We’re all familiar with the story of Oedipus Rex, the king who loved his mother a bit more than most. Or the classic Jerry Springer story where, Yes, Steve, it is your kid, and your wife really is your long lost sister. Then there’s the song, I Am My Own Grandpa, which I associate with Christmas for some reason. What’s this all got to do with family? Just that some families are closer than others I suppose.
But since you mentioned DNA, let’s go down that road. I was climbing my family tree not long ago and found some interesting, shall we say, entanglements. So that you won’t lump me in with the NASCAR crowd, I’d like to add the disclaimer that this was many generations ago. And by “many” I mean more than two.
I have this friend who has decided to fill a market niche in the ancestry field. She was a botanist at UT Austin who studied bees. Bees, like many animals, have been classified by their phenotype (the way they look) instead of their genotype. (Really, do I have to explain that one? It’s got “gene” right in the name.) And by “study” I mean she would put bees in a blender and extract their DNA to reclassify them. Sounds fun, huh!
Guess what? Bees aren’t related to who you think they’re related to. (But we’ll save that story for our Bee Edition.) Many years down the road she has found herself applying these same ideas to people, sans the blender.
There are only four databases with enough scope to be economically viable at this date: AncestryDNA, 23andMe, MyHeritage, and FamilyTreeDNA. The services they offer vary, from general ethnic background to genetic medical cursors, or somewhere in between. And they differ on which strands they analyze: mitochondrial (from yo mama), Y (from your real daddy), or autosomal (all the rest of that information that makes you who you are). The different strands have different uses and longevities when it comes to following the dusty trail of your grandparents’ sex lives.
What our bee expert discovered while casually studying chromosomal patterns for kicks (yes, she does that) was that a basic knowledge of gene topography, combined with the vast wealth of personal information on the internet, can lead you down an ancestry rabbit hole to the tabloid television funny papers. She has given up her job at a lab in California to sit around the kitchen table in her pajamas all day chasing other people’s birthrights around the country.
I’d love to tell you some of the stories she related over coffee, but there’s some kind of HIPA oath, or business agreement, or a boy scout pledge, that keeps her from divulging personal information to outsiders. And sitting at the other end of the table made me an outsider, for DNA purposes. I can tell you that she found some family secrets in her own family that she wasn’t afraid to share. Something about a grandfather not really being a grandfather, leading her to confront her grandmother and then being denied pumpkin pie last Thanksgiving. Life, she is a bitch.
But wait! Before you roll up your sleeves, or donate a lock of hair, or spit in a cup, there is something you should know. Our bee expert had a word of warning for us. There have been some sketchy dealings going on with the DNA results. At least one of the above mentioned companies has gone outside of their user consent terms and allowed law enforcement access to millions of results in their database. Great, you say, let’s set the innocent people free and arrest those child molesters once and for all. If it were only that easy (I’d be living in Thailand under an assumed name).
Let me paint you another picture. You’re sitting at home watching your favorite episode of Night Shade when the warrantless gestapo come rolling onto your clean orange shag carpeting with their dirty storm trooper boots. How rude! What is the problem, you ask the barrel of the CAR-15 rifle just inches from your face. It turns out that you are related to a notorious guinea pig rapist who has thirty unpaid parking tickets on his record. Since you are, according to DNA, his closest living relative who also harbors small rodents, they thought they’d pay you a visit and see if by chance he was also a fan of Night Shade. I think that’s a misdemeanor in some states.
Now we’re getting into some crazy grampa conspiracy shit! No one watches Night Shade any more. And loving guinea pigs is not a crime if it’s consensual. Well, that’s where you’re wrong (in so many sad sad ways). This scenario has already played out. It is why our bee expert has made it her mission to educate the genealogy public in general, and her clients in particular, about these lapses in consent agreements. She has communicated with the DNA database companies to address the issue.
The problem? This science is so far ahead of the law that there has yet to be a test case in any court. Where is the line between your personal privacy and the public good? The only reason FamilyTreeDNA was forced to change their consent policy to more favor the client was the EU. That’s right. Belgian chocolate saved our cheese. But we may not know the real repercussions for years to come. And the cases may prove very messy. How messy you ask. Have you ever tried cleaning out a blender full of bees?
Follow Leah Larkin-Vogel at thednageek.com.