altThe Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland (Abrams Press, 2020)

I been working seriously on genealogical research for almost two decades—the library-and-paper kind, supplemented by the steadily-increasing availability of records online. Then at the end of 2017 we dipped our toes into genetic genealogy, submitting saliva samples first to AncestryDNA, then to 23andMe. There have been a few small surprises, but nothing monumental.

However, my genealogical connections—primarily and the New England Historic Genealogical Society—frequently send me other people's "DNA reveal" stories: the kind where Holocaust survivors from the same family find each other 60 years later, or adoptees find their birth parents, or people discover that the man they've always called "Dad" has no genetic relationship with them. Mystery, tragedy, triumph—it's all there.

Thus my eagerness to read this book as soon as I heard about it. Our library had already seen the wisdom of having The Lost Family on its shelves; when I looked for it, it was already on order. As soon as it came in, I grabbed it. What with other things to do, it took me three days to devour it.

The Lost Family is actually three books:

  1. The stories. This is why I wanted to read the book in the first place. Unfortunately, there aren't that many, for all it's nearly a 300-page book. And I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that the biggest story of all, the framework for the whole book, was one I already knew. That was okay; I learned many details that I hadn't known. But I wish more of the book had been dedicated to the real-life stories.
  2. A good deal of teaching on the science behind genetic testing and DNA analysis. Most of this was old news to me, but it's complicated and a review is not a bad thing. If you're new to the field, it's definitely a good thing.
  3. A lot of most-unwelcome preaching, filled with identity politics; and how interest in genealogy is racist if you're white though apparently not if you are black; and a confusing section in which the author uses "they" to refer to both a single, transgender person who requested that personal pronoun and to multiple-person groups; and how "race" is a racist concept and "ethnicity" doesn't really exist (and is probably a racist idea, anyway); and how history is fluid and there's no such thing as truth but only your truth and my truth and their truth.

Reading the book was much like eating a meal in which I was repeatedlly given a bite of chocolate cake, then a bite of chicken, then a bite of okra. I know, some people actually like okra. They may even like the political sections of the book. I did not.

In addition, there's a lot of angst and questioning: "Who am I, really?" "What is a family?" "Can I love Irish music if I discover that my heritage is not Irish, as I thought, but Russian?" "What makes me the person I am, my genes or my experiences?"

I'm certain I'd feel more empathetic if I were the adoptee seeking birth parents, or the daughter who discovered her father wasn't the man she thought he was. The personal angle does make all things new. But the nature vs. nurture question has been around as long as we have realized they were separate influences. To me, the obvious answer is "both." End of story. I never imagined anyone would take seriously the AncestryDNA commercial in which a man gets the results of his DNA test and "turns in his lederhosen for a kilt." I never did have patience for the idea that you can only enjoy a culture if you were born into it.

Nor did I imagine that anyone would expect a DNA test to reveal exact genetic origins. Although it's getting better all the time, and is considerably more accurate now than in the early days, it's still part science, part art, and part guesswork. That's made pretty clear if you look into it at all, though I admit the commercials—like most commercials—give a simplified and thus somewhat false impression.

Besides, I hate stories about angst. Romances, coming-of-age-stories—not my thing at all.

Am I glad I read the book? Yes. Am I glad I didn't buy it? Definitely yes. Would I recommend reading it? Well, if you're thinking about taking a DNA test, it's a decent introduction to the art-and-science, and a fair warning that your world could be turned upside down. And the stories are interesting. Overall, yes, I would recommend it.

Some people, after all, even like okra.

There were only six sticky notes marking quotations this time. (At least the book was easier to review!) Bolded emphasis is mine.

At times, the sense of mission among members [of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints] has gotten out of hand, as when members have submitted the names of Jews, including Holocaust victims, for posthumous baptism. (p. 30)

This is typical of an attitude I find puzzling throughout the book. A Catholic who discovers that her biological father was Jewish wonders if she should become Jewish herself, as if one's faith is something inherited rather than a statement of beliefs. I guess this goes along with the "your truth and my truth but nothing is really true" idea. I suppose it's also a sign of someone who hasn't delved too deeply into his ancestry, which would hardly reveal a unanimity of faith.

If you believe, as the Mormons do, that they can save the souls of their dead ancestors through a present-day ceremony, and some of their ancestors happen to have been Jewish, why exclude them from the eternal family? If the Mormons are right, they will be doing those Jewish ancestors the greatest possible favor. If they are wrong, then they are certainly not doing them any harm.

