Online dating is largely a succession of misery and humiliation, which is why so many of us are willing to pay an algorithm to find us the perfect match. The newest entré to the arena of apps that promise to help you find love: Pheramor, a Houston-based startup that claims to use DNA as the basis for its matchmaking algorithm. Simply swab your cheek with a Q-tip and—voila!—Pheramor’s app will populate with a cadre of genetically optimized potential Mr. or Mrs. Rights.
“We use your attraction genes to determine who you are attracted to and who is attracted to you, right in your new dating app!” the company website claims. All for just $16, plus a monthly membership fee!
We’ll save you your hard-earned latte money: The genetic code for love is definitely not something our current understanding of the human genome has deciphered. Not even close.
Online dating companies have long survived on peddling the pseudoscientific, claiming to boil the mystery of romance down to a numbers game. The algorithms for matching at dating websites are mostly smoke and mirrors. So is the science behind a growing number of DNA tests claiming to intuit things like your favorite wine or your child’s soccer abilities. It was only a matter of time before these two worlds merged.
“I don’t think there is any evidence that shows that this kind of DNA matching can lead better relationships. Indeed, this is a great example of a very complex—and culturally mediated—human behavior that can’t be reduced to genetics,” Timothy Caulfield, a bioethicist and research director at University of Alberta’s Health Law Institute, told me.
To be fair, Pheramor’s algorithm does rely on more than genetics alone.
“Pheramor uses both your biology and your social technology; we collect your genetic data through a q-tip-like cheek swab and acquire your like, dislikes, and interests from your social media profiles like Facebook, Twitter, etc,” the company website explains.
Like the app Crystal, Pheramor claims it can deduce your personality based on your social media footprint, as well as information about your interests based on what you’ve liked and the locations where you’ve checked in. The real innovation here is ditching questionnaires or written profiles as a judge for whether you have things in common with someone, and mining social media data instead. Added to that, Pheramor has users send in a cheek swab, and sequences 11 genes associated with pheromones, chemical signals that are believed to trigger sexual attraction.
Pheramor has already launched in Houston in beta-mode, but plans to more widely launch in February. (I reached out to the company, but did not receive a response before publication.)
Genetics is complicated stuff, and in general it seems like the more we learn about how the genes in our body operate and interact with each other, the more complicated the picture becomes. Pheramor cites studies like the famous sweaty T-shirt study of the 1990s, which used smelly shirts to establish the role body odor plays in signaling to a potential partner that a person has desirable immune genes that would help offspring stave off disease. Men were asked to wear the same T-shirt for two nights in a row, and then women were asked to rate their scent. The women tended to favor shirts worn by men that had different HLA types than their own.
Since then, several studies have shown links between pheromones and genetic-based attraction. But these studies are by no means conclusive. The idea that our ancestors paired off based on immune-system matches determined by odor is controversial, as is the idea that we still pair off that way today. Between studies, results conflicted. Genetics can tell you things like whether, for example, you and your partners genetic mix risks having a baby with genetic disease. But that’s about it.
“It is an example of using a bit suggestive science to legitimize a product that product that promises more than it can deliver,” said Caulfield. “Yes, there is a bit of science that can be used to make it seem like this is legit, but we are a long way from using genetic testing to find ‘the perfect match.’”
Even if the science of which pheromone genes attract to one another was conclusive, 11 matching genes does not a love match make.
Pheramor isn’t the first to try and make DNA romance a thing, either. Online dating is a big market, worth some $2 billion, with 50 million online dating users in the U.S. alone. And consumer genetic testing is a growing market, expected to reach $340 million by 2022. Toronto’s Instant Chemistry was founded in 2013 and was also based in part on the sweaty T-shirt study, though it currently targets couples. Singld Out, a San Diego-based company, similarly targets singles. Pheramor’s entry into the market suggests that the criticism those earlier services received has done little to stem the interest in DNA dating.
Unfortunately for love-starved people everywhere, neither computer code nor genetic code can tell you whether the supposedly perfect guy’s snoring will be a deal breaker, or whether the girl you have nothing in common with will for some reason light your world on fire. The chemistry of lasting love is still a mystery, perhaps one that science will never solve.