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The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA

Samar Aryani's picture

The author of The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA, Edward Ball, embarks upon a journey to learn more about his family history from the lockets of hair he found in an old heirloom belonging to one of his ancestors. He travels to various DNA labs and forensics labs that attempt to uncover the DNA sequence within the hairs in order to find out more about his family’s genealogy. At the end of Ball’s journey, he finds that the locks of hair from his ancestors had not brought concrete answers, as he had hoped. The results were contradictory and therefore caused him to question the validity of these institutions and the scientists who work in the field of DNA.

Ball becomes infuriated at the end of the book exclaiming that “I found a crack in the foundation [the genetics empire]: DNA data can be shallow and strewn with mistakes” (239). He goes on to say that the field of genes is looked upon as if it is correct in all of its observations and answers. He is skeptical of science after his journeys through the world of DNA because different laboratories working on the same sample of his ancestor’s hairs gave different results. For instance, in one lab he was told that his great aunt, Kate Fuller, had a match for West Africa ancestory in her DNA sequence. This was shocking to him because he believed that he came from a long European lineage. He finds himself among those people who blindly accept science without questioning it. Ball states, “Until the ‘African’…results, I had no reason to question the family story that we were white to the bone. Then, with an involuntary faith in science, I’d dropped the idea of our whiteness” (232). He realized that there was an ambiguity that existed in DNA sequence results. This is understandable because tracing the exact origin of one’s DNA can be a complicated process that definitely contains mistakes.   

In Biology 103, we learned from various labs that different people who may be working on the same experiment and using the same samples can have different results. From these differing results, we realized that samples should be tested until somewhat of a consistency arises. Also, the results may show one way but our conclusions of those results may be differ. For instance, the tests that were run by the different labs showed that the T2 haplogroup that was in Kate Fuller’s DNA was found in Africa, but was originated in Europe (233). This evidence was not realized by the first lab who tested the hair sample, thus concluding that Kate Fuller was of African ancestory because the T2 haplogroup is seen a great deal in parts of Africa (233). The question of blame may not be a viable question because the first institution may honestly not have realized that the origins were from Europe. However, it could also be argued that the institution may not have researched enough, and made a conclusion without varifying it.

Ball should have realized the chance of inaccuracy when going into the DNA labs. The hair samples needed to be tested more times in order for the outcome to be ‘less wrong’. As learned in class, the more trials that are run, the more the data will come closer to being ‘less wrong’. However, it is true that a great deal of people will blindly accept science without questioning it. He compares scientists to the idealization of clerics to religious people stating, “the lab coat is like the dress of the cleric, a symbol of position” (240). Nevertheless, I do believe that he should have been somewhat skeptical about the results of the tests because in the end, inaccuracy is a strong possibility. This is true especially in science, because new discoveries are made everyday, thus meaning that one thoery that may be true today could be proven wrong tomorrow. This is the point of science; working towards a ‘less wrong’ story.

In another part of the book, Ball explained his beliefs on the idea of scientists in the field of tracing one’s ancestry do it for the money; that they have a stake in it. There are many tests that people can do at home and send into the labs to find out about the geneology of their ancestors and a number of laboratories exist that are accessible to people. To learn about one’s geneology and about where one’s family comes from interests a great deal of people, but Ball claims that people should be skeptical about such institutions. He believes that a lot of the results coming out of these institutions have a great likely-hood of being wrong. I believe his argument is true to a certain extent in that there are laboratories and companies that exist solely for the objective of making money. However, I think that he is discrediting a great deal of science that could be leading to a ‘less wrong’ answer. As was seen throughout his own journey, the last laboratory showed him as to possibly why the other laboratory would have told him he had traces of an African race within his DNA. This showed that through a few trials the results were leading towards a ‘less wrong’ answer.

We learned in the beginning of Biology 103 that science is not a linear process, it is a ‘loopey-story telling process’. One needs to look at studies that are conducted and question the sources to see if they are reliable. A person, as well, should look at how many times the experiment was conducted, and draw a conclusion from there. Ball understood and explained how each institution was going to conduct its research and the process that occurred in reading the DNA sequence. However, it was crucial for him to realize that there will never be a ‘right’ answer, there will be ‘less wrong’ answers. It is understandable that Ball became infuriated at the end of his journey because as was said earlier, this field of ancestoral tracing appears to be more reliable than it actually is.

The book was really interesting because it took the reader through Ball’s journey of uncovering pieces of the geneoalogy of his family. A comment made by Ball’s cousin really struck me, she asked, “What’s shocking is that they’re sending people to death and to prison based on DNA evidence” (235). It really made me question the validity of the evidence given in courts; how can a field that is still growing be used to prove a person’s guilt? I find this extremely disturbing because as seen by the book, mistakes are inevitable. How is one to know if the results given in court are really the truth? I do believe that Ball may have been too harsh on the field of DNA in general, but I do believe that these are legitimate questions. Science needs to be seen to all as a field that contains flaws but that does not mean that it is necessarily problematic; it just means that people should investigate the studies done, and draw their own conclusions on the validity of the results form that study.




Works Cited

Ball, Edward. The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA. 1. Simon and Schuster, 2007.