The Magazine

Genes Don't Fit

Deciphering the code of DNA and identity.

Jun 4, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 36 • By TEMMA EHRENFELD
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Indian tribes distrust genetic testing, in any case. They tell origin stories that begin on this continent, although scientists inform us that genetic and archaeological evidence indicates that the first Americans arrived from Asia. (As Sykes explains, every Native American tested has had some genetic code associated with the Chinese and Japanese.) Sykes concludes that mammoth hunters from Siberia arrived in Alaska by land or sea, and that another group of Asians traveled by boat to Central and South America. More recent genes come from Chinese immigrant railroad workers. 

Such theories have made Native Americans deeply suspicious of white men who come wanting cheek swabs. When, after much debate, the Seaconke Wampanoag of Rhode Island did volunteer for genetic testing, the results astonished even Sykes. The tribe is famous for sharing Thanksgiving dinner in 1621 with the Mayflower settlers. But the tests showed that, at least on the maternal side, there was no evidence of Native American genes at all. Sykes leaves us with the mystery: “No race or ethnic group can ever be accurately defined by the genes they carry,” he states unambiguously, and the odd results with the Seaconke are a vivid illustration of that point.   

Jews, who have their own 16-page chapter here, had every reason to fear eugenics, but in America they embraced genetic testing in order to fight Tay-Sachs disease, now virtually eliminated in this country. Sykes comments that while Native Americans have been on the “receiving end of gung-ho and invasive academic projects run by other people, Jewish-Americans have looked into their genetics themselves.” Such empathy is characteristic of Sykes’s style, and feeds his lyrical passages. Describing the train ride to Massachusetts, he writes:

Our driver was now applying the whistle with increasing vigor. At the approach to every crossing, no matter how small the road, the same melancholy blast rippled through the sleeping woods. Occasional homes interrupted the monotony of the trees, gray-slatted timber in plots with the abandoned swings of children long gone that parents didn’t have the heart to dismantle. On one lawn an old rusting jalopy had collapsed at its final resting place, the grass carefully mowed around it as if it were a grave. These were most definitely homes, with all the paraphernalia of the living, not the pristine empty house-tombs of Cape Cod.

The pace speeds and slows. We’re treated to textbook-style dashes into ancient history, details about the technology of genetic testing, personal snapshots of sea lions and General Custer’s tombstone, and technical explanations that seem written in genetic code. In its meandering and scattered way, DNA USA reflects its subject. Genetic code is messy indeed, but not too messy to teach, as we make our way in a “world that mocks the artificial divisions we have created for ourselves.”

Temma Ehrenfeld is a writer in New York.