Criticism — From the June 2014 issue

America’s Ancestry Craze

Making sense of our family-tree obsession

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 8 of 10 )

The percentage breakdowns given on sites like 23andMe cover only the past 500 or so years, offering a very limited glimpse of users’ historical interconnectedness. Ultimately, of course, we’re all related — our first ancestors all originated in the same place. Henry Louis Gates has argued that genealogy and genetics research will “revolutionize our understanding of American history and also our concept of race” in ways that were previously impossible. The revolution begins, Gates contends, “when we realize there is no purity.” Having been raised by a devout racist, I would like to share Gates’s optimism, but I feel at least as much fear about the outcome of these tests as I feel hope.

A century ago, the possibility of improving the human gene pool was widely accepted as a science. Today we tend to associate eugenics with Nazism, but its proponents weren’t all right-wing fascists. George Bernard Shaw advocated “the socialisation of the selective breeding of Man.” Bertrand Russell proposed color-coded “procreation tickets” and fines for mismatched ticketholders who dared to have children. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” wrote the esteemed Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Buck v. Bell, a 1927 decision upholding Virginia’s Eugenical Sterilization Act of 1924, which was targeted at “mental defectives.” I first learned of this case in my early teens, because of my father’s enthusiasm for Holmes’s opinion. For a while after my parents’ divorce, my father took my sister and me to lunch at the same fast-food restaurant every Sunday at a time when an elderly woman and her disabled son would be eating there. Every week, throughout these meals, my father muttered about imbeciles as the man shakily tried to feed himself.

Twentieth-century proponents of eugenics advanced it as a remedy for a wide variety of perceived heritable shortcomings, including lack of intelligence, as defined by the eugenicists themselves. In a letter to the Scottish Herald in 2006, the author Richard Dawkins wondered, “if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability?” Although he did stop short of actually advocating for the creation of “designer babies,” he argued that “60 years after Hitler’s death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons.”

Until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered 23andMe to stop providing health data late last year, the company routinely ran tests for a number of genetic indicators that are at the cutting edge of preventive research — whether you’re a carrier for common strains of cystic fibrosis, whether you’re at increased risk for Alzheimer’s, how likely you are to contract tuberculosis if exposed. The site predicted fertility, longevity, skin pigmentation, and likely allergies, and it also purported, somewhat tentatively, to answer more speculative questions. Is your episodic memory “increased” or merely “typical”? Can you effectively learn to avoid errors? Do you have a high or only average nonverbal I.Q.?

In September, the site received a patent for its Inheritance Calculator, which so far is fairly limited. It tells me, for example, that if my husband (who has also been tested) and I had children, their genes would predispose them to being able to perceive bitter tastes, to tolerating lactose, to being sprinters rather than endurance athletes, and to having brown or black eyes. Presumably 23andMe, if allowed to resume business as usual, would widen the scope of this data.

In the site’s forums, subscribers discuss their results and pore over studies reported in the media. The “empathy gene,” though not incorporated into 23andMe’s own testing, has been a popular topic on the site since reports of it emerged in 2009. Although I have this marker (GG at Rs53576), I relate to the description of its typical expression only partly; my empathy tends to be as free-floating as my anxiety, which is saying something.

Though I possess only half the personality traits ostensibly connected to the “empathy” genotype, I often find myself effectively taking its supposed import at face value. As I suspected, my mom, who was recently tested, is also GG. My father — well, I would guess — is not. Yet each of my parents contributed one of my Gs. Scientifically speaking, if this study has any validity, each is half responsible for passing along whatever heritable capacity for empathy I do or do not have.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
is working on a book about the science and superstition of ancestry.

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.