Saturday, October 20, 2007

What DNA Can’t Explain In My Family Tree

The fact that modern technologies such as DNA testing can help us trace our roots is, in my opinion, a great advance in the field of genealogy. A side benefit of this field of science and programs such as African-American Lives is that more and more people become interested and involved in discovering their family history. Some experts feel that the current state of DNA testing as it relates to genealogy should be seen more for what it can’t do than what it can.

There are many mysteries in my family tree that may, some day, be solved by DNA testing, but I’m not sure I want that. Some mysteries should remain mysteries – those things that make us think about relatives we know or used to know, their quirks, their eccentricities. When you recognize these “traits,” if you can call them that, and how they seem to run in the family, they are what make my research engaging and the subjects seem so much more than a collection of birth dates, death dates and the like.

We’ve all heard from some relative the expression, “it runs in the family.” Traits such as hair color, hair type, eye color, height – or the lack thereof, etc. can all be traced using genetics and DNA testing I’m sure. But how do you test for some of these traits?

• Is there a gene shared among the aunts and uncles on your mother’s side to simply detest raisins in any baked good? To the point of revulsion or nausea? Is there a gene that signals the brain to equate cooked raisins with Mr. Yuk? Perhaps it is just environment and influence from the parents passed down from sibling to sibling. While this may not seem so bizarre, it is a great point of joking at my family reunions. We often split up at dessert time among the With Raisins and Without Raisins camps!

• How do you explain the trait among most of the women in your family, going all the way back to one of your great-grandmothers, to manage to survive and successfully raise a family when the men in their lives have abandoned them? Is there a gene for a poor choice of a male mate? Many of my modern-day female friends would swear there is such a gene and that they’ve inherited it. Or perhaps the trait speaks to a gene among these women that causes them to ignore what society tells them about needing a man to raise children, and forge on despite the odds being stacked against them?

• And how to do find a gene for eccentricity? I mean plain old, fall down laughing about, “what were they thinking?” wackiness among your relatives. How your great-grandmother decided to go blueberry picking one chilly summer morning wearing her full length fur coat? And how your great-grandfather got his shotgun because in the distance he thought he saw a bear? Or how your one uncle has a talent for swinging from 50 foot willow trees at every summer cookout – and this is without the help of adult beverages? It sure makes for good times when reminiscing with others.

I am sure that one day we’ll find out what causes these behaviors, and perhaps it will involve DNA and perhaps it won’t. But I wouldn’t want any test to solve these mysteries because they are so dear to me. They are part of what makes this collection of people my “family.”

Photo: my great-great-grandmother, Bridget Farren McGinnes, a strong woman, perhaps a raisin hater, and hopefully an eccentric. Circa 1900.


Colleen said...

I enjoyed reading your article. It made me wonder, and it made me laugh! Anything that can add a laugh to life is worth reading!

Thomas MacEntee said...

Thank you! I always love to make people laugh and especially if it isn't because of my looks!

Janice said...

As an identical twin, I can tell you that two people with identical genetic make up can end up being very different from each other.... and therefore I do not believe that future predictions of behavioral traits will ever be 100% accurate.... nor would I want them to be.

I enjoyed your article. Reading about a family with more idiosyncrasies than my own is reassuring.