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Give digiD8 your DNA data and the dating app will tell you who not to date

By Bianca Borissova

Dec 17, 2019

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People go on dating apps for many different reasons, so it is natural that we all end up having different preferences in which one to use. Whether you are after a specific zodiac sign, your secret crush, or wish to explore ethical non-monogamy, chances are there will be something out there for you. If, however, you have for some reason a specific interest in genetics, and feel like you would never find the perfect app to fulfil your needs, then I have some good news—soon, you will have access to the perfect app for you.

digiD8 is a new dating app that will allow users to match with potential love interests according to their genetics. Yes, you read that right. The app was created by Harvard professor, scientist and geneticist George Church, and is currently still under development at Harvard University. Its aim is simple: to make sure that those who share a genetic mutation never procreate and produce offsprings with a potential inherited disease.

Needless to say, when the news of this app got out it created a big controversy, and understandably so. Church was accused of partaking in what is called eugenics, which is the science of improving a population by controlled breeding. With this new venture, which he calls “whole-genome dating”, Church would have the power to select who can and cannot use his app purely based on their genetics—something that users have no control over, and something that no society should be striving towards, if we’re being honest.

Church’s lab, which is in charge of developing this app, has also received research funding from the notorious sex offender Jeffrey Epstein—so of course, the questioning of the app, the motives, the lab and Church himself is unsurprising.

digiD8 also raises the question of where do we draw the line when it comes to incorporating science and technology into the most natural and humane aspects of our lives? Church defends his project and finds the comparison of his app to eugenics to be “ludicrous”, stating in a recent FAQ that “[we] are adamantly opposed to eugenics, of superseding personal choice with governmental or community judgment, bullying, and coercion,” and that, instead, the aim is to advocate for “personal choice.”

While the idea is indeed dystopian and precarious, some argue that it is not eugenics. Eugenics is most commonly forced through imposed breeding, sterilisation or extermination of individuals, whereas Church claims he only wants to help people. The main idea is to use DNA comparisons in order to assess whether those matching do not carry any genetic mutation that could cause diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Tay-Sachs disease—which are both extremely rare and often fatal.

Children risk developing the disease if they inherit two risky genes—one from each parent, the chance of which is normally 25 per cent. Because these diseases are so rare, according to the app’s FAQ, users on digiD8 would still be compatible with 95 per cent of other users. Medicine already tries to avoid such conditions, by letting couples who are trying to have a child use preconception genetic testing, in which IVF embryos are selected on the basis of their genes, with some parents choosing abortion after a negative test result.

But even if this can serve for the greater good in medicine, choosing to prevent the birth of humans because they may suffer from a disease is incredibly ableist. While it is every parent’s ultimate goal to see their kids healthy and happy, going as far as choosing their genes seems unnatural and discriminatory.

Ethics pushed aside, perhaps people should think twice before handing over their DNA data over to anyone, let alone a dating app. Social networks tend to have a history of exploiting our private data, and while Church promises that the app will “support a new model in which an individual’s genomic data are not shared with companies or any other individual,” this is a phrase we’ve heard many times before. Just like many other new technologies, approach this one with extra caution and skepticism.