“Iwanna know what love is,” the song goes, and I think: yeah, me too. In 2015, 15% of Americans used an online dating service; if you are a butcheror baker or candlestick maker, there’s an app for you. Our modern dating industry is built on the idea that you are too much of a dummy to find love yourself, and it is now worth $2.4bn.
The latest startup in this space is Instant Chemistry, a company built on the premise that your DNA could help you figure out who to love. Last month, I met co-founders Sara Seabrooke and her husband Ron Gonzalez at a nondescript laboratory in Toronto, surrounded by vials of spit.
Instant Chemistry works like so: you and your partner sign up to receive a “relationship kit” containing two saliva receptacles, which you spit into and send back to the company. Instant Chemistry then extracts certain genetic information from the samples and, based on what they term “bio- and neuro-compatibility”, score how compatible you are. Seabrooke and Gonzalez, for example, ring in at a cool 86%.
Instant Chemistry only looks at select genetic material: it won’t map your genome, or tell you about mutations that could affect your offspring (to do so, they’d be diving into murky ethical waters and opening themselves up to the same scrutiny facing the genomics company 23andMe).
In the process of analysis, first, they look at the genes of your immune system – the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) profile of you and your partner. HLA is what allows us to recognize the self: is this body mine or other? It controls what bacteria grows on and in you, producing your unique odor and taste, leaving you unbothered by your partner’s early-morning scent, their tongue, hair and hollows. As Gonzalez says, “How often have you heard something like, ‘I liked him, he was cute, but we didn’t have any chemistry.’ That’s not magic, that’s science.”
HLA is the best studied of all of Instant Chemistry’s metrics: the others rely on extrapolating psychological profiles from four behavioral genetic variants: your serotonin transporter, oxytocin receptor, dopamine receptor, and a dopamine enzyme. Seabrooke and Gonzalez argue that individual variations of these genes can determine how you communicate and process emotions, and subsequently how you and your partner will grow as a couple over time.
If you think this sounds bananas, you’re not alone. I emailed a few geneticists for commentary on the veracity of Instant Chemistry’s science, and received the following response: “I spent three minutes reading what this company is offering, and my impression is it is total delusion. I really cannot waste more time on this.” But Seabrooke and Gonzalez aren’t hacks – they met as medical students studying neuroscience and genetics. They were both fascinated by the science of compatibility and spent years trying to figure out why some people work well together, and other just don’t.
After you take Instant Chemistry’s test, you and your partner will receive a booklet explaining the findings. You’ll learn how likely it is that you and your partner will remain physically attracted to each other over time and you’ll get feedback from the resident good doctors on how to be a better listener. The total cost for the test and subsequent “love manual” is $199.
It’s not cheap. Instant Chemistry is banking on the fact that most of us would answer the question: “So you really want to know how truly compatible you and your partner are?” with a Yes! Desperately!
It’s an intoxicating idea, but currently only about 300 couples have signed up, which means they can’t draw robust conclusions about their compatibility science – at least not yet. While two of their subjects are now engaged, Seabrooke points out that most couples who take the test are already fairly established. They want their scores, it seems, to affirm what they believe they already know. And they’ve only found one unicorn, that elusive couple with a perfect score. “There just aren’t that many super couples,” says Gonzalez. Most couples are “average” – it’s an arbitrary scale, but scores usually fall in the 70-75% range.
In other words: love is, for most of us, almost tragically average.
With that in mind, my boyfriend, a good sport, agreed to take the test. First we provided our spit and then a few days later we took the psychological test component, something like a personality quiz. “When watching a movie, do you move closer to your partner to touch their hand or shoulder?” the machine asked, and Yes, I answered (though we had been arguing all morning and were now sitting on opposite ends of the couch).
“We don’t have to break up!” I emailed him when we get our results: 74% compatible, a healthy, if not magical, score. I hoped for more, somehow. I wanted some kind of guarantee. Our biocompatibility was strong, but the “love manual” told us we are both “worriers”, our muddling, lazy dopamine enzymes made us less resilient to stress. Maybe this will teach us to be more careful with each other. Maybe it won’t.
Seabrooke is working on a rapid blood test for instantaneous HLA results, and they imagine an app that would geolocate singles based on high biological compatibility. I wonder if we could take it further: might it someday be possible to find or even design a partner solely through DNA? Seabrooke, smiling, shakes her head. We are a combination of nature and nurture, she explains, and genes will never be the sole answer.
But Gonzalez interrupts. “I’ll push back a little on that. There’s always that component of love that is random, but there is a huge subconscious area of scientific compatibility that is occurring under the surface. A lot of that is biological. That is the thing that drives me nuts. People think of love as a conscious thing, and it’s not. So much of it you have no control over. You’re just along for the ride.”