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My Genes

My wife decided to have our DNA tested. She didn’t do it to search for genetically based diseases or even for a DNA identification in case I get lost again.

I am a person who gets lost a lot. I get lost in large buildings. I get lost in parking lots. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been somewhere, I will still lose my way the next time I go there. There is a parking lot in San Diego’s Horton Plaza Shopping Center in which I am guaranteed to get lost. The structure is built so that I can see my car but I cannot get to my car. If the car is a floor beneath me, I will try to walk to that floor. I will walk to the floor below, and the car will then appear to be on the floor above me. It is the New England idiom “You can’t get there from here” made real. No matter where your car is, you can’t get there from where you are.

I’ve gotten lost in New Mexico sorghum fields, in bays, canyons, my own house at night, department stores, and shopping centers. I have a lousy sense of direction. Luckily I can read maps, because men, even those with a poor sense of direction, don’t enjoy stopping and asking for directions. I believe one of the two greatest inventions of the last century was GPS. The other was refrigerators with ice machines.

Because I always get lost (and not in an existential sense. If I was Sisyphus I probably wouldn’t be able to find the hill, and if I did, I’d lose the boulder before I got there), I decided my wife decided to have my DNA tested for two reasons. Firstly, scientists may be able to discover alleles for getting lost and losing things, and then with a CRISPR (some sort of device or method to re-arrange genes) they could re-order my genes so I never lose anything or get lost again. They would be creating a lost and found designer gene.

Secondly, she would have a way to identify me if I got lost. Suppose my life became a soap opera, I was hit over my head by a croquet mallet-wielding English terrorist (they’d be the only brand of terrorist who’d play croquet), developed amnesia, hitchhiked to Vermont, and forgot who I was. If the local Vermont trooper who found me ran my DNA against a 23 and Me data base, they would discover who I was and cheerfully return me to her.

No, she didn’t have her own DNA analyzed so she would never get lost. And she really didn’t care about what Albert Camus thought about Sisyphus’ boulder or hill in The Myth of Sisyphus. No. She did it for an existential reason, although only closer to John Paul Sartre’s reason: She wanted to discover the essence of her existence.

Because Americans don’t know who they are, we seem to love genealogy and heredity. For a relatively small sum, one can spit into a tube, send it back to the folks at 23 and Me, and learn who they are.

Since I am uncertain even whether I want to know who I am, she went first, sent in her DNA, and recently learned who she is.

For generations the belief was her maternal and paternal lineage consisted of French, Irish, British Isles, Northern European, and Cherokee stock. There were several surprises.

Even though everyone in my wife’s paternal family said they were part Cherokee, the genes disagreed. However, the surprise was that she is well over three percent Neanderthal, which puts her in the 99th percentile of people today of Neanderthal background. I, of course, am unable to resist the obvious and now refer to her as a Cave Chick.

She is a très chic Cave Chick, however, because much of her DNA comes from the part of Europe now called France as well as other parts of Northern Europe and the British Isles. A little derives from Eastern Europe, and a tincture from Sub-Saharan West Africa.

She is, except for the substitution of Neanderthal for Cherokee, pretty much who she thought she was: French, Irish, Scottish, English, and Northern European. But no Cherokee, and she seemed a little disappointed. She said for generations her family has lived a lie. Although she is a fair-skinned, green-eyed, redhead, she wanted to be something else besides simple European. Even Neanderthals came from Europe and some even had red hair.

Because of existential reasons, I really don’t want to know who I am. But she insisted, and I have learned after four and a half decades of marriage to just give in and do what she wants because she will never stop pestering me. So recently, I sent my DNA to the folks at 23 and Me.

I admit some competitiveness. I know I am Irish, Scottish, German, and Welsh. But mostly Irish. My father’s father was Irish. I know my mother’s mother was Irish. I also think my grandmother’s family were Irish Travelers because she was a card shark, she could cheat at cards very skillfully, and I had an uncle who could count cards.

Although my genes may disagree (I have not as yet received my results) I am pretty certain the gambling gene eluded me. I don’t play poker because I don’t know how to bluff.

At one time I could ride a unicycle so I must have a unicycle-riding gene.

It seems the more research is done the more important genes seem to be to behavior. For example, it was believed the “refrigerator mom” was to blame for causing autism. However, recently genes have been discovered that may be the true cause (along with genetic mutations caused by older fathers and environmental toxins). It is believed an athletic gene has been discovered. I am sure I don’t have that one either.

At one time it was believed homosexuality was caused by the way parents, particularly mothers, treated children. It is now believed to have a strong genetic component. I don’t know if there is a homophobic gene.

Some day places like 23 and Me will be able to look at your genes and plan your future. I don’t know if this is good or not, but it is better than my junior high school teacher who told my mother I should be a plumber. The Air Force told me I should be an electronics engineer. I don’t think my genes match either analysis. For one thing, I can never remember whether it’s righty tighty-lefty loosie or the other way around, and for another, I can’t draw a straight line and since I don’t know the difference between right and left, any electronics I design would be, uh, shocking.

Among other behaviors scientists tell us are determined by genes are: who we marry, musical ability, political beliefs, religious beliefs, vocal qualities, intelligence, sense of humor, alcoholism, and weight. Of course, environmental factors are in play, but even those are based more on chemical environment. Suppose you have a garden (I do) and you plant squash (I did). Whatever you do, if something grows, it’ll be squash. How good the squash turns out to be is determined by its chemical environment of soil, fertilizer, sunlight, and water. It doesn’t matter if its mother squash hugs it enough. Of course, if it is traumatized by a hailstorm its growth will be affected, but it will still be squash.

Bonnie J Armstrong

Bonnie J Armstrong

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