The Code of Life

COVID-19 has forced us to face the limits of science. While we may think that research, data, and experiments should give us definitive answers, the best we can hope for, especially only 2 years after the discovery of a novel virus, are probabilities and educated guesses. Following the science means asking good questions, not expecting easy conclusions. Sometimes the circumstances change; sometimes new discoveries are made that change previous conventional wisdom.

Albert Einstein is reported to have said that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. Facts and information only tell you what exists in the present, but the future presents so many possibilities, and the best scientists are the ones who can dream about what may one day be discovered. But is new information always a positive?

This week Jay M. Ritt wrote a piece in the Forward telling the story of how he discovered, through a DNA test, that his real biological father was in fact the obstetrician who delivered him over 70 years ago. Artificial insemination was new then, and the doctor used his own sperm to help Ritt’s mother conceive. His parents never told him the truth because it was considered better for the child to keep the secret.

In the 1940s very few could have known, or imagine, that one day a little swab of the mouth could unlock our entire genetic code. While DNA was discovered in the 1860s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Watson and Crick discovered the double helix. It was another 40 years until the Internet reached everyone’s home and allowed us to link our DNA with millions of others in giant online databases.

The result is an explosion of family secrets revealed. Many have logged on to discover that the person they thought was a parent has no biological relationship to them. Genetic genealogists are using these new tools to help families reunite, but they have also discovered cases of rape and incest. These are secrets that people wanted to remain buried, and which they never thought would be revealed.

Genetic genealogists have also helped catch criminals who left behind DNA at crime scenes, which raises even more ethical issues. Should a database designed for family history, which contains sensitive genetic information, be used by law enforcement? We haven’t fully resolved that question.

A few months ago, I raised the question of how DNA might shape our understanding of Jewish identity. Are you Jewish because of your genetics or because of how you grew up? This question hits home particularly hard for a woman, writing to “A Bintel Brief”, whose husband found out through a test that he has no Jewish DNA. How does this change his relationship with his personal history and the tradition? Jewish identity is a mix of ethnicity, religion, and family that is flexible enough to include someone with no actual genetic link to the Jewish people. Our DNA is important; it can unlock all kinds of secrets, but it is only one part of who we are. The rest we get to create for ourselves.

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