Screening for Undesirable Genes (2009)


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Dunne, A., Raby, F. & Miah, A. (2008) Screening for Undesirable Genes: The Evidence Dolls Project, in Miah, A. (2008). Human Futures: Art in an Age of Uncertainty (Liverpool University Press & FACT).  

"How will dating change when DNA analysis can reveal the presence of undesirable genes? This question arises amidst the emergence of genetic screening and testing, which have already been debated in the context of paternity testing and sex selection (HFEA 2003; HGC 2006). The prospect of selecting desirable genes is also integral to debates about the legitimacy of selecting out genes that are, for various reasons, considered undesirable. Many debates in this area centre on the ethical and legal implications of such prospects, focusing on matters of discrimination and broader social divisions that might arise from such practices.

 

However, very little research has investigated how choices to select for non-health-related or aesthetic genetic characteristics might be made. In part, this lack of research is due to the absence of communities where such decisions have been taken. As yet, most choices to select for specific genetic characteristics remain exclusively restricted to cases where the aim is to avoid passing on serious illnesses, and even in these cases the liberty to undertake such procreative decision making is controversial. Moreover, it is not at all clear how people go about deciding what to do in such circumstances. To this end, understanding how people would make lifestyle decisions – such as who to date – on the basis of knowledge about various types of genetic characteristics is even further lacking in evidential support.

 

Debates about the morality of such decision-making occupy a contested space of scientific knowledge, where the notion of aesthetic genes is seen as dubious either because such characteristics are not possible to isolate, or because many of our phenotypic states are not easily divorced from some health-related claim. Thus, in the context of dating decisions, one might assert sexual attraction as a biological instinct that is informed by an implicit assumption we make about what constitutes a partner who will optimize our flourishing and, perhaps, that of our offspring. While one should not be too strict about this claim or divorce it from the cultural conditions within which human sexuality becomes manifest, the example serves to illustrate how supposed aesthetic choices might also be laden with health-related values.

 

Evidence Dolls is part of an ongoing investigation into how design can be used as a medium for public debate on the social, cultural and ethical impact of emerging technologies. It consists of 100 specially designed dolls used to provoke discussion among a group of young single women about the impact of genetic technology on their lifestyle. It caters for the young, female, heterosexual generation who want to take their time and sample many male specimens before making a serious commitment. With so much resting on the genetic compatibility of future offspring, and the pressure to create and maintain a wild, impulsive, sexually charged attractiveness, it becomes essential for the single girl to extract, preserve and collate essential bodily samples. This is critical not only for the purposes of accurate speculation, but also for fuelling romantic fantasies. This market continues to grow and the manufacturers can barely keep up with the demand for Evidence Dolls."