Christopher Plata doesn’t have time or patience for bad dates anymore. The 30 year-old nursing student has been trying for years to meet Mr. Right—first on Grindr and Compatible Partners (eHarmony’s queer subsidiary), and more recently on Bumble—and has yet to find someone with whom he shares a real connection. “I’ve really been through the wringer,” he says. So in December, while he was attending Houston’s Day For Night music festival, he stopped by a booth hawking cheek swabs, and handed over a few thousand cheek cells in the name of love.
The booth belonged to Pheramor, a Houston-based online dating startup that claims to use your DNA as the secret sauce in its matchmaking formulation. The company launched today in its home metropolis, with plans to soon expand to other US cities. Its app, which is available for iOS and Android, is a sort of 23andMe meets Tinder meets monogamists.
Of course, sexual chemistry isn’t just about deoxyribonucleic acid. And so in addition to the 11 “attraction genes” Pheramor uses to suss out biological compatibility, the company also encourages users to connect its app with all their social media profiles, to be data-mined for personality traits and mutual interests.
It works like this: For $19.99 (plus a $10 monthly membership fee), Pheramor will ship you a kit to swab your cheeks, which you then send back for sequencing. The company will combine that information with personality traits and interests gleaned from your profile to populate your app with a carousel of genetically and socially optimized potential mates in your area. To discourage mindless swiping, each match shows up as a blurred photo with a score of your compatibility, between 0 and 100.
For some 40 million Americans like Plata, who have yet to find lasting love online, it’s a tantalizing prospect. But the science behind genetic attraction is shaky ground to build a relationship on, let alone a commercial enterprise. Sure, it might sound more solid than all the mushy behavioral psychology smoke and mirrors you get from most dating apps. It’s biology, after all! But experts say that’s just a nice hook—to satisfy a cultural desire for objectivity, even in our romantic pursuits. Love, even in 2018, can’t be reduced to your genes.
Attraction is a complicated bit of calculus. You’ve got your socioeconomic factors plus race and culture and politics and religion multiplied by what sorts of relationships you had with your parents and siblings growing up. But is there a part of the equation that is purely biological?
Pheramor—and some biologists stretching back two decades—say yes. According to them, it all comes down to pheromones. On its website, the company explains that people are more likely to be attracted to one another the more different their DNA is. “The way species can ‘sense’ how different the DNA is in a potential mate is through smelling their pheromones,” states the site’s science section.
That is a lovely story. “But the reality is that there’s no scientific evidence for something called a pheromone,” says Richard Doty, who studies smell and taste at the University of Pennsylvania. Bacteria is the single biggest determinant of body odor, he notes, and preferences for smells are to a large degree learned, subject to cultural differences.“The notion that there are these magical genes that are somehow associated with smells that permeate the environment and dictate our attraction to people is total nonsense. If human pheromones actually elicited the kinds of behaviors we see in other mammals the subways of New York City would be in a constant state of mayhem with people hopping all over each other.”
In a 2015 review of the scientific literature on pheromones published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, University of Oxford zoologist Tristram Wyatt came to much the same conclusion. “Pheromones have really caught the public imagination, particularly in association with sex or desire,” he says. “But the bottom line is that for the present it’s still true to say that no human pheromone has ever been robustly demonstrated, and certainly not chemically identified.”
So if they don’t exist, how did wind of human pheromones reach the public in the first place? It comes down to a few popular studies, which Pheramor also touts on its website. The most famous are the “Sweaty T-Shirt Experiments.” Conducted by a Swiss evolutionary biologist named Claus Wedekind in the mid-90s, the studies involved a handful of college students with unshaved armpits wearing cotton t-shirts for a few days in a row, then handing them over to other college students to sniff and rate on intensity and pleasantness. It found that women who were not on the pill were more likely to select the shirts of men who had the greatest genetic difference in a certain area of chromosome six—one that codes for something called the major histocompatibility complex, or MHC.
MHC proteins are responsible for helping the immune system recognize invaders, and the idea of linking these immune system genes with sexual attraction goes all the way back to 1976. Scientists at Memorial Sloan Kettering found that male mice tended to choose female partners with the most dissimilar MHC genes, which the researchers guessed were detected through scent. The leap to the T-shirt tests, then, was that since humans also chose partners with greater MHC gene variety, they must also be using smell, even if unconsciously.
It’s a selection of these MHC genes, 11 of them, that Pheramor is comparing when it looks at its users’ DNA. When I asked co-founder and CEO Asma Mirza which pheromones those genes were connected to, she demurred. “We don’t really look at the pheromones, that’s something that gets confusing for people,” she said. “I’m a chemist and I can tell you that pheromones are a big black box. We know they exist and that somehow these 11 genes are linked to them, but we don’t know how. That’s why we’re swabbing cheeks, not armpits.”
To be fair, a series of unrelated papers published in the mid-2000s have provided further evidence that women can detect differences in the MHC genotypes of males according to smell, even though no scientist has yet been able to pin down what exactly those olfactory cues are. And on account of costs, no one has yet screened entire genomes, to see if the “opposites attract” maxim applies beyond this one little area of one little chromosome. So for now, the MHC remains the top contender for genetic attraction.
But experts like Wyatt say the science behind matching you with someone who has different immune system genes remains theoretical. He cites the International HapMap project, which mapped genetic variations from thousands of people around the globe, including many husbands and wives. When two different research groups went to look at MHC differences between couples, one found an effect, and one didn’t. “You’d expect things to be more clear-cut if this really was a dominant way people choose partners,” Wyatt says.
Even if the science is murky, people are still eager for anything that could give them an edge in the digital dating pool. Pheramor is launching with about 3,000 users in Houston, with plans to begin expanding to Austin next month and Boston later this year. While the DNA stuff might be a draw for some, many others are attracted to the ease of not having to fill out a million questions or set up another generic profile. Instead, Pheramor’s technology will autopopulate one for you, based on all your likes and posts and hashtags on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It will even help you choose the most statistically successful kinds of selfies.
You can still manually edit the profile, if, like Mirza experienced, some outdated information comes up. “When I connected mine it said my favorite movie was Big Fat Liar, which I must have posted in high school,” she says. “It was pretty embarrassing, there were a lot of things I deleted.” But the idea is that your cyberfootprint on social media, which for some people is already a decade old, has way more data points than any personality test you could ever take.
And Pheramor is only going to be collecting more. In a few months the company will roll out a new feature called Second Date, which will track users locations and know if they meet up with one of their matches. The app will then push out a survey to see how the date went. If both parties answer positively, it will suggest that you go out again. The feature will also let Pheramor know if you liked that sort of person, so it can serve you more profiles of similar folks. "We're trying to use sociological data to make this a better experience," says Mirza.
That’s the part that gives people like Luke Stark pause. The Dartmouth digital technology sociologist cautions how apps like Tinder and perhaps Pheramor take advantage of the fact that people can’t see or feel their data, so they’re easily lured into giving it away. “The broader privacy concern with something like this is that the public doesn’t yet realize all the behavioral data they’re providing voluntarily can be used to build these personality profiles that can then be sold,” he says. “At this point personality tests and social media data are functionally the same.”
As the cost of genetic sequencing plummets, more consumer genetics companies are popping up. But there are plenty that overpromise.
Beware of screening panels that promise to tell you if your unborn baby will like cilantro; they're not a replacement for clinical prenatal genetic tests.
Same goes, we can safely say, for companies that promise to tell you if you've got the right stuff to be a superhero or a starting NFL quarterback.