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DNA: What a Tangle

People have been talking about DNA for quite some time now. I’m approaching seventy years old, and yet the accepted model of the structure of the molecule — the double helix — is older than I am. Anyone of my generation, and anyone of the generations that have come after mine, has been able to take it as a given that our biology includes this feature.

From a personal perspective, DNA is continually on my mind. Family history research is one of my main hobbies. Hardly a week goes by, and often hardly a day goes by, that I don’t check on Ancestry dot com to see what new chromosomal-fragment matches have turned up in my comparison pool. I’m not alone in that. DNA analysis is a prime means of genealogical investigation. Using the tool can become addictive.

Figuring out who I’m related to, and to what degree, and what parts of the world my ancestors sprang from, fuels a large part of my interest in the pastime; however, it’s not the part I want to talk about here and now. That stuff is particular to me and of not that much interest to most of you. Do you care that more than half of my heritage is Finnish? Or that the pattern of my eyebrows came down to me from my mother’s mother’s father’s mother? I suspect not. To nearly all of you, that’s little more than trivia. What I do want to discuss is broader in scope. While DNA can be a means to unveil the personal, it can also go macro, and address what it means to be a living example of humankind as a whole.

For me, the “big” thing, the part that I didn’t necessarily look for when I first got into family history and the part that I now can’t manage to ignore, is what DNA says about the making of healthy, well-adjusted people, and what goes into the making of dysfunctional, hopelessly unhappy people.

It can be a tricky proposition to say that our genetics has a shaping effect upon us. It can get political. It can sound prejudicial. Too often in human history, groups of people have been denigrated for their ethnic background, or the social class of their forebears, as if to say they were destined to be elite if they were born into the elite class, and doomed to be inconsequential if they were not from “good family.” I’m not here to echo any of those reprehensible positions. The fact is, we are complex beings. We are not simply a constellation of inherited traits. Moreover, at an intrinsic level, we all are entitled to respect. That said, we are dealt certain cards, genetically speaking, and that hand is what we have to work with.

I need to pause a moment here and make clear that my statements to follow are not intended to be authoritative. Rather, they are anecdotal. I’m not speaking for everybody here. I’m speaking for myself only, and I do so with a humble attitude. I’m sharing the way I have made sense of the data I’ve digested. It may resonate for you. I don’t know. I only know that my conclusions work for me, the audience of one. They provide meaning, and what’s more important in life than getting to the meaning of one’s own experience?

Basic background: It was in 2005 (in the wake of the death of my mother) that I began to be systematic about maintaining a family-history database. I’m now nineteen years in. Through that span, I have often been able to do some data-entry nearly every week. By this point, I have nearly 80,000 people in said database, and in most cases the entries are fleshed out with the usual suite of statistics. Birthdate, death date, etc. Yes, that sort of tally is ridiculous. Yes, I am crazy. But the fact that I’ve done that much work has provided me with benefits I could not have accessed with a typical effort of a few hundred or a few thousand entries. I can look at family lines in great depth and I can see their context fully. It’s not just that the data is there. It’s that every bit of the data has been typed into place by me. It has gone through the part of my brain that involves language and the written word, which is the prime way I learn things in a lasting way. I can’t just be told something and be certain of remembering it, but if I “put it into my own words,” it becomes internalized. Sometimes just the act of rote typing is enough of a trigger, but the fact is, I often stop and ponder as I am typing, and this gooses the process even more.

Over time, the two types of scenarios began to call attention to themselves. It’s the two involving the two groups I mentioned up above — the healthy well-adjusted people, and the dysfunctional unhappy people.

The latter cases were the most striking, at least at first. As you might expect in a database of eighty thousand people, there are examples of just about every sort of person and every sort of individual destiny. Inevitably, I have entered the names and stats of people whose deeds and whose nature chilled my blood. For the most part, I will spare you the details, but in case you think I’m exaggerating the ugliness, one example is a young wife in her late thirties whose life with her husband and brothers and teenaged children was so bad she committed suicide by drinking rat poison rather than continue to suffer one more day amid their company. As bad a way to go as that method is, I can’t say as I question her choice. And then there’s the case of a fourth cousin of mine. He’s been on the California death row for nearly fifty years. While I am skeptical of the use of capital punishment in our system of justice, after having read about what he did in order to cause a jury to declare he must be executed, I wish I could tell you the sentence had been carried out long ago.

It took longer to notice the flip side. In a way, that’s surprising, because it had to do with me. I am relieved to say I had parents who were exemplars of nurturance. I spent my entire childhood in the same house. I never had to wonder where my next meal was coming from. I was secure.

