Every year at our Passover seder, my father, the consummate emcee, tells us about his Uncle Neyech, a long lost Finnish relative. I have no idea why he would bring Uncle Neyech up, nor during what part of the seder he would do so. But every year, we would laugh at the idea that the Schaffzins of Ashkenazi descent had a relative in Scandinavia, not particularly known as the epicenter of European Jewery. I always figured this was a joke; his seder is filled with these sorts of bits—falsified anecdotes meant to keep us at attention during an otherwise rote evening. And then, one day earlier this year, he forwarded us—me, my three siblings, and my mother—an email he received from a woman in Baltimore claiming to be a distant relative from, wouldn’t you know, Finland.
I, for one, was in utter disbelief. Turns out my father was telling the truth all these years (it didn’t help that his default tone is “satire”). The story, as most in my family do, includes escaping from an oppressive regime (in this case, the Czar) and dispersing around the globe: Philadelphia, Palestine, and…Finland. For all intents and purposes, this story is, for me, nothing more than an anecdote with which I will annoy my seder guests one day. But what inspired my Finnish relative (turns out we’re second cousins once removed) to track down her father’s mother’s father’s brother’s grandfather’s grandson? And why should I care about her at all?
A couple of weeks ago, The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang published a piece on Dr. Donald Cline who, throughout the first half of the 1980s, used his own sperm to inseminate at least 50 patients who were, most of the time, expecting anonymous donors, or, on occasion, their husband’s semen. Cline, Zhang points out, never envisioned a world where relatives could find each other via similarities in their DNA. Certainly, he never expected that DNA to be collected by major corporations who convert the code-carrying protein to human-readable data and connect it to a centrally accessible network called the Internet.
When I first became interested in critiquing at-home genomics testing services like 23andMe, it was the “health reports” feature that was my primary focus—the dashboards of green and red arrows suggesting that you will or will not get a certain kind of cancer. I admit, I never considered that a website like Ancestry.com would buy whole hog into the technology in order to connect distant relatives. But here we are: children born out of extramarital affairs being revealed, long lost twins reuniting, and dozens of children who are the product of an unethical act on the part of a physician meeting in rural Indiana every summer to picnic together.
What is it about finding long lost relatives? I don’t think I need to outline for this audience the risks we’re taking by submitting our DNA to a company like Ancestry.com or 23andMe. And yet, as of 2017, over 12 million people did just that because they wanted to know who else might have similar genetic material. Meanwhile, billions of dollars are spent each year to upload, search, and track down documents that might point us to our Finnish second cousins once removed (to be clear, my long lost relative did not, as far as I know, pay any money to track us down—she simply googled the name she found on the back of a photograph).
Perhaps we go through all of this in the name of righting a wrong done to our ancestors—tracing the remnants of a family dispersed by genocide or slavery. Maybe it’s just proof that one’s lineage is more resilient than they first assumed. Or maybe it’s a sense of belonging—there are others out there “like me.” This last one might happen for better or worse. Consider white supremacists seeking to prove their pure heritage through online tests in order to justify their membership in dangerous terrorist organizations. Remember, too, that these connections—validation that we have Finnish or Irish or Moroccan ancestry—are all based on what a pre-populated database says we are. There is no marker for “Ghanaian,” only a similarity between one’s DNA and the DNA of whoever your database of choice (23andMe, Ancestry.com, etc.) has designated as originally from Ghana (though, to be fair, perhaps Ghana was a complicated choice here, given these services’ general lack of sample diversity).
So is science redefining family and heritage? When we were discussing the Zhang piece as an editorial staff, I argued that all we’re doing with these tests is furthering a Westphalian fantasy about where we come from. One colleague pointed out that perhaps ignoring genetically marked borders risks erasing colonial violence and props up a myth of a singular white identity. I think that’s a great point. I also think we risk letting biggots like Richard Dawkins get away with wearing “We Are All Africans” t-shirts or otherwise seemingly well-informed public figures like Meryl Streep trying to explain away lack of diversity with similar sentiments.
Reading the Zhang article closely, you quickly understand that Cline thought he was doing the work of God by spreading his seed in these innocent women (who, spoiler alert, have no recourse against the monster). Therein lies shades of the same sort of colonial violence we might uncover with databases filled with the results of at-home genetic testing. There is more work to be done here on these tests and I hope we get there quickly.
Gabi Schaffzin on tohtorikoulutettava taidehistoriassa, teoriassa ja kritiikissä UC San Diegossa. Hän toivoo jonakin päivänä käyvän Suomessa.