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“Do you know where you come from?”

“New Jersey,” I said.

“No, I mean where your people come from.”

“Yeah, New Jersey.”

But that’s not what Stuart meant.

“I mean originally,” he said.

“Then, I guess, the Rift Valley in Africa.”

“But after that. What ethnicity do you identify as.”

“Well, everyone in my family is Norwegian. But the Nordic people migrated there from elsewhere before that.”

“And how far back does your family tree go?”

“I’ve never really thought about it much,” I said. “My grandmother’s old family Bible — in Norwegian — has people listed back as far as my great-great-grandparents. Or at least some of them. Not all 16 of them.”

“And none of the 32 who gave birth to them, or the 64 who gave birth to the 32,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about this.”

Stuart thinks about a lot of things. And when he starts off, there’s usually no stopping him. We turned a corner onto his street. The air was turning into winter.

“It began because Genevieve has been watching these genealogy programs on TV. They seem to be enormously popular. They take a celebrity guest and trace their family history to answer questions that the guest has about his or her past — things that perhaps their parents never talked about. Where did Grandma get that tattoo? Why did our family leave Serbia? They sometimes find out that their great-great-great-great-great grandfather was thrown in debtors’ prison during the Glorious Revolution, or some such thing that amazes them.”

“Yes, I’ve seen those. Henry Louis Gates does one on PBS and I’ve seen a British one on YouTube. They can be fascinating.”

“But I’ve noticed a problem that is never addressed, although, maybe it can’t be. Genevieve accidentally pointed it out once. The family trees they come up with are always piecemeal, and they tend to follow the family name, which means the father’s father’s father, on and on. Sometimes they do the mother, too. But then if it continues, it’s the mother’s father and his father. They get hung up in the family name.

“It makes it seem as if a family tree has a certain neatness to it,” Stuart said. “And if they find something notable in the past, it seems as if there is a direct line, say, from Charlemagne to them. As if a family line were a simple thing.”

Stuart had worked a good deal of this out, he said, and when we got to his house, Genevieve had dinner ready.

“She sure can cook, for a violist,” he said. Genevieve did not seem amused.

Later, he brought out his paperwork. He laid it on the cleaned off table. There was a good deal of scribbling on it, and a lot of numbers.

“You have to do the math,” he said. “You start of with 1 — that’s you. You have two parents. They each have two parents, making four grandparents. The numbers pile up. You have eight great-grandparents. Keep doubling the number for each generation. By the time you get to five ‘greats’ you have 128 people dumping their DNA into your birth cauldron.”

That makes doing a full family tree rather busy with names — even if you could track the names down. You don’t really know the names, Stuart said, but the math remains certain.

“One thinks in terms of great old Pop-Pop, or Nana, and maybe you have in mind their parents or grandparents, but it is always a manageable number of people. A number you might know — they are people you can know the names of.

“I thought of how many years this might encompass,” he said. “And as an average — and average only, because, of course, there’s a lot of variation, but as an average, I think this works. You take a generation to be 25 years — it makes the math easier and we’re only doing this for illustration. But if your parents were 25 when you were born, and your grandparents were 50, that makes your great-grandparents 75 at your birth. Again, this is only for illustration. My great-grandmother was actually 82 when I was born.

“That means there is 100 years to your great-great-grandparents.”

“OK, I’m buying it so far. But,” I said, looking down at the papers he had spread out, “that leaves us with 16 people to keep track of. Sixteen in a century seems doable.”

“The problem is that the numbers keep doubling. By the time you go back 200 years, you have 256 ancestors. By 300 years, you have 4,096 ‘9-G’ grandparents. That’s great-great-great-great-great —“ he held up his fingers and started on the next hand — “great-great-great-great-grandparents. That’s a lot of DNA dumping into your cells. If you go back 500 years — and this doesn’t yet get you anywhere near Charlemagne — you now have to send greeting cards to one-million forty-eight-thousand five-hundred and seventy-six geezers.

“Let’s go back to the 1260s, when Chartres Cathedral was dedicated and Kublai Khan was emperor of China. That’s when you now count a billion people as your ancestors. With a ‘B’ — actually, 1,073,741,824 people, all of whom were necessary for the production of the zygote that became you, sitting here, eating Genevieve’s lasagne.”

