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Science. Communication. Community.

Will Online Dating Make Us Vulnerable … To Disaster?

As people become busy and data analysis becomes ubiquitous, we’ve even trusted software programs to find our perfect mate.  Does this formula for romance have consequences in the gene pool?    

By Jessica Stoller-Conrad

Is online dating too formulaic?  (Image credit: bixento via Flickr)

Are online dating sites too formulaic? (Image credit: bixento via Flickr)

Earlier this week, I started following the relationship experiment documented at “40 Days of Dating.”  In case you haven’t heard of it, the experiment started when two friends in New York City, both tired of their bad luck in relationships decided to document the ups and downs of dating each other for 40 days — with the hope of discerning where previous relationships had gone wrong.  In one of the early days of the project, relationship experimenter Jessica Walsh mentioned that perhaps online dating has made the act of finding a mate too formulaic.

As a former fruit fly matchmaker geneticist, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was right.  And with ~40 million online daters in the U.S. alone, could these algorithms eventually have an effect on our human gene pool?

It’s far off, but maybe, says Maxwell J. Mehlman, professor of Biomedical Ethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.  In an article from April of this year, Mehlman speculates that as some online dating sites strive to match up only the most genetically compatible — and as those matches result in relationships and offspring — it’s possible that we are selecting for the certain traits we find most valuable in our own species.

Just as with plant species (like the ubiquitious and uniform banana, and even the watermelon), these selections could also — after many many thousands of generations — inadvertently select for certain vulnerabilities as well.  In his article, Mehlman reasons, “If everyone selected the same traits for their offspring, their descendants would be incapable of surviving a sudden, unexpected environmental challenge.”

There is evidence for our selective online dating behavior, (a study using data from a Chinese online dating site published earlier this year in PLoS ONE suggests that we’re more likely to choose a long-term mate who has traits and characteristics similar to our own), but some critics find Mehlman’s theory a bit far-fetched and unlikely.

After all, an algorithm can quickly compute a pool of compatible dates, but human emotion is still largely in charge of choosing that life-long mate.


About jstoll01

Jessica began her journalistic endeavors as an embarrassingly informal food critic for her college newspaper. After dropping the fork and picking up a micropipettor, she spent two years as a genetics research technician and three years in graduate school before trying her hand at science writing. Upon receiving a Master’s degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Notre Dame in May 2012, Jessica participated in the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship program as a Science Desk intern at NPR in Washington, D.C. There, she contributed a number of posts to the health blog (Shots) and the food blog (The Salt). She continues to write regularly for the NPR blogs, National Geographic News and other media outlets as a freelancer, currently based in Southern California.

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This entry was posted on August 8, 2013 by in Health, Research and tagged , , .
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