I figured my circumstances were typical. As I got into genealogy, I found they were not. I had started my research in great part to find out about the people I knew I was related to, but had not been acquainted with as I grew up. The more I found out, the more I began to see that the new studies about DNA were on the mark.

I’m referring to epigenetics. As I said at the top, DNA has been a “known thing” for my entire lifetime. But it’s only been during the last quarter century or so that genetics researchers are realizing we inherit more than a series of amino acid base pairs arranged along sets of twisted strands. The structure might be there as soon as a man’s sperm and a woman’s ovum combine, but that isn’t the end of the development. Yes, we may each have only a certain set of genes, but there is no guarantee that any given gene will be activated.

I like to use an analogy to describe this rather than get into the physio-chemical jargon. DNA does not inhabit our cells stretched out to full length. If a DNA molecule ever unfurled to that degree, it would extend into the next county. No, it exists as a tangle. Like strands of yard, rolled into balls. And only the parts that happen to be on the outside of the tangle get to exert an influence.

About now an actual geneticist would say, “Dave, Dave, DAVE!!! That’s not really how it works.” Acknowledged. But fuck it. It’s my blog. Analogy or not, the point comes across, I think. Whether due to its tangled form or due to any number of other factors that change how genes behave, the DNA molecule is ductile. Its big moment is what happens at conception. But then throughout life, the way our DNA functions changes as a result of our experiences. And if we go on to conceive offspring, they receive more than a set of genes. They also inherit the array of adjustments to gene expression that were in effect in the parents in the years prior to said conception.

This phenomenon is most clearly seen in instances of trauma. That death-row-resident fourth cousin of mine? He was a grandson of a woman whose mother died, leaving her in a home with a piece-of-work father and an unfeeling stepmother. I have found a similar set of misfortune in the personal history of the ultra-dysfunctional people in my file. They didn’t just have stressful environments as they grew up. Their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents did as well.

What to take from this? What I have taken from is to understand how lucky I am. I hope I have done well as a person in terms of my ethics and altruism, and certainly I feel that I’ve been a good father to my kids, but I know now how much more of a challenge I would have faced if not for the set of immediate forebears I had. I include my parents, of course, but as I look back generation by generation, the next few tiers of my genealogical tree are occupied almost without exception by decent, loving folk. Two examples: 1) When my grandfather Vilhelm Smeds lost his mother at age four, the family did not disintegrate. My great-grandfather Herman, first with the help of his own mother and then with the help of his brother Erik’s wife, held things together for his brood of six children, who grew up as fine people and who all became parents themselves in due course. 2) When my maternal grandfather was twenty-two, his slightly-older brother came down with tuberculosis, his diagnosis coming shortly after his wife had died of the same disease. My great-grandparents immediately stepped in to care for the invalid’s young daughter, and moved the whole family from Illinois to the San Joaquin Valley of California so that the arid climate might buy their afflicted son more time (which it did), even though the gesture meant uprooting themselves from a place they had resided in for their entire lives.

We are a mix of nature versus nurture. That’s always been the case. But now, having looked at the real-life examples — examples with a personal connection to me — I understand just how much that is the case.

(The DNA strand artwork is copyright by Johan63. Used by arrangement with Dreamstime. Further use requires the permission of the rights holder.)



1 thought on “DNA: What a Tangle”

  1. Though I understand that some epigenetic inheritance happens, I think the nurturing environment is very important. For instance,I read that when mothers live through a famine, they hand on some epigenetic changes to their kids that can improve cell metabolism efficiency, making it slightly easier to survive on little food during a famine, but also more likely to grow overweight in times of plenty (building up the reserves). But whether those kids become overweight also depends on a lot of other factors, some cultural, some circumstantial, and some aspects of a family’s style of nurture which can themselves be influenced by the parents’ experience, like the insistence on not wasting food but finishing what’s on your plate, even though you’re feeling full (and the kid wasn’t the one who dished up their plate).

    Considering how much violence, war, natural disasters, starvation, poverty and pestilence has occurred throughout history to most (probably all) human populations, it would be really depressing to think that the people who suffered through such upheavals would be handing on epigenetically damaged genes, making their children and grandchildren more likely to have unhappy and dysfunctional lives. If the epigenetic predisposition is handed on, I’d really hope it could be reversed if things go right for the next generation.

    I don’t think the population results show the next generations being that much more dysfunctional and unhappy after times of big trauma, e.g. looking at Europe after WW1 and WW2, when ordinary people went through great upheavals and even the most caring and nurturing families could not provide a sense of safety and stability to their children, and some parts suffered starvation too (e.g. the Hungerwinter in the northern Netherlands, the Holodromor in Ukraine, and earlier the Irish Famine). The babyboomer generation, born right after WW2, does not seem to be that much unhappier or more dysfunctional than those before or after?

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