Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Are We Related?

I have been doing a little geneology with the help of DNA tests with the ultimate goal of finding Maya's genetic siblings and donors.  In the process, I tested myself, my dad, and Alex, just to get my feet wet before we figured out how to collect Maya's saliva, and to get a little used to all the jargon and navigation of the various websites.

Two things I've learned that have sort of put on its head everything we think we know about family relations.  I've long held to the belief that blood is NOT thicker than water.  That circumstantial relationships are in now way inherently more valuable than those we forge out of our own free will (ie. family vs friends).

Likewise, I've never doubted that if we adopted a child, it would be our child through and through, no questions asked.  Adoption was actually our plan A. When we were pursuing open adoption, I likened incorporating the birth family the same way one incorporates one's in-laws - you inherit them with the spouse or child that you gain.  You may not like them or get along, but they are important to your spouse (or child), so they're important to you.  End of discussion.

But nonetheless, I still believed that these were philosophical interpretations of family relations, and that in the end, if push came to shove, genetics were still important and still defined the basic, natural (as in based in nature, not to be confused with "normal"), idealized definition of what it means to be a family, to be related to someone, to know one's roots.

Ah, one's roots.  And this is where things start to get interesting.  As it turns out, our DNA, our genetics, is not the be-all-end-all of our heritage the way we might think.  For instance, one might accept that if someone is related to one of my parents, then automatically, that person is related to me.  Right?  Not necessarily, if your definition is based on pure genetics.  You see, we don't inherit all of the genes of both of our parents, as this would mean a doubling of genes with every generation since the dawn of time.  So we lose many of those genetic markers that would tell us that we are related to someone because we share the same genes.

One can have two siblings with the same two parents come up related to different people based on DNA test results.  There's not even a generational gap to blame here!  It's just that which genes we inherit are completely random.  Granted, this generally happens as you start to move a bit away from the nuclear family and get into cousin territory, but the point is that when looking at a physical drawing of a family tree, there likely wouldn't be hard core genetic evidence to prove each person on that tree is related to each other person in that same line!

So what makes us related to the relatives we don't share genes with?  Social convention!  Not even the fact of growing up together, as would be the case with an adoptive family.  Not even knowing each other intimately, as in the case of spouses.  There are people in your family tree whom you've never met, never even heard of, with whom you may or may not share a single gene, and yet they're "family".

Or are they?

And this is where I think defining family becomes of utmost importance.  I grew up in my own biological family.  My immediate family is small by most standards.  I know my grandparents (4), aunts (3), and first cousins (5), which add up to 13 people (I also knew my maternal great-grandmother).  I have never seen all of them together in one spot.  We were never very close.  So to have a DNA test suggest that people with last names I've never heard of, from areas of the world I've never been to, are my "family" is completely ludicrous.  I don't know anything about my parent's cousins, much less their kids, or the siblings of my grandparents (with the exception of my maternal grandmother, who was an only child).  We share relatively close family members, and yet if you put us in a room together, we would be complete strangers to each other.

Another interesting layer is the fact that gene loss over generations in families that have mixed between ethnicities (I'd venture to say this means all of our families if you look back far enough), this means that not only that we have relatives of ethnicites different from our own (which in modern times is a very common occurrence), but more surprisingly, that depending on who procreated with whom, our own ethnicity could have been totally different from what we accept it to be.

With mixed race individuals, whose relatives intermingled recently enough to be aware of it, some people claim one race over the other (often the one that they most stereotypically resemble as far as their phenotype goes, but other times the one of the parent who had the biggest influence on their upbringing, regardless of shared phenotype), while others insist on membership in both.  (I say "both" rather than "all" because it is most common to have each parent strongly identify with one race or ethnicity, even if they themselves are mixed, resulting in two main competing racial identities for the offspring.)

But what about several generations into the future to our modern day mixed race individuals?  They are not a new phenomenon.  So what about that mixed race individual in our own family tree, say a hundred years ago?  For instance, I am Polish, of two Polish parents, born in Poland.  Until I took my DNA test, I thought of myself as "100% Polish", at least genetically speaking.  (Socially, I went back and forth between Polish, American, and Polish-American.)  My DNA test revealed mixing among most of the European peoples over the years, with only 75% "Eastern European" (so not even 75% Polish - this could include modern day Ukraine, Lithuania, Slovakia, Belarus, the Czech Republic, and Russia (countries that currently border Poland), as well as more than a dozen other countries considered part of the eastern bloc.  Believe me, we differentiate between each other!  So who knows how much of that 75% is "truly" Polish.

