Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Environment, Culture, and DNA

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school studying Linguistics, the big scientific issue, particularly about language acquisition was "Nature vs Nurture," In short, the argument was whether human language was hard-wired and therefore inherited or acquired after birth. This overly simplistic view of a complex subject has now become a major issue again but the arguments being put forth are now incorporating references to DNA. Ultimately, the genesis of the argument began with the concept of evolution. But many of the issues surrounding genealogical DNA testing are really rehashing the old dichotomy between nature and nurture. B. F. Skinner was the leader of the "nurture" camp and Noam Chomsky was the leader of the "nature" camp. It is interesting that almost all the theories propounded by both sides have now been subject to extreme revision over the years.

Reducing complex subjects to simplistic dichotomies is intellectually abhorrent. Rather than creating a fact-based dialogue, any interaction on the subject becomes propaganda. By the way, propaganda is not limited to political issues. The broad definition of propaganda is information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc. Not all propaganda is entirely false but it is still propaganda. Right now, we find ourselves in a virtual ocean of propaganda about DNA and DNA testing. Some genealogists paint DNA testing as the ultimate solution for unresolved genealogical (i.e. historical family history) questions. A small, but vocal, group of genealogists question DNA testing's utility beyond resolving relationship issues in the first five or six generations and paint all other conclusions as speculative and yet undetermined.

Meanwhile, the use of genealogical DNA testing to support or debunk political, social and cultural issue is expanding well beyond determining the identity of ancestors and relatives. Recently, the most prominent use of genealogical DNA testing has expanded into the criminal justice system. It is ironic that DNA testing for relationships started out as a tool in the court system for proving paternity and then moved into the genealogical arena in stages along with the online accumulation of huge genealogical tree submissions and has now begun to move back into the criminal justice system because of the accumulated data in all the online family trees. The propagandists have jumped on this bandwagon and paint the use of genealogical DNA testing as a boon to research or an extreme violation of "privacy."

Depending on your personal cultural background, you may see that publicizing information about your family is a violation of privacy or a polite necessity. For example, if you were raised speaking the Navajo language, you would be used to explaining your clan affiliations and ancestry as part of polite introductions when meeting people. We often use surnames in the broader modern culture of the United States in the same way. Frequently, when I meet someone for the first time, we inquire as to whether or not we are related to a person we know who has the same surname. However, the taboos and personal ramifications of this type of interaction are extensive. For example, let's suppose you have not spoken to a certain relative for years because of a conflict and someone you meet who knows your relative immediately asked how that relative is doing. What do you say?

Genealogical DNA testing has the potential of stripping away many of the cultural norms of our society and adding another layer of relationships and interactions that have the potential to disrupt our entire worldwide social system. We may all be forced to consider the fact that some of our basic attitudes and beliefs concerning our relationships with others have no basis in fact. The most visible of these heretofore fundamental beliefs is that of "racial" identity. Extensive DNA testing is definitely demonstrating that the concept of "race" is based entirely on superficial differences in such things as skin coloring and speech patterns. The effect of this revolutionary concept is dramatically demonstrated in the futile and pathetic attempts by some groups to preserve their personal viewpoints on "racial purity" and "racial superiority" when DNA testing shows such distinctions are illusory.

As genealogists, we have been placed squarely in the middle of this quandary. Of course, we can ignore the entire subject of DNA testing and continue to build our paper pedigrees as if the subject did not exist. Just as the genealogists who refuse to go online with their genealogical data do by claiming privacy or ownership concerns. What is certain, however, is that how we view ourselves as humans and part of a continuum of humans with few biologically-based differences will ultimately become part of what we will have to deal with as genealogists. Meanwhile, I will have to come to an understanding of how I might have acquired Southern European and Middle Eastern ancestry.

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