17 August 2015
ByAppeared in BioNews 815
You Share Genes with Me
Art by Ariana Killoran
Published by 23andMe
ISBN-10: 0989153703, ISBN-13: 978-0989153706
23andMe, the biomedical wing of the industrial personal-data complex, has produced a board book for toddlers.
You know where you stand on that, I imagine. So, dear BioNews reader, on scanning the first line of this review did you (a) call for your nearest and dearest, clutch them to your person, begging them to stay close as the End Times draw near, or (b) feel the warm glow of scientific progress and enlightenment rise within your breast?
I'm with (a). I don't object to 23andMe selling genome sequence read-outs and relevant info to people who want it; it's everything else I can't stand – all the make-the-world-a-better-place (MTWABP) stuff.
I'm not entirely stupid (I used to edit BioNews, after all). I know that MTWABP guff has been an essential tool for every public-facing company since well before a choir of fresh-faced teens stood on a hillside and whined about buying the world a Coke. But, in common with the other players in the industrial personal-data complex, 23andMe's MTWABP message carries a more sinister undertone. These companies make their money by selling our data to third parties – in 23andMe's case, big pharma, after we've paid for the privilege – then spinning their PR and marketing so that we learn to love our own commodification. (See Facebook's current 'Friends' campaign for a case in point.)
So appreciate, dear reader, the moral Rubicon I had to cross by exposing my three-year-old daughter to this book. More on her thoughts in a moment. As for me, by now you will not be surprised to hear that the book didn't reconcile me to Anne Wojcicki and company.
It contains eight tableaux, with simple rhymes all playing on the idea that other species have a certain percentage of their genes in common with us. Or, rather, 'me'. In the most curious couplet, we get: 'Rhesus monkey, quick and spunky, you share genes with me.' Every page ends with those four words, so that 'share' and 'me' – the two watchwords of 21st-century commerce – are repeated mantra-like to the human young.
Which would be worryingly, strikingly redolent of 'Brave New World', were it not for the fact that 'You Share Genes with Me' is so spectacularly ill-judged, such a dull and humourless affair, that no child would ever want to have it read to them twice. Species were chosen for inclusion on the grounds of their relevance in experimental models, rather than their accessibility to children (mustard grass, fruit fly, zebrafish). The illustrations are sub-Etsy, aiming for Judith Kerr's childlike springiness but falling flat. And what child – even in the tiger-mum stalked jungle of North London, where I live – could get a handle on the book's 'hook' that other species carry a certain percentage of DNA in common with us? (It actually has the precise number in the top right corner of each page.)
Not mine, that's for sure. And she loves a book. After trying vainly to explain to her what cells and DNA and genes are, she sat on my lap and I read through. Our post-book conversation ran like this:
Me: Did you like the book?
Me: What did you like about it?
Daughter (after long pause, pointing to picture): She's got a hat.
Me: Do you know what genes are now?
Me: What are they?
Daughter: I don't know.
Me: Do you want to do the book again?
Daughter: No. Too boring.