Letters — From the August 2014 issue
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The Curiosity Gene
As Maud Newton vividly describes [“America’s Ancestry Craze,” Criticism, June], the search for one’s genealogical roots can become so consuming that it feels like a sickness. My own search, which I wrote about in my 2012 book, The Fiddler on Pantico Run, began with curiosity about the sub-Saharan Bantu surname that I, as a towheaded, blue-eyed kid, had dragged unwittingly around cookie-cutter Orange County. I followed this riddle back to the Virginia plantations of the Madison family, to the squalor of the Jamestown colony, and to Angola. But even at the end of this journey, standing near the mouth of the Congo River in an old slave port turned to swamp, savaged by mosquitoes, I did not find the answers I had been searching for.
The damning perplexity Newton captured so astutely is that you never solve your puzzle, even with DNA tests and genealogical-research websites. The glimpses of your past both lift some of the burden of your heritage and sand down the self-satisfaction over any talent it bequeathed. But in terms of understanding why you are who you are, that, as Newton writes, is “a philosophical finger trap from which humankind cannot escape.”
Although Maud Newton ends her article by invoking each person’s uniqueness and the connectedness of the human race, her meditation on biology and “blood” diminishes the importance of the profound connections we make through choice and love.
So what if one’s cousin fifteen times removed was a hero or a scoundrel? So what if he was color-blind or lactose intolerant? So what if one inherits a particular genetic percentage of Ashkenazi, sub-Saharan African, or Inuit genetic material, or a mix of all three?
Sure, there are great benefits to knowing that one is at risk for a particular genetic disease. That, I think, is an objectively beneficial use for these new tools.
But as for the rest — inheriting stuff like a writerly bent or an artistic temperament — this, as Newton unfortunately demonstrates, can quickly become a form of magical thinking, one that transfers the admirable traits of ancestors to their self-obsessed descendants.
Studio City, Calif.
Concerning her parents’ contribution of a single putative genetic variant for empathy, Newton states: “each is half responsible for passing along whatever heritable capacity for empathy I do or do not have.” Each is indeed half responsible, but we must remember that this is not because of a single genetic marker. Even if the study Newton cites in support of this remark is valid, there still remains a plethora of other genetic variants that contribute to empathy. But Newton goes so far as to guess what her father’s genotype is for that marker.
The genetic fatalism that results from taking popularly available genealogical studies at face value is something we must stand guard against as more people avail themselves of genetic technology.
As Maud Newton shows, “vertical” genealogical research, tracing one’s ancestry hundreds or even thousands of years back, offers many pleasures. But vertical searches can sometimes distract the searcher from more meaningful knowledge, by offering so much interesting trivia (discovering a royal ancestor, say, or a lineage going back to Caesar). Genealogy works at its best when it is lateral rather than vertical, lingering in a particular period and uncovering multiple stories. If it can expose you to the irony of a great-grandmother bringing her firstborn son to America in order to get him away from European wars, only to grieve his loss in the American Civil War, for instance, the time given to the family-tree obsession will have been worth it.
I was pleased to read Maud Newton’s article on genealogy and would like to offer her my congratulations. Although other journalists have written about the emerging field of genetic genealogy, Newton was by far the most comprehensive and accurate in her coverage, perhaps because she herself is an active participant in genealogical research and understands the motivations of genetic genealogists and the methods we use to research and make our discoveries.
Newton did not shy away from the concerns some have expressed in regard to the potential misuse of personal genomics. She also touched on the way in which genealogy is bound up with our conceptions of race, and noted a number of examples of people who were, regrettably for our knowledge of American history, reluctant to explore their ancestry for fear of discovering a more complex picture than they wanted. As a professional who works on the front lines of this field, I can attest that this sort of misguided fear is on the wane. I have witnessed the blurring of the lines between so-called ethnicities and an acceptance of the truth that we are all much more closely connected than we may have previously realized. What I have observed has given me great hope for the future.
San Clemente, Calif.
In his review of Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike [“Agreeable Angstrom,” June], Jonathan Dee writes that Updike’s “life consisted of saying yes to everything, and of questioning nothing.” I read that with amusement, remembering how I tried, for years, to get Updike to agree to a Playboy interview with me. I corresponded with him about it and went to see him when he gave a talk at the Los Angeles Public Library. I had previously done interviews with James A. Michener, Elmore Leonard, Joyce Carol Oates, and Saul Bellow, and I thought just mentioning these writers would clinch the deal, but when I said to Updike, “Saul Bellow agreed,” he just looked at me and smiled wryly. “Yes, I read it,” he said.
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