We're all familiar with the double helix that constitutes our genetic makeup, the incredible progress in decoding it, and the potential for hacking it to eradicate disease or even create bespoke organisms. But what most of us don't know is that there may be an even more fascinating and possibly darker side to genetics--our behavioral genome.
A few years back I wrote an article about a good friend, Judith Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results who introduced me to some mind-bending research that pointed to changes in our genome based on conversations and relationships. This isn't just the effect of feel-good chemical such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin but actually changes to our genetic makeup. That falls under what's broadly referred to as the science of epigenetics, which explains how physical or chemical changes, that are triggered by environmental conditions or body chemistry, can alter a genome and pass these changes to offspring.
"...to adopt an even darker perspective, I could manipulate their likes and dislikes in a way that edits their behavioral genome, passing those new edited behaviors to their children."
As fascinating as that theory is, another one has emerged that goes even further to suggest that our experiences not only have an effect on our genome but are also passed on as genetically encoded memories to our offspring. So, add to all of those things you've already blamed your parents for, such as that bump on your nose or bad teeth, bad behaviors as well.
So, what does that have to do with my mention of Google in this article's subhead? Well, clearly our every hidden behavior is now being mined by companies such as Google in the hope that they provide clues about our preferences and activities. In a wonderfully insightful, and utterly frightening video Google calls this The Selfish Ledger. I call it our digital self in my new book Revealing The Invisible. Whatever you call it, it is the behavioral genome that defines us in ways that are as revealing and telling to anyone who has access to it as the DNA that defines our biology.
But, could it be that our individual behaviors are just the flecks of glimmering dust on the surface of a massive behavioral gold mine that can only be tapped after multiple generations of behavioral tracking has taken place? And, could that sort of deep insight be manipulated in the same way that CRISPR is now able to allow scientists to modify the genetic code? For example, if I know the behavioral DNA passed down from one generation to the next I may well understand someone's behaviors, preferences, tastes, values, and phobias well before they even know they have them. Or, to adopt an even darker perspective, I could manipulate their likes and dislikes in a way that edits their behavioral genome, passing those new edited behaviors to their children.
Amazingly, none of this is really new. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a French naturalist, published a theory of evolution that predated Darwin's work on natural selection by 50 years. Lamarck postulated that every living organism passes on its traits through a biological code. This isn't just physical traits but also experiential and behavioral traits, even memories.
In which case, your digital self acts in much the same way as the sequencing of your DNA, capturing and documenting your behavioral genome--making the question of ownership over that information just as relevant in both cases. Of course, today we own none of that. Google's hypothetical ledger belongs to Google, we're just free labor contributing the entries.
While some of this is clearly science, much of it is also speculation. Then again, so was the concept of a biological code for the nearly 150 years between Lamarck's speculation and James Watson and Francis Crick's discover of DNA double helix. It took another 50 years to sequence the first human genome.
Somehow I don't think it's going to take Google anywhere near as long to crack this code.