Me, Myself, & My DNA

By Shyama Parui

Am I who I think I am? A human being, a woman, an Asian, an Indian American, who happens to be a writer, among so many other things. Although, I don't believe in being typecast, there are parts of my identity that belong to a variety of groups and fit several definitions. Good or bad, it's hard to be indifferent to these categorizations.

In case you are smirking and wondering if I am nearing an existential crisis, take a moment and imagine waking up one day and finding out that you are not who you thought you were. You are not “black" or “white" or even completely human. Does the thought of being a mix of species horrify you or intrigue you?

Admittedly, this is not the type of question I would ponder over a trip to the mall but the frenzy of December's holiday traffic added to my drive time and made me turn to the radio. A fascinating conversation caught my attention sparking deep introspection. A few weeks ago, National Public Radio had invited Adam Rutherford, the author of “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes" on a show. Based on research and findings from the Human Genome Project, the discussion revealed that we, as in humans, are far from being pure blooded. Rather, we are mutts.

I was surprised to learn that humans were also found to have Neanderthal genes, thereby challenging our belief that we are the product of a single species. Callers shared their experiences about what they learned after completing their DNA tests. It was a boon to many, for some it provided answers and solved family mysteries.

There were a few stories of families being devastated, but the most interesting to me, were examples that had the potential to radically change the way we view ourselves and the world. The author talked about some White Supremacists, who found out that they had black heritage, presenting them with a striking opportunity to change their stand on racism and discrimination. While this may seem alarming to certain individuals, it is time to shatter myths about racial purity. “A Guide to Your Genome" - published by the National Human Genome Research Institute, states that, “the genomes of any two people are more than 99% the same." Doesn't that give us more reason to celebrate our similarities than fight over differences?

Even in this day and age, people sometimes cling to labels that support their imagined superiority by ignoring scientific facts. One year, when I was volunteering at a booth at Charlotte's Festival of India, a gentleman in his 30's ordered some food and asked if it was vegetarian. He made it a point to add, “I am 100% Brahmin with no contamination." While I completely respect an individual's caste and dietary choices, I was appalled by his air of superiority. Did he stop to think that the human mouth alone is home to more than 100 million bacteria? And, as a natural consequence, those living organisms are swallowed.

So, whether we like it or not, we are all contaminated. Since ancient times, India has been an integral part of global trade and cultural exchange. As a consequence, Indians are probably linked genetically to ethnicities from around the world.

Interestingly, one camp is averse to promoting widespread use of genetic testing and the opposite is intent on exploring the medical benefits of this knowledge. In the scenario of an arranged marriage, for example, one set of parents may rule out candidates if they carry genes responsible for cancer, while another set of parents may seek someone with the genius gene, if one exists, for their son or daughter. In the near future, astrological charts are likely to be replaced by DNA test results. At the same time, we have to be aware that in spite of our high hopes, the future generation will not dazzle us with superior IQ, if we don't provide them with the right environment to grow their minds. In other words, if we exhibit inane behaviors, the probability of our children becoming prudent adults is small. Both nature and nurture play a role in every aspect of our lives.

I contemplated if I would, to use an inelegant term, spit in a cup? If I chose to unfold the mystery of my ancestry, what would be my hopes or my fears? Optimistically speaking, I would mostly hope for genes that increase my chances of good health. The possibility of being Priyanka Chopra's fourth cousin or 116th in line to the throne of an island kingdom does not excite me. And, my biggest fear is fear itself. Before the DNA test results were sent to me, I would probably drive myself insane worrying about being genetically vulnerable to health threats of every kind. The knowledge of carrying a gene that can possibly threaten me or my children would be akin to a time bomb ticking, quietly and slowly, about to explode without warning.

Biology is only a part of who we are. If our genetic make-up was juxtaposed with ancestral history, I would pursue historical knowledge with equal interest. For instance, I've always longed to know more about both my grandfathers, who had passed away before my birth. Knowing what characteristics I have inherited from them would help me make a connection with them. Without their personal experiences and anecdotes, however, that picture would be incomplete. A walk in the fictionalized Land of the Dead, similar to what was depicted in the touching movie, Coco, could be a worthy complement to scientific data.

The study of family, analogous to the study of humans, needs to be pieced together by historians, biologists, archaeologists, and anthropologists to reveal a beautiful, albeit an imperfect mosaic of one's identity. Maybe in this New Year, you will take the leap to discover the details of your DNA and several fellow humans will probably join you. After all, the “23 and Me DNA Test", was on Oprah's Favorites list but, remember, that we are born with some definition of who we are although, that does not limit who we can be.