It’s been an interesting week at Chez’ Jazz to be sure. This year my wife and I decided to take the plunge and enroll in one of those DNA analysis services. (And just to save you a lot of time in the comments section, yes… I’m aware of all the privacy issues involved and I understand why some of you would never do it, but I went ahead anyway.) We wound up selecting 23 and Me, which is about double the cost of Ancestry, but provides a lot of medial screening information that my better half was interested in. I was mostly curious about the genetic heritage data.
To set the baseline here, if you’ve ever met me in person you know I pretty much fit into the stereotype of generic old white guy who writes at a conservative outlet. It’s true that I tend to tan very easily and quickly (I’ve had a sunburn maybe once in my life) and have no tendency toward freckles. We’ve always attributed that to the fact that my mother always told us about grandparents and great grandparents who were of Native American lineage. My sister really looked the part growing up, with darker skin and long, straight black hair. She jokingly referred to herself as a “squaw.” But for the most part I think I look like your average Caucasian. With parents and grandparents on both sides with surnames which come straight out of English and Irish directories, there wasn’t much consideration given to it.
My wife comes from a very similar background and it turned out that she got her results back first. When you get them it includes a map of the globe with various areas lit up in different colors to show where all of your ancestral hits come from. Hers were a very tight cluster in the British Isles and a few nearby spots on the continent. She rang up greater than 97% on the DNA scale which matched up with English, Irish and the more general “Northwestern Europe.” In short, the woman is so white that if she were any whiter she’d be confused with an albino.
Then my results came in. Hoo boy. I had a map that looked like a Christmas tree spread across the globe. I was hitting every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Yes, there was plenty of Northwest European for me also (significantly more than half) but the rest of my DNA was all over the place. There was a good chunk of “Yakut” which apparently spread from what is now Turkey through Siberia and eastern Asia, eventually crossing over to the Americas. The Native American hit was quite significant, but we already knew that from conversations with my mom. I just hadn’t known how much. And then there was one more cluster which landed in… (drumroll) “Sub-Saharan African.”
Yep. The shorter version of that would be “black.” My sister had been doing some of the old fashioned, pen and paper ancestry digging with relatives for a few years and had once mentioned something to my brother and I about the possibility of an ex-slave somewhere a few generations back on my father’s mother’s side. But since I’m pretty sure she also hasn’t entirely bought into the idea that Elvis Presley is actually dead we didn’t pay too much attention. Wonders never cease… she may have been right.
Oddly enough, learning this news hasn’t seemed to have had much of an effect on me. In fact, we’ve been having a good laugh over lots of things out of these reports. There was one quip from my better half which really set the tone for the first evening when I received the report:
ME: Huh. Check this out. Looks like you’ve been sleeping with a black guy.
WIFE: Wow. My husband’s gonna freak.
The funny thing is that I realize this isn’t suddenly going to change my world view. Maybe I’m suddenly Native American, Asian and black as well as white. Nothing has changed. I spent some time today on the phone with a contact of mine who comes from a racially mixed background (which was very enlightening and engaging) and one thing we seemed to largely agree on is that we humans are products of our environment far more than some master plan dictated by a group of helical clusters hidden in our cells. I was putting that to the test yesterday, mostly in a humorous fashion, checking out some music and literature which might be a bit more “culturally expansive.” Nope. I still have all my same old preferences like a guy perpetually stuck in the seventies.
The point is, I don’t know what I was expecting when I opened up that DNA report, but if there was anything unexpected I somehow pictured it being a shock to my system or at least a confusing moment of conflict or reflection. But honestly, having given it a few days to set in, I woke up this morning seeing myself pretty much exactly the same person I was last week. But that’s only one half of the lesson. We are all not only more than the sum of our parts, but actually independent of those parts entirely thanks to a combination of free will and a divine spark, depending on your theological preferences. Is there something in my DNA which made me lean toward the Republican Party early on? Hardly. My whiter than the driven snow wife has been a liberal studies degree holding, all women’s college attending Democrat for her entire life. So no… as individuals we don’t simply represent the solution to some chemical equation sketched out in 23 chromosomal pairs.
But at the same time, this was also a reminder that everyone comes from somewhere and humanity has walked a long and twisting road in fits and starts. Even if you have a DNA profile that’s specific to a tiny corner of the world, if you go back far enough we all came from either Sub-Saharan Africa or Australia at one point. (Depending on which prevailing theory you subscribe to.) Our familial lines have traveled around the globe to bring each of us to where we finds ourselves today. Perhaps that’s the connecting thread which ties everyone together.
DNA is interesting and can lead you down all sorts of fascinating rabbit holes. But it doesn’t make you who or what you are. Your life experiences and character do that. We’re the product of what we experience in our lives and what we do with the lessons we take away. Like the rest of you, I’m pretty much the same person at this stage of life’s journey as I was a week ago.
Anyway, that’s enough on this subject. Peace out, my brothers and sisters.