Stuart was starting to get a little excited. His eyes were taking on that glow I recognized all to well.

“You only have to go back 33 generations to a point that you have more grandparents than there are currently people on earth. Here it is, 400 years after Charlemagne and you have 8,589,934,592 ancestors. Seven more generations — that takes us only to about the turn of the first millennium and you have already needed a trillion ancestors. It starts to get really ridiculous.”

He pointed to his calculations on the paper again.

“This means that it is mathematically certain that you share an ancestor within the past thousand years with everybody now living on the planet. There’s no escaping that fact. So, you may not be a direct descendant of Charlemagne, but you are related. Since there needs to be more people than are available in order to sire you — more people required than exist or have existed on earth — it necessarily means there has to be a great deal of cross-breeding, making everyone cousins of a sort. Alle Menschen werden Brüder, as Beethoven said.”

“Maybe we should say, ‘alle Menschen sind Brüder.’ Make it present tense,” I said. “But when you mentioned ‘cross-breeding,’ it brings to mind what happened when Carole wanted to track the origins of her family.”

My late wife adored her father and loved everything about the Steele family. To discover the origin of the family, her brother, Mel, took one of those Y-chromosome tests. The Y-chromosome is passed down from father to son across the generations. When the results came back in the mail, there was at least one anomaly.

“We learned that surname and DNA are only tangentially related,” I said. “The DNA descends from father to son, but maybe not the surname. The Steele family always said it was originally Irish. But it is an English name, possibly Scottish, and everyone was Protestant. In the U.S., they lived in the Appalachians and so we assumed they were Scots-Irish. Along with the complicated information about haplogroup, there was a list of other men who had taken the test who matched up with the Steele DNA. The most recent names were indeed Steele. But going back in history, the Steele name disappears and is replaced with the name Driscoll. The oldest Driscolls on the list came from County Cork, in southern Ireland.

“What we figured out is that at some point — maybe in Ireland, maybe after they emigrated to America — a Steele woman either had a baby out of wedlock to a Driscoll, or a Steele wife had an adulterous affair with a Driscoll. So, the Driscoll DNA settled, cuckoo-egg style in the Steele family line.

“It taught us not to be too cocky about the nominal lineage you work out through genealogy. Just because someone is married, doesn’t mean the husband is father to the child. There must be a lot of this kind of misdirection over the centuries.”

“And also,” said Stuart, “You should be as aware of the many other contributors to your genetic make-up, and not so focused on the genes stumbling down through your father’s line. It’s only one of two parts, or of four parts, or of eight, or, well, you get the picture.”

Anton, Laura and family copy 1
“I’m not sure I know why we have families,” he said. “Can you find any excuse in existence for them?”

Stuart was on about something again.

“I don’t know,” I said. I had pretty much always taken the existence of family for granted. Didn’t think about it much.

Stuart obviously had and his own experience of family was not encouraging.

“What I do know,” he said, “is that for me — and I think this is true for my generation — family seemed kind of irrelevant. I know when I was a kid, I never wanted to spend time with relatives. They were boring.

“What I had instead was friends. You don’t choose your family, so you’re stuck with the luck of the draw. You do choose your friends. So, when Thanksgiving comes around, I want to spend it with those near and dear to me, in other words, my friends, and not my family.”

“But aren’t you close to your brothers?”

“Well, I’m close to Bernie, but I chose him as a friend, I didn’t merely inherit him as a relative.”

“So,” I said, “friends are a substitute for family?”

“I don’t really think of it that way. Not a substitute; friends are my family. And I’ve talked to many of my friends about this, and they feel the same way. Perhaps it is only our generation; we grew up in the ‘60s, and the whole panoply of institutional authorities were not just drawn into question, but actively disparaged. It isn’t that we don’t like our parents, but rather that our parents did what they were supposed to do: They didn’t choose us, either. Oh, they chose to have us…”

He thought for a moment. “I guess,” he said.

“But whether they chose to have children or we came by accident, they didn’t choose to have the particular kids they did have. We came as strangers to their house, and pretty much, when we grew up, we left as strangers.”

