January 24, 2009

ATGC: Spelling With a Four-Letter Alphabet

I read a blog over the weekend that got me thinking...

This blog was about how a group of people decided to get their DNA tested, to see the degree to which they were related... and in the process discovered that some people who thought they were related turned out not to be related at all. And my post was about how when we record our family histories, that in a thousand years, most of it will be essentially unrecognizable anyway - trying to make sense of who is related to whom, etc.

But think about it this way - our DNA keeps those records for us. It isn't confused with all of the family politics and dirty little secrets that we keep... How cousin John looks a bit like the neighbor down the street. How Uncle Elmer took a lot of weekend business trips.

There are two problems with all of this. First is, our family trees are really social constructions. We may have known that Cousin John has the same distinctive birthmark as Mr. Johnson, down the street... but he's still our cousin John, no matter what the DNA might show... and that goes back as far as we can know. We're going to always rely on church and court birth records to reconstruct our family, regardless of how a particular member happened to become a member of the clan. Second, the further we go back into history, the less integrity these records have. By the time you're back five or six generations, the family tree is, for most people, nothing more than a collection of names. We don't know who they are, or what they did, whether they saved their town from famine or stole sheep from neighboring farmers. They're just names.

We have the same problem looking forward. Even though our ability to store personal information has taken dramatic leaps in our lifetime, by the time a half dozen generations pass, just wading through the vast amounts of data will make assembling a meaningful picture of who we are difficult. So again, we become just a set of names in some sentimental display of family.

So, if out ancestors are just names to us... and we are just names to our offspring, how is that designation any different (or any more accurate) than following our genes forwards and backwards through time? The answer is, it isn't... and short of becoming a genetic dead end, our mark on future generations will be carried forward, essentially error-free... forever.

That leaves us feeling a little empty, though.

As we learned from George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, our existence in the social realm touches everyone we meet. We make someone's life a little easier. We help create an opportunity for someone. We guide our kids (and sometimes, other people's kids) on a path that makes them more successful and happier people... and they in tern do the same for others. In that respect, our influence on the world passes through the boundaries of family as if they weren't there.

Our DNA is the science of our legacy. How we treat the world is the art.

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