Pandora’s Box of Genes: Orwell’s DNA Database

Earlier this year in July, one of Australia’s enduring mysteries – the Somerton Man – was solved. It was the story of a man’s body discovered in 1948, lying on a beach in Adelaide. This took place during the hysteria of the Cold War, with the peculiar details of the case sparking decades of elaborate conspiracies involving spies and foreign governments.

The Somerton Man had been poisoned, the name tags were cut out of his clothes except for one that read ‘T Keane’, his suitcase was found abandoned at a local station, and there was a scrap of paper inside his clothes torn from the 12th century Persian text, the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, that read ‘Tamám Shud’ – ‘this is the end’.

Amateurs and professional detectives spent decades on the case, but no one could crack it until Professor Derek Abbott. He took a hair from the Somerton Man’s death mask and submitted it for DNA profiling at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide. The results were fed into an online family tree software service – where millions of people voluntarily upload their DNA, curious about their ancestry – and 4,000 partial matches popped up.

From there, the detective work was relatively straightforward. Abbott collaborated with forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick to track down males of a similar age that had no date of death. Carl [known as ‘Charles’] Webb was found. To confirm this was the Somerton Man, they needed a DNA sample from a living relative on the mother’s side. Working down the family tree, they located Stuart Webb and – after convincing the poor bloke that this wasn’t an elaborate scam – he offered up his DNA and results revealed a match.

The Somerton Man is now widely accepted to be Charles Webb, with family albums providing historic photos matching the appearance of the Somerton Man, including his rare genetic features. Police have yet to officially confirm the find, but that is considered by many to be a formality, especially as Charles Webb’s brother-in-law was ‘Thomas Keane’.

Solving the mystery has been a bit of a let down. Charles Webb was not a romantic spy killed over some globe-trekking plot – he was an abusive husband with no friends who liked to write poetry about death. He probably took his own life on the beach and no one reported him missing.

‘I felt so elated that we had found him. It was like being on a treasure hunt,’ said distant relative Stuart Webb.

Indeed, that is what DNA represents to commercial, legal, personal, and law enforcement interests – a treasure trove of biometric data worth untold fortunes.

The construction of giant online biometric family trees for humanity, created through a mixture of law-enforcement harvesting and voluntary curiosity, is an example of ‘Dataism’ in its infancy. Anyone who thought that uploading their DNA to an international database was nothing more than ‘a bit of fun’ to discover their heritage has been conned. I suspect that the government’s sudden enthusiasm for race politics has helped beef-up participation in genetic databases with a slew of young people desperate to attain scientific proof of a distant racially diverse ancestor.


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