Harvard University geneticist George Church recently discussed his plans to create a dating app that matches users based on their DNA, sparking debate whether the concept is helpful or harmful.
Church, who does gene-editing research, appeared on CBS “60 Minutes” on Sunday and talked about why he believes his dating app concept, called “Digid8,” is needed.
According to Church, his app-to-be will prevent users from being matched with other users who share certain genes linked to rare genetic diseases like Tay-Sachs, which destroys a person’s brain and spinal cord nerves, or cystic fibrosis, which causes chronic lung infections.
Church said his app concept could prevent people from having children with inherited genetic disorders because it’d stop people with the same genetic predispositions from matching in the first place. He said the concept, if used widely, could eliminate many of today’s genetic diseases entirely.
But critics of Church’s idea said it’s reminscent of eugenics, a philosophy that promotes selective breeding to create a physically superior race of humans, and one that was popularized by Nazis during the second World War to create a “pure” master race.
Disabled and transgender people say the app could be a slippery slope
To use the app, which is currently unavailable and still in its development phase, users will first submit a saliva sample to a lab, similar to existing genetic testing services like 23andMe. Then, the lab would run various genetics tests on the spit specimen to determine what genetic diseases a person may carry.
According to Church, that information would remain confidential to the lab so not even the person who submitted the specimen would know the results. When they use dating apps then, they’d only be matched with people would don’t have those same disease genes so the likelihood they pass them onto their future children is slim.
“About 5 percent of children are born with a severe genetic disease, and so that means you’re compatible with about 95 percent of people,” Church said on “60 Minutes.” “We’re just adding this [tool] to all the other dating criteria.”
People who have criticized Church’s concept said it could have a snowball effect where people use it beyond its intended purpose of preventing genetic diseases.
“It’s not the technology itself that’s problematic. It’s how we use it,” Vardit Ravitsky, a bioethicist at the Université de Montréal, told Medium.
The app could end up being used to weed out people who others deem genetically undesirable or inferior, Rose wrote, and put them at a disadvantage on these dating platforms that are meant to be inclusive of people regardless of ability, gender identity, and other factors.
Church said his dating app doesn’t promote eugenics
Church’s genetics lab previously received funding from the late Jeffrey Epstein, a socialite and convicted pedophile who had a known interest in transhumanism, a eugenics-based philosophy that uses technology in an attempt to enhance the human population.
But Church said his app has nothing to do with eugenics because he’s not requiring people to partake in it like classic eugenics does through forced sterilization, breeding, and extermination of certain people.
Church also said his lab works with an ethicist with the goal of making genetic testing technologies available to all people.
“There are a lot of diseases which are not so serious which may be beneficial to society in providing diversity, for example, brain diversity. We wouldn’t want to lose that,” Church said on “60 Minutes.” “But if [a baby] has some very serious genetic disease that causes a lot of pain and suffering, costs millions of dollars to treat and they still die young, that’s what we’re trying to deal with.”
Until Digid8 officially launches, though, we won’t know how the app will actually be used — or abused.