Thursday, September 11, 2014

You Don't Know What You Don't Know

DNA testing.  It's the current buzz term in the genealogy world right now.  For good and for bad.  So let's discuss it today, shall we?  Why not, everyone else is!  Today's post is spurred on by a pretty vigorous online discussion that is happening at the moment and I think there are some important points that aren't getting enough attention in the process.

The original story, that you can see in original form here and is also referenced here by Dick Eastman, is of a biologist who, after teaching a college course on the genome, thought it might be fun/informative/interesting/helpful to take a DNA test in order to discover his susceptibility to certain familial cancers.  The fun part, he thought, came in by buying tests for his parents too.  Because honestly, if you are him, why not?  In his defense and in complete sympathy for him, what else could he possibly expect the outcome of a saliva swab to be?  Apparently a bouncing baby boy was not on his list of standard deviations.  Obviously.  So this poor man and his family were thrust into the gaping jaws of a personal family soap opera all because of an opt-in button for finding close relatives.  It's ended quite tragically for his family, and I recognize that in every possible way, but I don't think that this story, or the very many others like it, should cause us to dismiss DNA testing out of hand, without really examining the root of the conflict the "insta-family" button is creating for some folks.

First and foremost, the scripture that keeps coming to mind when I hear this story and so many like it, is actually found in the New Testament in Luke 12:3.  It says: "Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops."  The takeaway from that?  We can't hide what we've done.  Eventually everything comes to light.  And now, with these DNA tests, which George Doe (above) discovered and points out, we are dealing with highly advanced paternity tests.  Now, George's story, as tragic as it is, is also very vague on certain details.  How old was the half-brother and did his age indicate that he was born before or after the creation of the author's family?  Did George's father even know (chances are no because the author seems to indicate his dad was just as shocked as he was at the discovery) that this lost child even existed.  There are so many variables to this story that we just don't know.  His father even thought that the test he had taken was defective -- a very common reaction many people are having when unexpected results come back.  And at first, my reaction was that he had to have had some idea that there was a possibility of it when he sent off his cheek swab but now... maybe not so much.  We just don't know how everything went down.  Or when it went down.  So to say that DNA tests are bad or that the "opt-in" button on the results is bad is pretty extreme.  I am a believer in owning our actions.  One hundred percent, all the time, every day.  You do it, own it.  Especially when it comes to light, as Luke has so clearly told us it will, own it.  So to blame the opt-in button is a bitter pill for me to swallow.  I agree with George that it is easy for people to not understand the ramification of clicking that button but part of me still thinks that you've got to go in with eyes wide open knowing that maybe something might come back that you aren't expecting.

There are two sides to this coin though.  The other side of the narrative is referenced beautifully by Kerry Scott in her blog post here.  I seriously wanted to give her a virtual high-five after reading this.  Discovering unknown half-siblings, or that your parents (one or both) aren't your parents, while stunning and possibly devastating, may not be something that needs to be judged as harshly as some people are wont to do.  It may not be what we think it is.  This is especially in the case of long ago generations where life and social expectations were so very different from today.  I loved her comment about a "statute of limitations" for our family judgement.  Good food for thought, isn't it?  People did the best they could do with the knowledge they had and the environment in which they lived.  Sometimes what looks like a shocker family revelation may have been a sincere horror for a woman in our family line.  So that's something to chew on as well.

DNA testing has huge benefits.  It just recently positively identified the remains of Richard III in England, as well as positively identifying Jack the Ripper.  It has gotten innocent people off of death row and it has helped find matches for all sorts of medical miracles.  So, I guess my opinion on DNA testing is we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water (go ahead and insert your tongue firmly into your cheek as you read that too).  Like I say all the time, every family has some scoundrels and some heroes.  Even the scoundrels have heroic qualities and vice versa for our heroes.  The beauty of family history is coming to know who you are and dealing with the good and the bad and healing from all of it.  Things come to light, even things we think we can hide.  Eventually, everyone will know everything.  And maybe that creates some uncomfortable (and even presently damaging) situations for some people. But for now, we don't know what we don't know until we know it.  And to blame all of that on some test is a bit on the extreme side.  Those things existed before the tests are ever taken.  And even then, whose to say we'll really know even then.  But my big takeaway is this, when we research our family history (via records or DNA) we're going to find stuff we may not want.  It may seem like the world is ending in that moment, but eventually, it could be the most healing thing in someone's life.  So I tend to feel, overall, that we should all walk into this with the clear expectation that discovering the unexpected is not a bad thing.  It's an opportunity.

1 comment:

McElrea One-Name Study said...

Great post! As I said on another thread about this subject, the same can happen with old fashioned genealogy research, though we do need a clue to create the link that in this case DNA provided. Family history research is a great leveler - we all find a scoundrel or an angel or two in our ancestry. And it gives us a chance to look into the history of their era to see what might have preceded/caused the event. Eyes wide open is a good policy - how we deal with what we see is often a process. I hope the family in question comes to grip with this - it doesn't really change the current reality, does it?