You Are Not Your Ancestors (2015 Dec)

by Barry A. Liebling

There are tangible benefits of having your DNA tested. Knowledge about your genetic makeup can help you optimize your health. You may have inherited tendencies to suffer from particular diseases. A DNA test can alert you to what the dangers are, and you might adjust your lifestyle or seek medical treatment to counteract your disadvantageous genetic makeup. Similarly, you might discover you are a carrier of genes that could compromise the health of your children, and you can take steps to minimize the chance of harming your offspring.

There are reasons to test your DNA that are less important but still compelling for some people. Ancestry enthusiasts have a curiosity about their ethnic origins and are fascinated to learn which people are “related” to them because they share similar DNA. They may go out of their way to meet their “relatives,” bond, and become good friends.

And, like many tools, a DNA test can be misused. It can bolster a fallacious view of humanity where a person’s identity is not a matter of choice but is essentially fixed by the genetic code inherited from his ancestors.

During the past year I have seen a disturbing commercial for where a man explains that he always believed he had German ancestry and was so pleased he joined a German dance group and wore lederhosen. However, when he decided to have his DNA tested he discovered that “he was not German” because more than half of his DNA comes from Scotland and Ireland. Consequently the man traded in his lederhosen for a kilt.

What is the problem with this commercial? It embraces and touts the Marxist leftist view of humanity. That is, race, class, and gender (the commercial focuses on race, DNA) are the key factors that determine how a person behaves and how he should act. Individual choice and personal values so far as they exist at all (according to this dogma) are the products of a person’s group membership.

Notice that this is the exact opposite of the correct conceptualization of human beings as autonomous agents that have the capacity to exercise free will and act rationally (with the understanding that they may or may not choose to do so). It is significant that the history of the United States demonstrates that people from all over the world were able to come here and become Americans – that is take on the values and customs typical of Americans. This is a clear demonstration that conscious choices made by individuals is key and overrides “genetic determinism.” When you accept or reject a particular way of life you do so because of your deliberate decisions – not because of the identity of your distant relatives.

When you examine the essence of the commercial there are two possible interpretations, and each is highly problematic.

The first is the commercial is an attempt to refute free will. Perhaps the man had been feeling uncomfortable for some time. When he had trouble locating relatives who were German he felt (notice feeling is more “authentic” than thinking) that something was wrong. The DNA test placed him into the correct category with his “true kin.” Since group membership (defined by your genes, not the “illusion of choice”) is all-important to this version of leftist doctrine the man feels relief when he trades his lederhosen for a kilt.

The second interpretation is equally insidious. The man has free will but exercises poor judgement by rejecting something he finds worthwhile. For a long time he thought he was of German ancestry and was able to enjoy participating in German cultural events. When he discovered his DNA profile pointed to a different ancestry he pronounced his past actions as fundamentally mistaken. Because he bought into the “genetics should be destiny” propaganda he felt he had an obligation to turn away from the activities that had given him pleasure. According to this narrative the man’s personal taste counts for nothing compared to the “legitimate call” of DNA. His preferences and values are trumped by his “duty to his bloodline.”

Note that there are many features of German, Scottish, and Irish culture that are admirable. A rational person might find parts of each of them that are compelling and can decide to take on some of the distinctive customs that are associated with being German, Scottish, or Irish. And this decision should be grounded in free will and clear thinking – not DNA.

Are you curious about your DNA? Get it tested. And be sure to keep in mind that your identity is essentially self-made. You are not your ancestors.

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