But these are still all white nationalities, albeit with some phenotypical variation among the northern versus southern countries.  What about that interesting 0.2% West African and 0.1% North African ancestry that may be small percentage-wise but nonetheless was enough to come up on my chromosomes.  I also tested my father, and I got these genes from my dad - his mom, to be exact, as they're only on my X chromosome that corresponds to my dad, and only on his X chromosome.  But he also has 0.4% South Asian and 0.2% East Asian that was not passed on to me.  At what point did his ancestors stop being African and Asian?  Had they procreated with other Africans and Asians instead of Europeans, we'd be seeing very different results.

Am I supposed to identify only with my most recent ancestors' race/ethnicity?  What if the percentages had been much higher, and I'd be much closer to my African and Asian ancestors? (Are my dad's Asian ancestors my ancestors too?  Because I didn't inherit any of those traits.)  This is what mixed race individuals with recently mixed relatives (parents, grandparents) are forced to decide, because society sees us as belonging to whatever race or ethnicity we happen to resemble, completely regardless of what our genetics say, or in what culture we were raised.

Perhaps that is the problem - that we allow others to label our racial and ethnic identities, and that we think we can do likewise for others.  This is what is wrong with our modern American racial categorization system.  It's not based on science.  It's not based on people's lived experiences.  It's based on looks.

And yet.... what about the now infamous Rachel Dolezal? That controversy proved that while we may like to label people based on what they look like, we don't like it when people once labeled a certain way take it upon themselves to try to change that.  It's not enough to be labeled by others based on one's looks.  Those looks have to also conform to our preconceived notions of what people with certain recent ancestors are supposed to look like.  Confused?

I'm not saying Rachel Dolezal had a right to claim membership in the Black community.  But let's be honest, if her DNA test happened to reveal a previously unknown 6% African ancestry, even though she had two "white" parents and "looked white" herself, would she then have a right to that part of her ancestry?  Or would it have to be more recent?  25% (one grandparent)?  Where would the acceptable claim to African heritage change over for her?  At 12%? And why that number and not 50%?  So really, the idea that someone can label someone else based on something as fickle as DNA or - even worse - as unreliable as phenotype is highly unscientific and subjective, not to mention seemingly a waste of time.

In summary, we may claim membership in an ethnicity of a more recent ancestor even if we didn't actually inherit any of their genes.  But someone else with a more distant ancestor of a different ethnicity who passed on mere trace amounts of that ethnicity may not have a right to claim membership in that ethnicity.  Kind of blows your mind, doesn't it?  I know for me, it makes me question everything we think we know about what makes a family and what constitutes one's ethnic or racial identity.

When I first shared my DNA results with some friends, mentioning my 0.3% African heritage, the immediate question-in-jest was, "So now you're Black?"  But it's a valid question.  Remember the "one drop rule"?  A person with 50% Black parentage was marked as Black on their birth certificate, and if they went on to procreate with a white person, even though their child would technically be 25% Black, their birth certificate would state Black.  And then that child could grow up to procreate with another white person, but still their technically 12% Black/88% white child would be marked as Black on their birth certificate.  All because of a social convention that allowed outsiders to label people according to the mere presence - however small - of Black ancestry.  According to this reasoning, yes, I would be Black!

But does that actually make sense? No, you say?  How is this any different from any of the racial labeling that we do? There's not really a good solution, is there?  We can't exactly say that people can label themselves whatever race they feel like it, because racial labels would lose all meaning that way.... Or, wait, maybe that's exactly what we need to do to forge into a post-racial society?  Then again, that sounds too much like a color-blind society, which would be pretty dull and also divorced from reality.  We do have differences based on cultural upbringing and physical features, and these should be celebrated.  We shouldn't fight over who is the biggest victim or whose culture or features should determine the standard.  I don't have the answers, just more questions.  But I've definitely become a stronger racial skeptic through considering these questions.