Another Perspective

We Are Family

We’re all DNA testers now.

By 2.20.13

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Already distracted 24/7 by iPods, tall lattes with extra foam, the download of special apps, and reality TV, Americans have found a new form of entertainment and national diversion. As recently reported, cheap do-it-yourself genetic testing is now mainstream and in vogue. Once the domain of forensic experts, anthropologists, and others sincerely seeking the secrets of their past, self-administered DNA testing for some is now a hobby -- just like building model ships and trains and collecting butterflies.

Doubtless, the subject has gained new traction with the momentous discovery in central England of the remains of Richard III, the English king. Using just a swab, scraper, and spittle, one can now extract enough DNA to establish potential linkages to the rich and famous.

Using biomedical science to seek new relatives seems based on the revolutionary notion that existing relatives are not enough, and that one yearns for more of them. This has huge implications for feeding families that convene at Thanksgiving and Christmas -- and indeed for the meaning of the family as a societal unit.

Perhaps this new form of outreach is a symptom of loneliness. In a well-wired world of about 7 billion people, where new friendships are as easy to establish as the click of a mouse, we still do not have enough social engagement. Even with social media allowing unbridled narcissists to pretend, we still long for even larger audiences and more adulation -- confirming the principle that more is less, and not enough.

The ironies for new self-esteem are limitless. A homebody might discover that he or she is related to Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, the famous Anglo-Irish explorer of the Antarctic in the early 20th century, or to Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who was first to scale Mount Everest. An awkward dancer might even discover Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers as relatives.

While popularized DNA testing may ultimately be deemed a good thing, there is also a potential dark side. Seeking self-aggrandizement, it is not hard to think that an opportunist might claim Bill Gates or Warren Buffett as ancestors. And imagine the shock if someone discovered that he or she were related to the unphotogenic North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

There is no limit to the way such DNA testing might be conducted. Office and factory workers could take DNA breaks instead of the more mundane coffee break. Fast food companies and others with vast consumer franchises could offer a DNA swab with a burrito or mocha cappuccino. Automotive companies could provide DNA testing kits as standard features in every glove compartment. Further, DNA testing would also give new meaning to the late 1970s disco era hit by Sister Sledge, “We Are Family,” in which it is affirmed that “everyone can see we’re together.” Because DNA testing can be performed while reading a desktop monitor or handheld device, it may therefore be added to the panoply of multitasking activities. Home DNA testing could also allow new social bonds to be forged, like pajama parties.

As with any new and successful enterprise, there will be need for judicious oversight and government regulation. House and Senate committees could expand their already burgeoning control agendas in an unrelenting desire to monitor and interfere in even more human endeavor, passing DNA regulatory bills without even reading them. It is also not difficult to imagine a new Administration czar or cabinet post to elevate national DNA testing, giving it White House sponsorship. Democratic strategists might seek to broaden the scope of DNA testing, identifying yet another voting segment of the population wanting sponsorship, while the “I’ve got mine” Republicans could claim enough existing ancestral linkages and attempt to block the march of science.

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About the Author
Frank Schell is a business consultant and former international banking executive. He serves on the Dean’s International Council of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago where he is a lecturer.