Fascinating article in the WSJ today: “To Sketch a Thief: Genes Draw Likeness of Suspects In the Field of DNA Forensics, Scientists Identify Genetic Markers for Traits Revealing Appearance and Ethnicity.”
Forensic experts are increasingly relying on DNA as “a genetic eyewitness,” says Jack Ballantyne, associate director for research at the National Center for Forensic Science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, who is studying whether a DNA sample can reveal a person’s age. “We’d like to say if the DNA found on a bomb fragment comes from the young man who carried the bomb or from the wizened old mastermind who built it.”
The push to predict physical features from genetic material is known as DNA forensic phenotyping, and it’s already helped crack some difficult investigations. In 2004, police caught a Louisiana serial killer who eyewitnesses had suggested was white, but whose crime-scene DNA suggested — correctly — that he was black. Britain’s forensic service uses a similar “ethnic inference” test to trace murderers and rapists.
It goes almost without saying that the first impulse of many is to ban this evolving area of technology:
Worried about the ethical and social challenges, Germany doesn’t permit the forensic use of DNA to infer ethnicity or physical traits. Nor do a handful of U.S. states, including Indiana, Wyoming and Rhode Island. The U.K. and the Netherlands allow it.
The main downside I can see to the use of this technology in crime-fighting is that it would be disastrous for the genre of crime fiction. While it certainly sounds like something out of GATTACA (my favorite movie of all time), it would have killed the plot: The genetic-GESTAPO probably would have known that our genetically-defective hero Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) was not in fact, the genetically-engineered-but-crippled superman Jerome Morrow (Jude Law) he claimed to be—and the whole plot would have gone up in smoke. How much fun would that have been?
Interestingly, it seems Hulu once made the entire film available online but no longer does so. Fie on them and their conspiracy to suppress the future! Damn it, Hulu, don’t you know that “There Is No Gene For The Human Spirit?”