Less than a penny. That’s how much it costs to read a single letter of DNA. Between 2000 and 2003, the cost fell from $1.50 to less than a single cent. “Suddenly DNA was mass-market.”
Carolyn Abraham hadn’t been saving her pennies for this purpose but, when her daughter was born, tracing her ancestry took on a new importance.
In the beginning, she knew that her ancestors inhabited an in-between world.
They were a “small swatch of mixed-blood people known by various labels when Britain ruled the subcontinent, many of them pejorative – half-castes, chi-chis, bastards of the Raj” but officially described as Anglo-Indian.
She grew up with rice-and-curry buffets and British pub-song singalongs, where everyone spoke perfect English with a unique subcontinental lift, with staunch Roman Catholicism alongside bad omens of overturned slippers or a knife having fallen to the floor.
Much was unknown about the patriarchal figures in her ancestry. “Where the juggler’s legacy was shrouded in secrecy, the Captain’s was clouded by wild speculation.”
But developments in genetics seemed to promise answers to questions long unanswered.
Carolyn Abraham’s background as a medical science journalist allows her to write about complex subject matter in a clear and accessible style.
(Even non-science-y sorts can make sense of genetics with her help, and even though this is quite possibly one of the subjects I’d’ve thought myself not-very-interested-in compared to most others, her approach is passionate and inviting: a compelling read, indeed.)
Reading through a feminist lens, many facts about genetics are extraordinarily fascinating. As a species, humans have more female ancestors than male; there are more women ancestors than men ancestors in the collective family tree.
“The robust longevity of female lines shows up in our mitochondrial DNA, which dates back, through an unbroken chain of mothers, to that genetic “Eve” of about 200,000 years ago.”
This mitochondrial Eve was not the only woman alive at the time (unlike the Eve readers may know from bible stories) but the woman whose descendants survived long enough to populate the world through an unbroken line of daughters.
This mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is useful for investigating “deep history”, the ways in which populations are related across great swaths of time.
For instance, one of this Eve’s descendants was the founder of Haplogroup M, the mitochondrial DNA signature of the great matriarch of India. This woman is believed to have left the east coast of Africa some 70,000 years ago, to have had enough daughters (who, in turn had more daughters) to eventually spread her mtDNA to roughly two-thirds of India’s population.
That’s an impressive discovery. And, yet, in trying to determine family relationships between people, mitochondrial DNA is of limited use.
Instead, Carolyn Abraham’s search relies upon tracking the Y chromosome. It tells a “much shorter story, reaching back to the genetic Adam, who lived an estimated 80,000 to 130,000 years ago”.
Two people who have perfectly matching mtDNA learn that they have descended from the same female ancestor, but it might have been 5 years ago or 500 years ago.
The Y chromosome is passed from fathers to sons with genetic markers in its code like a “genetic signature of a male lineage”. These markers can reveal where, in the world, a male line begins, and they might link you to a potential relative if you find a man with the same markers.
(Don’t give it a thought if you’re not grasping the difference; Carolyn Abraham’s prose makes it not only comprehensible, but compelling. My quotes can’t capture her tone or the layered rephrasings that secure difficult concepts for readers unfamiliar with scientific subjects.)
Not only can readers rely upon the author’s professional training in clarity, but readers also have the advantage of eavesdropping on her attempts to explain her findings to family members (who each had varying interest in her explorations) throughout her search.
“‘Okay, so basically we were all black once, until we spread out all over the planet and morphed into different colours and characteristics, and the Y chromosome, which only men carry, can tell us a lot about that history.”
The Juggler’s Children contains many discoveries, describes many conversations which were unanticipated with the author sent in the swabs for the first test.
Carolyn Abraham has to adjust her tone many times, and not only for readers.
“I hated using the word haplogroup, hated that it sounded like a ten-dollar scientific terms that would push the layperson to the sidelines of comprehension. But I saw no way around it, no other way to explain how a quick swab had revealed a secret his code had harboured for centuries.”
For readers who are not immediately and wholly invested in the scientific aspects of the author’s search, the question of its impact on family relationships becomes overwhelmingly important. It’s difficult to discuss this work without wanting to share some of the author’s findings.
And, yet, there are other aspects of the story which might appeal to other non-science-y readers (like me) even beyond the emotions that drive a search for connections and relationships.
Not least of which is the way in which sexism has informed and shaped and limited even the kinds of questions that seekers can pose, let alone resolve (women being so often obliterated from the historical record).
“Using only the male chromosome to trace family history is like making your way into a smoky old boys’ club; it’s hard to see clearly and the women are always left out.”
And, also, the ways in which descendants must wrestle with unexpected discoveries.
“But what on earth, with the exception of our DNA, did we have to do with the lives and times of those ancestors?”
What, for instance, if one learns that an ancestor was part of a group of people who historically and unjustly subjugated another group of people.
“DNA can magically link us with ancestors from millennia past, but we can no more take blame or credit for their exploits than we can for the randomness of our own DNA. It just is.”
And, if randomness is hard to grapple with, what does one do with the question of mistakes?
Er, not mistakes. Perhaps, misunderstandings. For “…roughly one in ten of us is not fathered by the man we believe to be Dad.”
These incidents are called “pedigree errors” or “false paternities”, the technical jargon for “the unwitting number of us who are chips off someone else’s block”.
In the seven years that it took her to write The Juggler’s Children, new ways to explore the genome, to uncover clues to ancestry have developed, and yet there are still mysteries left unsolved about the author’s family history.
Carolyn Abraham has come to see the family search as a “modern tango, a dance between DNA and documentary evidence, science and paper”.
Drop in a few coins, and let the tango music begin. Even the awkward amongst the group can tap a foot to the rhythm and needn’t be a wallflower on the “sidelines of comprehension”.
Is this on your summer reading list?