Perhaps the most fascinating finding coming from emerging life sciences like genetics and neuroscience is this: We’re not born with self-contained blueprints of who we become. Instead, we’re learning that a great percentage of who we are —from how healthy we are to how successful we are in school—has much more to do with complex interactions between our environments, both social and physical, and our biological selves. This is currently the subject of relatively obscure academic fields like epigenetics, but in the next few years, these findings may well become intense subjects of our social lives.
There are a few reasons why we’ll begin understanding our bodies through our social networks. One is purely a numbers game. The cost of sequencing genes, for example, is plummeting, with improvements on a faster pace than Moore’s Law. Which is great in theory, but it means that over the next decade, we’ll have the computational power to sequence DNA of millions of people, despite having a vanishingly small supply of people to interpret that information. (A few years ago, the number of doctors trained in genetics was roughly on par with the number of astronauts in the United States.) Add in plummeting costs of brain scans, microbe screenings, and so on, and in a few years, we’ll find ourselves in a world where no doctor or other professional has any chance at keeping up with interpreting all the new tests and scans that everyday people will be able to get for themselves.
In effect, the only tools that many of us will have to make sense of this information will be social: comparing our stats to others to see what they might mean.
But the bigger story is that interpretation is a lot more valuable than we had originally imagined—and that this interpretation requires an understanding not just of biology, but of everyday life. Influences as diverse as chemicals in our environments to abstract concepts like cultural values seem to have an influence on how our bodies work. And the effects of these external factors can be profound. For example, a study last year found that Americans who had a specific genetic mutation relating to oxytocin—a chemical that influences emotion—were more likely to seek out support from friends during times of emotional difficulty. That same mutation among a group of South Koreans made them less likely to seek social support. The current theory is that differences between Korean and American culture are changing how these genes influence behavior.
In this sense, we don’t just need life science Ph.Ds to understand our biological selves. We need better understanding of our behaviors and social environments. And this understandings are also experiencing similarly rapid growth, though, in many instances, rather than coming from academic experts, they are emerging from more bottom-up, community driven approaches. Self-tracking practices, where people keep detailed data about sleep patterns, food choices, and other seemingly small details of their lives, are becoming much more common as technologies like FitBit or the Up mean that people can automatically create personal health histories as they go about their daily lives.
In many ways, it’s in combining these two disparate streams of information—our biological records with our personal and social data—where we’ll begin to understand the relationships between our biological selves and our physical social environments.
We already see efforts to uncover these links in services like 23andMe, which combine direct-to-consumer genetic testing with social networking features that, for example, let expectant mothers discuss what their genes mean about their soon-to-be children. We’re also seeing similar examples in more obscure corners of the life sciences. For $2,000, you can now join a social networking service My Microbes to connect with, discuss, and understand how the bacteria in your gut (and the rest of your body) are influencing obvious parts of your life, like the ability to process certain foods, as well as unexpected domains, like whether or not certain bacteria are making you depressed, anxious, or otherwise causing mental health challenges.
Of course, there’s all sorts of potential for mischief and misunderstanding as everyday people try to make sense of technical, unsettled academic research behind these new tests, a process that will likely take decades to sort out. But that’s not really the point. As the general outlines of these fields become known publicly, people will see each other as the guides through a world of increasingly complex, but increasingly important biological information.