280. saudade

Standard

Ökologix. About a month ago, in a fit of curiosity and productivity, I sent off my sample of spit to the 23andMe labs.

And a couple weeks ago, I got the results back.

A few years ago I did some digging into my genealogy and discovered some fascinating information about my family, as far back as the Normans in 990 AD.

Still, I was curious to see what my genes actually had to say.

What my genealogical research suggested was that my ancestors came mainly from England and Germany, though there are peripheral relatives to whom I don’t have access.

So it was no surprise to learn that the majority of my ancestry is European.

The intriguing piece is where the sub-Saharan African DNA came from!

My ancestry timeline in the report posits that it was introduced by someone who was 100% West African sometime in the mid 18th or early 19th century, so I am truly fascinated by whatever story there is there.

The breakdown of my European ancestry was more nuanced.

The blurb with this chart adds: “Genetically and geographically the French and Germans are at the heart of Europe.” The results don’t break down for French and German, but I do know that there’s quite a bit of German on my father’s side.

It’s important to observe that national identity and ethnic heritage are two different things, just as family identity and genetic match might not overlap.

Seeing this breakdown of my ancestry adds more data points to my story than it does shake any sense of identity that I’d built. My ancestors came from northwestern Europe. My paternal grandfather is Hungarian, and my genome suggests I have other ancestors from that part of the world.

My family is apparently well traveled!

I liked this bit from the explanation of “Broadly European.”

To me, this illustrates how interconnected we are, and how our planet and its climate over time have shaped our history.


The report also goes into some genetic traits I have, such as the variant rs4481887, which allows me to detect the asparagus metabolite in my urine!

I am also apparently less likely to taste certain bitter compounds, and more likely to prefer salty over savory. Both are true of me.

The report also correctly predicted that I do not have a cleft chin, cheek dimples, no unibrow, and no widow’s peak; and that I do have darker-colored eyes and detached ear lobes.

Interestingly, it predicted that I am likely to have darker colored hair, which I do now—although I used to have copper red hair when I was younger.

I also do not appear to have the gene for hair loss, which correlates with the fact that my maternal grandfather still has a full head of hair.

Yay!

There are other random things confirmed in the report:

  • My ring finger is indeed longer than my index finger
  • I don’t have many freckles
  • I have no back hair
  • Very fair skin
  • Straight hair (not curly or wavy)
  • I don’t sneeze when exposed to direct sunlight (the photic sneeze response)

There were also some wellness traits, such as my likelihood to an average weight and be lactose tolerant. I’m also less likely to be a deep sleeper (thanks to my ADA gene producing an enzyme called adenosine deaminase, which at higher levels can cause a person to stay awake longer) or move much in my sleep, both of which are very true.

I also do not have a gene for the alcohol flush reaction, meaning that my face does not turn red when I drink alcohol, and I do not experience unpleasant symptoms after drinking and can break down alcohol into a harmless substance.

Apparently I have my East Asian ancestors to thank for that.

I also carry a gene (CYP1A2) that contains instructions for an enzyme that allows me to break down 95% of the caffeine I consume, meaning it doesn’t affect me as strongly as it does other people.

So my heavy coffee-drinking habit is genetic after all!


One of the things I was slightly worried about was whether I carried a gene for late-onset Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, and thankfully I do not have either.

There were a ton of other conditions such as Gaucher Disease, hereditary fructose intolerance, and something called Maple Syrup Urine Disease for which I also do not have markers—at least for the variants they tested.

Overall, I appear to come from pretty good genetic stock, health wise. Sure, mental health issues appear to run in my family, but I seem to be made of pretty strong stuff.

My genetic muscle composition is also apparently common in elite power athletes. My particular variant is associated with fast-twitch muscle fibers, meaning I’m more likely to be a sprinter than a long-distance runner.


The most intriguing finding was that I have 327 Neanderthal variants in my genome.

We don’t know much about the Neanderthals. They went extinct c. 40,000 years ago, but archaeological evidence suggests they buried their dead, cared for their sick and elderly, crafted tools, built shelters, lived in close family groups, and (based on hyoid bones found in their remains) may have even had a language that incorporated singing¹.

Their physiology was hardy and adapted for life in northern Europe during the last Ice Age, their shorter, stockier stature being likely efficient at consolidating heat. There is evidence from our DNA that there was a period of ≈10,000 years when they interbred with modern humans.

What I am taking from this is that my genome is rich with history, that I may have inherited the hardiness of my Neanderthal forebears, and that at least some of my ancestors were not afraid of those who were different from them.

My Christian upbringing discouraged mingling with (or dating/marrying) anyone who didn’t believe what we did, yet here I am—a gay, liberal atheist.

Plus, it appears I’m made of strong stuff. What I’ve been through so far hasn’t broken me.

I’m heartier than I think.


References:

¹ Steven J. Mithen, The singing Neanderthals: the origins of music, language, mind, and body (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

Advertisements

68. blinding

Standard

I’m living in an age
That calls darkness light
Though my language is dead
Still the shapes fill my head

I’m living in an age
Whose name I don’t know
Though the fear keeps me moving
Still my heart beats so slow
– Arcade Fire, “My body is a cage” (from Neon Bible)


Yesterday afternoon I came across an article on the Huffington Post by David Lose entitled “Adam, Eve & the Bible.” He starts out by comparing the Biblical story to the legend of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or Paul Revere warning the colonists (or the British, depending on whose history you listen to), then launching into discussion on Scriptural authority, problems with the Bible read as a historical or scientific text, and fundamentalist insecurity about the veracity of the Bible and of truth in religious belief.