[Describing researchers at a genealogical library] They may be hobbyists or pros; they may travel as groups of genealogical societies, the better to swap stories and resources. They may come from far away—Canada, France, England, New Zealand, all over the United States—and park at the library every day for a full week. Sometimes, people planning to do just a little research stay far longer than they meant to, as if they fall into some kind of wormhole that alters time. This place can do that to you. (p. 31)

So true. She wasn't describing the NEHGS library in Boston, but she might have been.

We're such believers in genes that a recent Stanford University study found that informing people of their genetic predispositions for certain traits—rather, misinforming them, by telling them whether they had certain gene variants associated with exercise capacity and obesity, regardless of their actual results—influenced their actual physiology. Those told they had low-endurance versions of a gene variant did worse on a treadmill test, with poorer endurance and worse lung function (even if they didn't actually have that gene variant). Those told they had a variant that made them feel easily sated felt fuller on average after being given a meal, and tests revealed their bodies had produced more of a hormone that indicates feelings of fullness. By believing they were genetically destined for something, these subjects appear to have made it true. (p. 57)

I love stories of that kind, too.

Europe's market [for DNA testing] is seen as several years behind the US market because of a complex tapestry of policy, pragmatism, and culture. In general, says David Nicholson of UK-based Living DNA, Europeans are more concerned than Americans with matters of privacy and security. (p. 135)

This is a common belief, but I find it to be not so simple. In my limited experience, Europeans are indeed more concerned than Americans about giving their data to businesses, but I think most Americans would be shocked at how much information European governments have on their people, and especially how widespread and well-coordinated that information is. The post office, the train station, the police, the schools, the motor vehicle departments—what one knows, the others know. In the early days of homeschooling, many families were able to "fly under the radar" by never registering their children for school. In Switzerland, the schools know about your children from the day they are born. All that shared knowledge turns out to be convenient at times, but, being an American, I trust knowledge in private hands more than in the hands of the government, because governments have more power. I may hate that Google is so powerful and knows so much about me, but it wasn't Google that with one fell swoop shut down the American economy and separated us from our children and grandchildren.

Roth found that testers who identified as black or African American were far less inclined to incorporate new ancestral knowledge into their identities. In part, that's because they tended to identify strongly and positively with their existing identities; unlike white respondents, they did not describe their race as boring and plain. (p. 167)

Finally, acknowledgement in print of what I experienced in my childhood—at least from fourth grade onward. The worst thing you could be was a WASP: I distinctly remember announcing that since I couldn't help being white and of Anglo-Saxon heritage, I'd have to become Catholic. Even in my tiny, nearly-all-white village in Upstate New York, being white, at least in the dominant school narrative, was associated with being dull, stupid, ignorant, rude, and klutzy. I often wonder why this isn't more universally acknowledged; surely I can't have been the only one to have noticed it.

Alice verified which of the Collins siblings' genetic segments came from their father by matching them against known paternal cousins, and, by putting it all together, she could approximate a good portion of what Jim's chromosomes looked like, effectively raising him from the dead. (p. 272)

Hmmm. Whatever the author's religion is, count me out. I think Christianity offers a far more appealing view of what it means to be raised from the dead. :)

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 16, 2020 at 7:58 am | Edit
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Nice review. I don't like okra, either!

My small town in upstate NY was also nearly all white. But I didn't notice any of those negative associations with WASP that you describe. Interesting.

Posted by Leanne Jackson on Wednesday, June 17, 2020 at 10:19 pm

Thanks for your comment, Leanne! I wonder if you experienced another thing I did growing up in a mostly-white town: "white" is not the monolithic identity we are encourage to believe today. A few nationalities that I remember were Polish, Italian, Hungarian, Australian, South African—and all were proud to be both American and something else. Even English, which didn't count as "Anglo-Saxon" if you were a relatively recent immigrant.

It's possible that my experience was colored by a particular set of teachers—grades 4-6 were the worst—and the books we used had an influence, too. But it's a painful memory to this day.

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, June 18, 2020 at 7:27 am

Here's a quote from a newsletter Porter received today: "Thanks to AI and machine learning, Veritas Genetics, a private company, now offers a full genome sequencing report for only $599... and that price will likely drop to $100–$200 by next year."

Note that The Lost Family was published this year, and reports the cost of the sequencing service as $1,000. That's how fast things are changing.

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, June 20, 2020 at 1:24 pm
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