Is finding health risks in family history such a good thing?

If you google ‘family history’ in the news section, you’re likely to get a bunch of results about how scientists are linking breast cancer, schizophrenia, and a host of other maladies to family history. Millions of dollars, it seems, are being spent every year on research that seeks to find the warning signs of illnesses in our ancestors, probably with the ultimate goal of eliminating or counteracting these diseases at or before birth. Anyone who has seen the superb sci fi movie Gattaca, however, knows that this kind of over-forecasting can get out of control.

 
For the uninitiated, Gattaca tells the story of a young man who, according to his DNA, is predicted to die at age thirty-something of heart failure. Also, because he was conceived naturally- unlike most of his counterparts-, he is treated as a lower class and is limited to menial work. Going into space- his lifelong dream- is forbidden for him. In short, genetics have become another form of harsh discrimination.
 
Is this where our society is headed? Will we be so hasty to make genetic forecasts that we will limit others and ourselves? 
 
I like to believe that, DNA notwithstanding, it is our choices that make us who we are, it is the good or bad influences we choose to let into our lives that determine our strength or weakness. People born with deformed legs can scale the highest mountains. Men who can’t talk or even move can unravel the mysteries of the universe. 
 
I hope we will never get too carried away with genetic prophecy or with treating maladies for that matter. Sickness is a difficult, but often instructive, part of life.


Does murder run in the family?

Is it possible that a murderer could have inherited his thirst for blood from his family? For Diamond Blair of Baltimore, Maryland, that would seem to be the case. Blair, 33, recently implicated in the June killing of a robbery victim, is the son of a convicted murderer, the brother of an alleged murderer, and the nephew of one of the cities worst known serial killers, a man who killed six women in 2004. For Blair, this charge is only the most recent in a string of crimes which have become increasingly violent since his first arrest at age 6 for stealing.

Cases like these tend to raise questions about nature versus nurture. Does the Blair family suffer from a genetic disorder that makes them predisposed to violence? Or are their homicidal tendencies the result of their upbringing and the moral decay of their environment? If you have criminals in your family tree, does it make you more likely to go bad? We know that vices like alcoholism are passed down from generation to generation. Is murder?

What do you think? Nature or nurture? Fate or choice?
 



DNA changing the scope of genealogy research

I remember the first time I was introduced to a family history library, an intimidating mountain of filing cabinets, microfiche viewers, and ancient, DOS-based computers. It was daunting to say the least, especially to my patience. Researchers could look for hours at parish records and social security death records and come up with the tiniest of insights into your great-grandmother’s uncle’s resting place. The thought of tracing back my ancestry hundreds or thousands of years seemed nearly impossible.

Modern genomics and affordable DNA testing, however, are expanding the reach of family history research. With single DNA swab, you can trace your genetic makeup back thousands of years. You can find clues about your lineage that would be nearly impossible to find using records and gravestones. Most intriguingly, you may stumble across ancestries you never even supposed existed.

Case in point: in National Geographic’s recent special "The Human Family Tree," a man from Ghana, who had previously supposed his ancestry would be strictly African, found out he had just as much European blood. A wide number of Asians unexpectedly discovered Native American genes in their makeup.

DNA testing will likely become a way to give family history researchers a bird’s eye view of their ancestry. From there, it will be up to genealogists to track down the details.