Blog: DNA testing goes popular (and daytime)
In this clip from his late night TV show on the 6 October, the comedian Stephen Colbert look at the rapidly expanding market for direct-to-consumer genetic testing (DTCGT). Colbert points out how direct to consumer genetic testing is ‘big business’, expected to be worth $340million by 2022. The size of the business, and the huge expansion in commercial offer since the FDA relaxed rules on communication in early 2017, makes it worthy of investigation in popular culture and also of satire. However, what Colbert focuses on – and the way his jokes work – reveal also a set of assumptions about genetic knowledge and the commodification of biodata.
Colbert mentions the big players – 23andme, Ancestry.com, and their services in sequencing genetic code for leisure purposes. He goes onto make some jokes about the precision claimed by smaller companies that claim – for instance – to be able to select wine for particular palates dependent on genetic make up, a company that claims to help improve children’s sporting performance, or a dating company that matches according to genetic compatability. Colbert begins the section by discussing his own Irish heritage and makes various asides about his inability to do things because of his genes (‘I don’t have the Math gene’). In minutes Colbert discusses issues – in a mocking tone – that are incredibly important in the public consideration of consumer genetic testing. Whilst he dismisses as ‘bullshit’ the wine-gene company, he himself is participating in a very unsubtle version of popular genetics (genes = race, or = ability, or = identity, and are relatively easily comprehendible and understandable). Indeed his dismissal of the company’s commercial offers is funny only because it presumes with the audience a shared level of education and understanding about genetic science. Obviously to Colbert and his audience these companies are quacks and mountebanks, worthy of mockery. Or rather, and more bleakly, the situation in which we find ourselves – the profound wonder of the genome being reduced to commodity, something to be sold, advertised about, personalised – lays bare the terrific will-to-profit of late-stage capitalism.
The discussion becomes more nuanced after a discussion of the Baltimore Ravens story. Colbert advises: ‘apparently turning your entire genetic code over to faceless corporations might have a downside’. He raises privacy concerns, issues about ethics, and issues about corporations and companies looking for genetic information about their employees.
He finishes with a discussion of race and genetics: ‘There is one group that loves DNA testing, and that’s racists’. As has been widely reported, white nationalists are using DNA tests but finding the results not quite what they had looked for. The problem is that these tests can provide genetic make-ups that include complex ethnicities. The well-known supremacist leader Craig Cobb, for instance, was revealed to have DNA seemingly matched to sub-Saharan Africa on an episode of Trisha in 2013 and has been attacked by his former friends ever since.
Colbert mock-sympathises: ‘I get it guys, you pay all this money for a genetic test and then it upends your whole world view’. However the point is a much more profound one than this allows for. Colbert’s jokes point out how DNA testing might have an incredible effect on the user, and challenge their way of thinking and defining themselves. They are both pointless – the science is unclear, the information wrong and misinterpreted – but also something that might change the way the user thinks about themselves. Yet the clip also cleaves to a particular interpretation of the data. These tests claim to reveal that users have non-white DNA in their genetic make-up. The joke is that something unfixed (in this instance, race) is becoming scientifically fixed – but not in the ‘right’ way for the user. However the conclusion is the same – ethnic characteristics described by DNA tests are ‘real’, indeed more ‘real’ than contemporary self-evaluations of identity. The authority being apportioned to the test is the joke here, as idiot white supremacists are shown to be stupid because ‘science’ defines them in a way they cannot or will not recognise. The authority of the test is paramount here (or, in a more generous reading, the user’s impression of this authority).
Another aspect happened on this month as popular DNA testing goes Daytime (well, morning) TV. Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid took a DNA test on Good Morning Britain (October 17th). Similarly they showed a clear engagement with the ‘truth’ of the test and its ability to communicate their ethnic background – in Morgan’s case, that he had no ‘English’ DNA (only Irish, Scottish, and general Celtic), and that he also had some ‘Middle Eastern’ ethnicity (which he defined as ‘Arab’). The clip shows once again the increasing profile of these tests but also the ways that they are misinterpreted and the large problems of communication that arise.