“Then, how come everyone seems to think family is so damn important?” I asked. I was thinking of political speeches, lauding family; Biblical injunctions; I was thinking of all the literature I had read, family epics, family tragedies, family comedies. Homeric or Faulknerian. It was as if I were missing something.

“I’m not sure, but I think that in the past, and I mean centuries ago, maybe eons, people didn’t travel as much, didn’t meet as many people, and in more tribal times, clan and family gave you something you felt you could trust — despite the evidence of all those family epics you mention, whether Homeric or Faulknerian. Nowadays, we go off to university, meet many more people and community is formed around shared interests rather than shared blood.”

I thought about this and was not satisfied.

“You create a family when you marry.”

“Well, I’ve had …” and here he stopped to count, his eyes turned upward and this tongue between his lips … “lemme see, seven wives, official and unofficial, no, eight, if you count Helen, although she never actually moved in, and either I left them or they left me. Mostly, they left me.

“But the family you create is akin to the friends you make: It’s voluntary. At least in our culture, you get to choose your wife. If you do it right, your wife is your friend. Further, and this is an important point: Your wife or your husband is the only family member you actually want to have sex with, or at least that you are allowed by custom or law to have sex with. That makes a spouse an anomaly in family relations.

“This voluntary relationship — the ‘elective affinity’ — is essentially different from what you have with your cousins or your older brother. Any relationship there is purely accident. The lottery numbers pop up one by one, but you cannot predict any of them.”Dad, Ricky July 1948 copy

“That may be, but when you get married, whether your wife is your friend or not, you have kids and you love your kids and want to give them preferential treatment in a hard and harsh world. They may be accidents, in terms of personality and how you interact with them, and even if they are teenagers and don’t want to be seen with you in public, you still love them in a way you cannot love even your best friends.”

“Well,” said Stuart sheepishly, “I haven’t got any kids, so I wouldn’t know.”

“But you have nephews. Do you love them?”

“I guess so, but that doesn’t mean I want to have them over for Thanksgiving.”Carole-Steele

“I take your point. But I have the example of my wife.”

“Carole.”

“Yes, Carole.”

“You’ve been with her a long time.”

“Thirty years …”

“Can’t fathom that. Mind you, Carole’s great. You hit the lottery, as it were. But my longest stretch, I think, was seven years before it blew up.”

“But anyway, Carole has a take on family I’d never really considered. Family is something different for her. For her, it is where she came from.”

“You mean, like genealogy?”

“Sort of, but she isn’t so much into the family tree as such, or into whether or not she has a coat-of-arms, but rather, that she is made up of the hand-me-downs, genetically, of the ancestors, the piling up of character — of meaning — that has concentrated in her. Her family is her roots, deep in the ground, and she is connected to them as literally as the tree is to the root ball, all of a piece.

“She sees her hair in her grandmother’s hair, her jawline in her father’s, her love of nature — and, I might add, her stubbornness — in her grandfather. Great grandmother, Nancy Jane Lind Hutchison Steele, wife of Rowan Steele.She grew up with her great-grandmother in the house, who was a Civil-War widow, and sees history not in paragraphs on a page in a book, but in her wrinkly skin. She wants to know how her great grandfather came to live in North Carolina, whether he is Scots-Irish, why they eat collards or sing certain hymns as opposed to others. Obviously, this is not all genetic. A good deal is cultural, but I don’t think Carole makes that much distinction: It is all roots, all the long line of ancestors, which, for her, go back — and I’m not kidding — to Adam and Eve, or whoever you want to pick as the ur-progenitors. Her interest in cave men is part of the same thing. She calls it ‘the long man,’ the person drawn from one generation to the next the same way a plant goes to flower, a flower to seed, a seed to seedling, to plant, to flower, to seed and so on in a continuous recreation of the same life — the same DNA shuffled around — of which she is merely the latest flowering. Or the antepenultimate: She has now sprouted a daughter, and that daughter twin granddaughters. So now Carole can see she isn’t the end of a long line of ancestry, but only one link in a continuity.Five generations 1971 copy

“Thus, family for her isn’t simply the people who she shares Thanksgiving dinner with, as if they were all discrete entities, but rather as if they were the acorns hanging on the same oak tree, in a sense, a single person with multiple incarnations. At Thanksgiving, even if she is alone, she is having dinner with all of them.”

