suspects has solved a surprising number of cold cases in the US alone in the last few years, as well as identifying quite a few nameless bodies. Surely we can all agree that's a good thing.
While most of the worries about DNA testing are premature or arguable at this point, there are benefits that are real and tangible.
In my case, since my father is dead and I have no contact with my mother, a lot of the information I've found through DNA testing just wasn't available to me in other ways. There are plenty of people in similar situations – folks who don't know who their birth parents were, have no contact with them, or aren't able to talk to them about matters of health and ancestry for one reason or another, for instance. DNA testing gives us a way to make family connections, in both the data and the relationship sense.
Last month, someone I share DNA with added me on Facebook. For some people, that might be strange and unnerving (in which case I'd say don't make your name public on your DNA profile – I did because I wanted to find relatives), but for me it was wonderful. Being estranged from part of my immediate family means these connections mean more to me, and it's fascinating to look at the surnames, traits and lives of people all over the world who share my DNA segments.
For instance, until I had my DNA tested and analysed, I had zero idea about my considerable Jewish heritage. That led to a lot of genealogical research, ultimately helping me trace my family tree back to the 1700s. Now, when a new DNA relative contacts me (and they do, often – it's like having email penpals), we can frequently figure out where our family trees connect, and fill each other in on cool details about our ancestors.
The health information can be life-changing too. In my case, I carry two genetic diseases that would make having a biological child pretty unwise. I already knew this from trying to donate my eggs a few years prior to the first test, and I don't want kids anyway, so it wasn't a nasty surprise – but if I'd been planning babies, it would have been invaluable information. From this viewpoint, it seems almost crazy that most people go ahead and mix their genes with no idea what they might contain.
Of course, someone else with my results might have been devastated, but I would still argue it's better to know what you're facing. The same goes for the more serious heritable conditions that DNA tests can show. Yes, it's scary to think you might have a higher chance of getting a particular type of cancer, but it's not a certainty, and it might help you make those lifestyle changes you swear to every January. Or at least start living like you're not immortal, because newsflash: you're not.
In any case, the limited information you can get from home testing services can only give you clues, not the full picture, and some services are more accurate than others. As I mentioned, there's a lot besides raw DNA that makes a difference to how you turn out (see the whole field of epigenetics, for instance). Over time, we'll likely get more sophisticated information, which might one day mean we can start patching ourselves – or at least developing medicines and treatments that interact with our unique makeup. But that's a long way off yet.
For now, there's a lot of valuable and fascinating data to be gleaned from testing your DNA, and a relatively low chance you'll ruin the next family reunion. Only you can decide what makes the most sense for you, and no test – or article – can tell you that.
Main image: Andy Leppard via Flickr CC