DNA has many uses. These include criminal investigations (ever watched CSI? It’s full of the stuff.); paternity suits; tracking genetic mutations of species; and predicting the fate of unborn foetuses. One use I’d barely considered was that of finding your roots when your family has been severed from its history. And who might that serve? Forty-six million African Americans, for starters.
The latter use is the theme of Alondra Nelson’s terrific The Social Life of DNA. The book brings together racial politics and DNA-based science in a startling and original way: Nelson shows us how the science is being used by genealogists to discover the roots of African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved.
The book uses both hard and soft science. Nelson describes her many interviews with “kin-keepers” (family members who research and keep alive family histories) and how she became involved in the search for her own origins. She introduces scientist-activists such as the extraordinary Rick A. Kittles, and walks us through the legal minefield of reparations lawsuits. Nelson’s grasp of the science and its socio-political uses is admirable and her explanations accessible.
Besides African Americans, the author shows how the science was used in Argentina by Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. These are the grandmothers of children whose parents were “disappeared” during the violence in Argentina in the 70’s and 80’s. DNA testing has enabled these children – now grown – to be reunited with their biological grandparents. DNA has also been used in South Africa to identify the bodies of murdered activists from the apartheid era.
One thing I liked about the book is that whenever the science threatened to overwhelm the reader, the narrative took us back to the human side of the story: the personal quest.
It all began with Arthur Hailey’s groundbreaking book and TV series Roots, which inspired so many African Americans to research their past. We hear about Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s program “Finding Your Roots” and also about ordinary African Americans who pay a fortune for genealogical testing or travel halfway across the world to claim kinship.
This is a story that is far from finished. As the science becomes more advanced, we’ll be able to go back further and with more accuracy. Will these developments herald an age of greater justice and acknowledgement of the sins of the past? It’s unlikely. Such a reckoning would involve major admissions of guilt on behalf of families, communities, companies, states and the national government. Whatever the outcomes, Nelson’s book shows us the truth is out there, and someone in a lab coat may one day help us find it.