Ancestry and the Long Distance Call

These are the days of miracles and wonder

 

I read the science news in 2016 and hear lyrics from that Paul Simon song echoing in my head.

 

These are the days of miracles and wonder

And better variant calls

The way that CRISPR works on everything

The way we sequence it all

 

Perhaps I paraphrase. But these are heady times, when the boy seems poised to burst out of his bubble, and fantasies of a baboon heart turn into dreams of a human heart instead, grown in a lab or in a pig, and we will have no more of slaughtering primates thank you very much.

 

These are the days of promises and phase one trials,

and medicine is magical and magical is art

 

When we cure your disease, I will feed you pancakes with maple syrup and put frosting on your birthday cake, I tell my beloved friend with type I diabetes. We will float Islets of Langerhans in a pouch beneath your skin. We will re-engineer your pancreatic stem cells to be invisible to your immune system.

 

Promises of miracles come with questions. Can we? Should we? How will we pay for it all?

 

We. We use the word freely, but what does it mean? This is a genetics question too, one that we (the purveyors and patrons of genetic technology, the readers of this blog) don’t ask ourselves often enough. Who will benefit from the miracles that are now only twinkles in the eye of brilliant minds?

 

Who is included when we talk about ‘we’? A family, a tribe, a nation, a species? It is one of the ironies of the genomic age that the technological revolution that makes it possible for us to think and act globally has also spawned a growing interest in atavistic concepts like bloodlines. Racism raises its ugly old head on new platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The through-the-roof popularity of ancestry testing both testifies to and nurtures an instinct to tribalism that is ancient beneath the glossy surface of its web-based, consumer-facing interface. A powerful thing, genealogy, beyond the fun and games, with the power to bring us together or tear us apart.

 

Research testifying to this was published earlier this year, in the form of an article called “Living in a Genetic World: How Learning About Interethnic Genetic Similarities and Differences Affects Peace and Conflict”. The authors conducted a series of studies observing how reading a single article about genetic relatedness or the lack thereof altered the response of a Jewish audience toward a hypothetical Arab population, and vice versa. Participants queried after being given a mock BBC article describing Jews and Arabs as genetic cousins expressed a less negative attitude toward individuals of the other ethnicity. Repeating their experiment with populations of Jews of different ages and from different parts of the United States, Sasha Kimel from Harvard and colleagues from the University of Michigan, Europe and Israel found that a suggestion of genetic kinship consistently increased support for peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.

 

Now don’t get me wrong, small studies and academic hypotheticals don’t represent a road map to peace in the Middle East. But the discussion points to something we as genetic counselors know from experience: genetic ideation is a powerful force in shaping notions of identity. It helps define ‘we’ for each of us.

 

This is something to think about every time we give out genetic information. For 23andMe and Ancestry.com, it could mean writing a report that puts as much emphasis on what unites us as on what divides us. By convention, we talk about first cousins sharing 12.5% of their DNA.   But we share more of our DNA than that with a banana. Yes, I know that what we mean is that 12.5% of our DNA and our cousin’s DNA is identical by descent. Testing companies give FAQ’s explaining the numerics of relatedness; perhaps the 99.9% we all share ought to merit an asterisk at the very least.

 

It is a strange moment in which we live, full of hope and promise and fear and sadness. A new era builds at our back, with unprecedented tools to diagnose, treat and even prevent disease, while the landscape in front of us is one of increasing income inequality and fitful, angry isolationism. The routine injustice of bigotry and unequal access are far greater threats to the genomic era than the sci-fi horrors of Drs. Frankenstein and Moreau. CRISPR can’t change your zip code.

 

There is no simple solution to this, but the battle begins with how we define ‘we’. Genetics needs to remind us of what we share as often as it tells us how we are different. Many of you are out there every day fighting battles you may not recognize as part of a larger war: battling insurance companies for access, battling to bring diversity to our biobanks and clinical trials, supporting a new vision of family, in which our 99.9% shared DNA is enough, and we are not defined by the fraction that is identical by descent. We are educators in a field that is an agent of change, and so it falls to us to work for an ever more expansive and inclusive definition of ‘we’. Without that, we risk that the amazing technology of the genomic age will be perverted into a tool for doubling down on the things that divide us.

 

These are the days of miracles and wonder

This is the long distance call

The way the camera follows us in slo-mo

The way we look to us all

The way we look to a distant constellation

That’s dying in a corner of the sky

These are the days of miracle and wonder

And don’t cry baby don’t cry

Don’t cry

 

 

follow me on twitter!

@laurahercher

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Laura Hercher

One response to “Ancestry and the Long Distance Call

  1. Brianne Kirkpatrick

    Bravo, Laura. You post here about subjects so uncommonly discussed within our profession that they feel almost taboo. But I am glad you are breaking the ice, so to speak. You aren’t alone in having these thoughts.

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