NPR even aired a story on August 9th about evangelicals questioning the existence of the Biblical famous first couple (leave it to NPR to find evangelicals willing to admit to that on record). According to Scripture, all of humanity descended from one literal man and one literal woman in the Garden of Eden. However, as Dennis Venema, a professor at Trinity University, is quoted in the article, “that would be against all the genomic evidence that we’ve assembled over the last 20 years.” There is too much genetic variation in the human genome today for that to be true. It’s even more ludicrous if you ascribe, as evangelicals do, to a “young earth” theory (i.e., that the earth is 6 to 10,000 thousand years old).

I was taught Young Earth Creationism growing up and believed it for a long time—until I heard and was convinced by Richard Dawkins. Evolution was touted as thought rebellion against God, a rejection of Biblical teaching on the origins of the universe, the earth and man. In 5th grade, my Sunday school teacher at the time was a colleague of Australian creationist Ken Ham (whose famous one-liner response to evolution is “How do you know? Were you there? Do you know someone who was?”) and had arranged for him to come to my church to do a seminar on Creationism. I had flashbacks recently after seeing a video of school children at his Creation Museum, who were about my age when I saw Ken Ham. When asked how they knew Creationism was true, most of the kids stumbled back with canned-like responses such as, “Because it’s in the Bible” or “My parents told me,” reflecting a lack of intellectual and critical foundation in Christian fundamentalist thought.

One curious aspect of the article was when Venema was later quoted as saying, “There is nothing to be alarmed about. It’s actually an opportunity to have an increasingly accurate understanding of the world — and from a Christian perspective, that’s an increasingly accurate understanding of how God brought us into existence.”

This seems like an odd thing to say, partly because of the weight Evangelicals place on the reliability of the Bible, but also since the Genesis story was a point of departure for me from Christianity. For me, the similarities between the Biblical creation story and early Mesopotamian accounts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh were too close for comfort, so it’s likely that in forming his creation story, the author of Genesis drew from that or even earlier legends to write his own, with Yahweh at its center.

The Bible hangs upon the premise that humanity fell from grace as a result of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God, leading to Christ being enfleshed in order to take our place to suffer God’s wrath. The theology of the Apostle Paul, which forms the bedrock of theology in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths, is built on this premise. (That alone could take up a whole post, but I’m trying to keep this as close to 1,000 words as possible.)

I can see how there might not be much to worry about if the first few chapters of Genesis are a metaphor for the creation of the world—or, as David Lose put it, “The story of Eden is the history of humanity writ small.” The Bible was written by a Bronze-age people that didn’t have or expect solid scientific evidence. Lose writes that the Bible “is a collection of testimony, confessions of faith made by persons so gripped by their experiences of God they had to share them using whatever literary and cultural devices were at hand.” Why should we saddle an ancient text with modern expectations?

It would be one thing if this were just personal belief. However, from this story of Adam and Eve sprang an institution that is responsible for the torture, oppression, abuse and slaughter of millions based on an imperialist theology and eschatology (the same could be said too for Islam, or any other belief system). It had better be more than a story since billions of people have based and are basing their lives on it, and millions have led lives of misery for the sake of “Christ and his kingdom.” And, as my last article discusses, a radical, conservative interpretation of God and the Bible is currently being used to shape political policy, with tangible effects. So if it’s just myth, somebody has a lot of explaining to do.

At this point I’m asking myself, “Self, why are you making a big deal of this? So what if it’s true or not? Even if it’s not true in the literal sense, it’s still true psychologically, in the way that other stories are ‘true’.” After all, what’s wrong with a God creating the universe (or setting evolution in motion and letting it play out), or even Jesus dying for our sins?

Because as nice as those stories are, inherent to belief in religion is a certain amount of willful blindfolding that must be done in order to maintain that belief. You must be willing to accept certain precepts on faith alone, such as the claim that Jesus was the Son of God—or that God even exists—in the face of a lack of evidence or even to the contrary. It’s likely that there was a man in Judea in the 1st century C.E. named Yeshua; that he taught some really radical things; and that the Jewish religious leaders had him executed, but no genuine proof he truly performed miracles or physically rose from the dead. His followers certainly believed he was who he claimed to be—though as Robert Parsig writes (as quoted by Dawkins), “when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.”

I consider myself a naturalist and a secular humanist. While I acknowledge the possibility and likelihood of a “god,” that which is “true” must be quantifiable by what we see and observe in the known world and universe. Science tells us that humanity could not have sprung from two original humans on the basis of the genome, so if the story of Adam and Eve is a myth, the rest of the Bible probably is too. What science is showing us through its evidential work is that humanity probably evolved over millions of years, gradually developing the tools and skills for survival, including language and consciousness.

So I would put it to you, dear reader: Where do we draw the line between artifice and delusion? Is a belief in a transcendent reality (and a transcendent deity) incompatible with the pursuit of reason and rationality? And if not, does it matter which system of belief you follow so long as it brings you closer to that “inner spark of divine light”?


References

Arcade Fire (2007). My body is a cage. On Neon Bible [CD] Durham: Merge.
Hagerty, B. (9 August 2011) Evangelicals Question The Existence Of Adam And Eve.
Lose, D. (17 August 2011) Adam, Eve & the Bible.