“Well, that is Carole, through and through, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and it has made me think differently about family. I share your sense of relatives as something you’d rather not have to spend time with. I have chosen my own ‘family’ of friends, who mean a great deal to me. But I also have come to see the ‘mystic bonds’ of family — again, not as a question of whether I want to spend time with them. I don’t, really. But rather as a continuation of a process.

“Looked at another way, I am a bit of my parents planted in the future to grow, and to plant my son there in the future that extends beyond my harvesting.

“I had the oddest experience a few years ago. Did I ever tell you about it? You remember when I was married to my first wife, we had a son.

“Yes. Boy, that was a long time ago.”

“And just after he was born, we split up and I didn’t see my son anymore. I lost touch with my ex-wife and with my son. I was young and a prat, so I moved on without much thought of it. But a few years ago, I got a phone call and on the other end a voice said, “Are you my father?” It was my son, some 30 years later. I had not seen or had any contact with him for 30 years.

“Well, Carole and I went to Austin, Texas, where he was living and we met him and the shock was palpable: He looked exactly like I did when I was his age. Not just in physiognomy, but he wore the same kind of thick-rimmed glasses, the same plaid shirts, the same long hair I had back then. It was uncanny. He was living with a woman who came from the same county in North Carolina that Carole came from. His house was a mess of books and CDs and DVDs. He worked, at the time, in a used bookstore and was in charge of the classics section and the poetry section. His favorite literature was the classics. The resemblance was uncanny. Patris et fili copy

“I had always assumed that in the ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ controversy, that nurture was by far the more important. We were raised at a time when we thought, ‘It’s all cultural.’ But here was evidence in front of me that perhaps it wasn’t all cultural. Perhaps DNA ruled not only the shape of our noses, but the preference we might have for Manhattan or New England clam chowder.

“The real clincher came when we walked through his office at the back of his house and there, on the top of a bookshelf, he had a world globe with the ball taken off, turned upside down with Antarctica now at the top, and replaced. I laughed. Back home, on top of my bookshelf in my office was a world globe that I had reversed to put Antarctica on the top. It was almost scary. How many people have done that with their globes? What are the chances that father and son, with no interaction for three decades, would each do the same peculiar thing?”

“So, you’re saying then, that as opposed to the question of whether you choose family or friends, that the question is basically irrelevant: That family is who you are, that ancestry defines your nature and you have family to thank or blame for it.”

“I remember having this discussion many years ago with a colleague. We had both grown up in New Jersey in the 1950s and ‘60s. We shared a good deal of nurture and could understand many of the same cultural references. But he was from an Italian family and I was from a Norwegian family. Despite how much we shared, he had a preference for Fellini films and I had a preference for Bergman.

“Not that I couldn’t appreciate Fellini — I do — but that deep in my bones, I knew the Bergman world; it was my interior world. While the Fellini was tremendous, but exterior to me. There is something in my genes that responds familially to the world of Bergman that Fellini doesn’t hit. But it was the reverse for my colleague. Italian genes felt at home in Fellini.

“In the old days, I would have chalked it all up to culture: He grew up in an Italian family and so the folk ways would have felt familiar. But now, I think — it’s only tentative, of course — but I think perhaps it may be something genetic. This may be the collective unconscious that Jung wrote about. The pile of chromosomal tendencies, tastes, judgments, behaviors, that have been reinforced over the generations by the distillation and concentration of DNA.

“I’m sure that upbringing and culture plays a part, no doubt, but I now think that there may be something inherent, that if I had been adopted by an Italian family, I would still feel more at home in Bergman. Not provable in my case, perhaps, but I think plausible.”

“So, I think you are saying, that you are inevitable in terms of family as you are in terms of history, that you may not like the times in which you are born, but you simply have no choice in the matter, and that all those relatives who bore you on holidays are just the titrations of chromosomes and you are thus embedded in your family like raisins in a muffin. No choice. Just is.”

“Yes.”

“Still don’t want them over for dinner.”