DNA

Adoptees, Family Trees and Ethnic Origins | Genealogical Research Part I

I remember sitting in my elementary school class on the day we were to do a genealogy assignment. This assignment asked us to study our personal ancestry in an effort to help us to learn about our family history. The undeniably valuable assignment is continually met with frustration for many adoptees as we may not have historical family access for one reason or another.

Having had anticipated this assignment, my parents had already helped me decide that I would use information from their ancestry, in essence, pretending that I was of European descent. This decision certainly helped me temporarily avoid embarrassment, mental strife, or worst still, having to oust myself in front of the class by exclaiming that I did not/could not know where I came from.  I still have a visual in my memory of the writing on the assignment that read "Remember to emphasize that genealogy is about biological relationships only."  What a frustrating admonishment for someone who did not know a single biological family member at the time.

A few months ago, in the most fitting of birthday gifts, I was given an ancestry.com DNA kit from my parents! Without hesitation I conducted the quick and harmless buccal cell swab exam and mailed it off to Ancestry.com, where I would wait just two weeks before receiving this email:

Ancestry
Ancestry

I clicked to find my results and immediately learned that a large percentage of my DNA traced back to the countries of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) & Ghana, as well as trace amounts linking me to Great Britain - fascinating!  I would've loved to have explored this information during my elementary years, possibly learning at an early age of the historical immigration to Great Britain by Africans. All of the time spent imagining that my family immigrated from the Caribbean islands before being enslaved in the South could've been thwarted with this truth!

This truly is a gift that keeps on giving as ancestry.com's database continues to grow. I have been able to link together with other relatives for whom I'm able to then share this information with my birth families to help fill in the holes in our familial tree.

I urge all adoptees, or parents of young adoptees to invest in these scientific breakthroughs and allow adoptees ethnicity to be estimated through their genetics. Not simply for the sake of avoiding classroom embarrassment (admittedly a DNA test won't solve all assignment woes), but for the purpose of being able to better understand the history of people's movements leading us to where we are today.

This wasn't the first time I'd taken a DNA test - the picture below was taken the day my birthfather and I met - this test determined that we indeed were father & daughter.

My birthfather, Sandy and I - swabbing our cheeks together.

My birthfather, Sandy and I - swabbing our cheeks together.

Nature vs. Nurture

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 PHOTO: Black and White twins - Kian and Remee Hodgson

It is clear that our DNA plays crucial roles in making us who we are physically, but to what degree "are" we our genes?

The age old debate of nature versus nurture swirls around in my head often as I hear so many people refer to newborns being adopted as a "blank slate." Newborns - adopted or not - are certainly not "blank slates" (Tabula Rasa). Many behavioral geneticists have performed studies on adoptees and twins, and have learned that human development does not derive solely from environmental forces - wealth, social privilege and education cannot be assigned to a genetic code.

To what extent are we governed by external factors (nature), and how much is genetic? I think the answer lies in how we individually want to interpret it.  We can hear explanations for dwarfism, Parkinsons, and breast cancer, and try to ascertain that the reason we now have this condition is because of our genetics. However the reality is that our genes can only tell us if we have that mutation. Cancer, among other conditions, may in fact have more to do with our environment (nurture). However, people hear what they want to hear, think what they want to think, and assign blame to whom they'd like to assign the blame to.

I thought that finding my roots, and learning more about my genes and my background would give me answers, but it's actually left me with a lot more questions. I, along with countless others, would like to pinpoint reasons behind seemingly innate talents, distinct mannerisms, IQ, susceptibility to mental health issues, or alcoholism etc., down to either nature or nurture, however I'm learning that though genes play a large role in our creation, much of who we are is also quite random.

That randomness is hard to accept.