2014, 320 p & notes, Black Inc
The DNA Gods play a highly visible form of roulette with my family. Twenty-nine years ago I sat in a genetic counsellor’s office and had the statistic 11 to one batted around. Eleven to one? That’s not too bad I thought…. Thirty years later my son sat in a genetic counsellor’s office, asking the same question but the answer he received was different: depressingly so. How could that be? I wondered. In many ways this book by Christine Kenneally explains why. Our understanding of DNA has exploded since about 2000, with phenomena we have thought of as being cultural or idiosyncratic increasingly being exposed as being genetic in origin. At the same time, there has been an explosion of interest in family history, turbo-charged by the Internet. This book explores the inter-twining of these two forces.
Herein are studies from psychology, economics, history, and genetics, anecdotes and data from business, science, and the lives of many fascinating individuals. They all exemplify in some way what gets passed down over the generations, and they all provide insights that resonate with one another. As I hope to demonstrate by the end of the book, the concept of ancestry can bring genetics and history together fruitfully; perhaps ancestry will lead us to a place where we can make use of these different kinds of data in a more unified way. (p ix)
I’m not a science-y person at all. The Introduction made me wonder if this book was going to be too science-heavy for me, but it actually started off with history, then prehistory, before moving onto DNA. Even the more science-y chapters started off with a human anecdote which tethered the content in the everyday before moving into more theoretical waters.
Early chapters explore the phenomenon of family history in the Internet age, its enormous popularity and yet its marginal status in relation to ‘academic’ history. Family history also has its dark past: eugenics has a sharp edge; the Third Reich deployed genealogy amongst its adherents to demonstrate their Aryan purity, and the Lebensborn clinics ensured that SS soldiers fathered more Aryan children. Other regimes have silenced ancestry: we have the Stolen Generation and the brutalized children of orphanages whose identity has been stripped from them; the Chinese government turned on the reverence for ancestors during the Cultural Revolution and insisted that centuries-old records be destroyed. There’s an unsettling edge emerging with the hoovering-up of government and church archives into internet-based companies like Ancestry.com and the extensive databases owned by the Mormons who have their own religious imperative to posthumously baptize family members so that they can enter into eternal life. The prospect of Anne Frank being posthumously claimed and baptised I find downright offensive.
The crossover of commercial genealogical companies into genetic analysis is also unsettling, and it leads Keneally into her exploration of genetic technology. Companies like Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and AncestryDNA.com offer a selection of DNA tests and genealogical connections to the general public. The banks of genomes held (owned?) by such companies become, in effect, crowdfunded and immensely valuable privatized libraries. It is no surprise that much of this activity is based in Salt Lake City, the base of the Mormon Church where James LeVoy Sorenson, the wealthiest man in Utah and one of the richest men in the world sought out the possibility of analyzing the DNA of every individual in Norway to find his ancestors who were hidden from the documentary record. The academic from Brigham Young University that he approached deflected Sorenson from the Norway proposal by a different plan whereby they would analyze the genome of 200 individuals from each of 500 different populations around the world. That collection of 100,000 genomes would form a microcosm of the human race, and would yield information about four generations of family history for each person. In effect, “they would use science to personalize history”. (p 205) First they started in Utah, then went to Africa, Asia, Kyrgyszstan on their quest to acquire more than 100,000 samples from all over the world. DNA analysis can reveal the sweeps of migration across the globe over time, thereby interweaving the individual and personal with the large pulse of mankind over millennia:
In the same way that looking back into our immediate family’s past may change how we think about time and history and our place in it, so too does taking on the idea of our more distant ancestry. Once upon a time, history was living memory plus all the increasingly fuzzy spans of time that came before it. Now we may use written records and the artifacts and fossils that came before records. Using all of these sources of information with DNA teaches us simultaneously about human history, the forces of evolution, and ourselves. Ancestry brings together history and science without any artificial seams between them. It explains our immediate family in the context of the human family and vice versa. (p 262)
DNA analysis can ruthlessly strip away family story and patchy documentation, leaving the human individual to cope intellectually and emotionally with the overturning of what had appeared certainties. There had been claims about Thomas Jefferson fathering six children with Sally Hemings, but DNA scotched the alternative scenario of the involvement of Jefferson’s nephew that had been offered by those wishing to protect Jefferson’s reputation. But the Woodson family, who also had a powerful oral history tradition linking them to the Jefferson and Heming family were devastated to learn that the connection was not there. One family was vindicated by DNA; another family felt stripped naked by it.
Christine Kenneally is a journalist who has written for the New Yorker, The Monthly and New Scientist, and it is her contribution to this latter publication that encapsulates the flavour of this wide-ranging book. My husband subscribes to New Scientist, and each week there is a deluge of new studies that often disrupt older knowledge across the whole spectrum of disciplines. There are footnotes to this book but they are not marked in the text at all (I didn’t find them until after I’d finished it) and many of them are very recent publications. Indeed, many of the examples in this book may already be negated or made redundant by new studies.
I feel completely at sea in assessing this book- it ranges so far and so idiosyncratically that I wonder if anyone could be as familiar with the material as she is. In her treatment of things that I do know about (the Founders and Survivors project, for example) her narrative is sound, if somewhat simplified and compressed to support the argument that she is making. I can only assume that her treatment of other material is likewise.
This is a big book about big data and its effect on knowledge, from the broad sweep of history right down to the micro-level of genes and cells. It engages and teases with ideas, without swamping the reader. Occasionally I wondered if I was losing the thread, but then she’d give an anecdote or example that brought me back again. The fact that it may already be outdated in places is a perfect illustration of the paradox that she is illustrating: that the very new can shed light on the very old.
I have read this as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.