The era of genetic transparency is almost here

By Razib Khan | September 30, 2013 11:55 am

Matter has a very long feature by my friend Virginia Hughes, Uprooted, on how personal genomics is changing, and sometimes disrupting, family relationships. I sat in on one session at the Consumer Genetics Conference last week, and an audience member expressed worry about how genetic results might cause family disruption. This individual was actually a faculty member who wanted to introduce personal genomics into the classroom as a way to educate, but was wary of these sorts of side effects. Even neglecting the reality that paternity uncertainty is likely far less pervasive among the sorts whose parents would be enrolling their offspring at universities in the Boston area, these worries always have to be predicated by the fact that even dodging this ethical gray zone in the specific case only delays the near-future inevitable. Unless medical authorities ubiquitously and invariably selectively shield this sort of information from the relevant parties the widespread adoption of genetic analysis as a consumer product will result in exposure of this sort of information. Though it may seem crazy preemptive testing of all offspring to ascertain biological relatedness of putative parents may simply be the best way to head off this issue, which will be like a ticking time bomb.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal Genomics
MORE ABOUT: Personal genomics

Comments (10)

  1. lacie

    When I taught the inheritance of blood types there were a few sticky moments over the years. Science is not always comfortable.

    • razibkhan

      but the markers for ABO aren’t perfectly predictive (at least going by 23andMe’s results). though i guess if you are talking histochemistry or whatever that should be right, the inheritance might be more complex.

    • Francesc

      Been there. You could hear the whispers when the poor student realized that his ABO blood type didn’t match his parents’: “the plumber! it was the plumber!”

  2. Dmitry Pruss

    People underestimate how much the new genealogical transparency owes not to genetics but to the Internet databases. Great many things are indexed by the almighty Google, and people already know it. But the Mormon family search (a pre-paywall slice of the databases mentioned in the Uprooted piece) uses its own powerful search engine, and it is often overlooked. I mean, Razib, for the likes of yourself or myself, whose ancestors didn’t happen to reside in places / times with vital stats and residence records fully integrated in Family Search databases, searching there doesn’t reveal much (the only Razib Khan in the entire Mormon database has been born in 1966, and I surmise that it isn’t you; your daughter’s California birth record must be too recent to have made it into the database). But for an average American, iterative searches in genealogical databases can be very productive.

    What the genetics brings is, mostly, a veracity check (“does a relation found through genealogy pan up in genetics”). These days, it isn’t surprising to deduce non-paternities 2,3 generations back, because genetics meets genealogy (with genetics alone, most non-paternities ever found included mother-child or half-sibling pairs, like in Uprooted, but now I sometimes spot the miswired family trees even when looking at 2nd or 3rd cousins)

  3. Sandgroper

    I’ve come around to thinking “Hard luck”. Or “Don’t lie to kids” because they’re going to find out the truth. Reality is what it is, and is priceless for its own sake.

    Both my daughter and I were quite surprised to find that the narrative we had constructed in our heads about ancestors turned out to be very accurate. There’s been less bastardry going on than some people seem to want to believe.

    I’m less sanguine about medical information.

  4. Francesc

    And there are the health issues. I’m APOE3-4, which increases my likelihood for Alzheimer’s. But this also means that I got my E4 from dad or mum, who are 80 and 70 and in reasonable health. Should I tell them?

  5. Lisa

    What’s wrong with Accountability? I know people who love to say, “God’s going to get you in the end,” but in this case, you could substitute “Science has you now.”

  6. stevesailer

    I wouldn’t want to inform public school K-12 students of the identity of their real dads. Could lead to a lot of whuppings.

  7. Pre-emptive testing certainly can eliminate the question of a child asking herself “should I find out” or a parent asking herself “should I tell.”

    But it comes at the cost of putting an unmatched amount of absolutely unique personal information into either corporate or governmental databases, none of which can (in either the short term or the long term) offer any ironclad guarantees as to the nature of use and the prevention of abuse.

    • Sandgroper

      Talking in terms of ironclad guarantees is, I’m sorry, nonsensical. You have no ironclad guarantee in life about anything – if you think you do, you don’t understand the nature of risk.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar