tl;dr: Zach is further comtemplating whether the way we use language reflects reality.
This week in evolution we are having a discussion on genome scans. There is a small handful of private companies that offer to sequence certain parts of your genome that might give you potentially useful information. These companies claim they can evaluate your risk of developing baldness, diabetes, or blue eyes (hopefully something that has developed by now! they test it anyway!).
One of the prompting questions is this:
Who owns information about your genome? You or the company that gives you the results?
Cue pop culture reference to Michael Crichton novels.
Really, it’s hard to get into good relevant discussions about most things with lay persons, so hopefully an in-department facilitated discussion will be good. But like, is DNA information something we can even own?
When I consider possession, I think of something you can store and restrict access to. In this way we own land, laptops, stores of food, or in the past, people. But if a company sequences your DNA, they have the information readily available. There’s nothing to stop you sequencing it yourself. Or having someone else sequence your DNA. I’m not sure a DNA sequence (in the form of the data file: ie: ATGCGCGTATTTGA) is really an “ownable” thing.
It’s a law that you can’t patent laws of nature. Yet there is a way to make money off the weather through stock markets. It’s a law that you can’t make money off of people without giving them some of the profit (aka: slavery). Yet people have been making money off DNA sequences and other human byproducts (like HeLa cells) without most people batting an eye. [Curiously, you could argue using HeLa cells isn't at all like slavery and more like owning a cow to produce milk. Some scientists consider HeLa cells a separate species!]
Perhaps, to avoid these ambiguities and confusions, we should just abandon use of any type of language that implies ownership, and instead talk about the ethical uses of information. Surely there are precedents for this. If you steal a small vial of blood from an individual who is HIV resistant, you owe them compensation (and probably jail time). If I donate my blood, and it happens to be HIV resistant, you should be allowed to make as much money off of it as you can. That’s how donation works. You might argue–”I didn’t know my blood could be so valuable. I want compensation!”. But no one would buy that if you accidentally donated an extremely valuable antique to a consignment store.
Conclusion: Can we properly use the verb own in front of any noun? Can I own concepts? Laws of nature? Sets of information? Can I own a word (sounds absurd, but people do own songs).