DNA: A Matter of Trust

In combat, we trust our buddies with our lives. We have their back and they have ours. When submitting to surgery, we trust the medical team with our lives, and usually that trust is not betrayed. But should we be willing to trust strangers with our very essence, our DNA?

Recently I was trying to solve a plot problem in the science fiction thriller, Triangle. The storyline relied on a particular individual being singled out by the government for monitoring, not for what he had done, but for who he was.

After finishing the novel, I went back to tie up loose ends in the plot. One such loose end involved a question: How could the government know that this one person out of millions had an unrecognized super power? He was a main character in the book and so I could not ignore that question. Certainly it helps the reader suspend disbelief if the plot elements are plausible, at least superficially.

I did not have to puzzle over that question very long before an advertisement for Ancestry DNA popped up on my computer screen.

That was it!

And so the following text flowed quickly.

The characters in this conversation are Sally Simpkin  (AKA Pippi Longstocking) and Joshua Nilsson, identified below by their initials. She was trying to explain to Nilsson why she and her employers had been monitoring him.

SS: “[The government] detected that you had a high probability of having certain prescient capabilities.”
JN: “Forgive me for being a bit skeptical. Why can’t you tell me [how]?”
SS: “I’m not even cleared to know the process. I just took the assignment. It had something to do with a DNA sample you submitted.”
JN: “DNA? The only DNA I’ve submitted was for genealogy research.”

Triangle was published on May 21, 2017. On May 25, the following BBC headline appeared in my browser.

Ancestry.com denies exploiting users’ DNA. “A leading genealogy service, Ancestry.com, has denied exploiting users’ DNA following criticism of its terms and conditions.”

So, is this author also prescient like Nilsson? Or is this blogger merely a bit jaded.

Genealogy services have a difficult time competing in the world market. After all, there are only so many retired folks trying to trace their family history and solidify their genetic place in the world before their demise. Speaking for myself, I started my genealogy research years ago, picking it up from my grandmothers who told tales of Civil War Colonels and Carpet Bagger treachery, and murder. In fact, I’ve posted on this blog before about some of my discoveries.

With the advent of computers and the availability of free records from the Mormon Church, the ease of doing genealogical research exploded. Some of the software and services were either free or inexpensive. Of course, “free” doesn’t do much for a service provider’s cash flow. So, into each CEO’s mind comes, sooner or later, thoughts of monetization. How could Facebook’s Zuckerberg and others turn a free service into something that can make them gazillions? In the case of genealogy services, they started by charging a monthly access fee, and in one case, by enticing viewers to keep paying fees by waving images of fig leaves to attract their attention. That was a strange but brilliant ploy that worked very well on this researcher.

The next step in monetization is now universal: sell ads to companies who want access to the growing body of amateur genealogists. The final ploy, and by far the most ethically troubling, is selling information about users of computer services. First there were those pesky cookies, but now there is blood, or saliva more exactly.

For some companies, it is not enough to know what users search for. There is now a market for information about who you are, your very genetic essence, which is hidden even to you. But some companies like 23andme, Ancestry, MyHeritage, GPS Origins, Living DNA, and Family Tree DNA, let you take a peek into your genes, for a price.

The ironic thing is, this most personal information is not only freely given, but people actually pay the DNA harvesters to harvest their most sacred self. And of course, once that has been done, your genetic-identity can be sold (read the fine pint). While we are urged to protect ourselves from identity theft, isn’t it odd that we are at the same time being enticed into giving away our most precious identity of all, our DNA? And we seem to be doing so gladly, blithely unaware of the implications for us and our progeny.

But don’t let the natural skeptic in me show through too strongly. I do, after all, have faith that everything we’re being asked to store in the “cloud” is actually as secure as cloud storage facilities (whatever those are) claim. And I’m sure the secrets buried deep in our genes are forever kept private, and safe from hackers.

But then, there is that troubling Orwellian Consent Form.

Oh well, Sally Simpkin’s monitoring assignment in Triangle is purely fictional. Surely, no government would really have an interest in our genes.

Or would it?




The Positive Side of Internet Data Gathering

There is a good reason why God and aliens (of the extraterrestrial variety) use telepathy to communicate. It is the only secure form of information transmission. Everything else is subject to capture, storage, and retrieval.

There is currently a frantic paranoia spawned by national and international agency’s collection of virtually everything we say and do. The only thing not open for capture are our thoughts and dreams, at least for now. (Yes, the Army’s working on that).

But governments aren’t alone in information spying — commercial industry is perhaps outpacing governments in their data collection efforts. Their motivations may be different, but the frenetic pace and implications are every bit as invasive. Privacy, as we’ve known it, is dead.

I’ve previously written about Google Noodling , which is a way of catching Google in their data-mining efforts. And like the tone of that article, you have to take a lighthearted view of such efforts. It is not going away. And if we don’t “get over it”, we may, in my estimation, go a little crazy.

But there is a positive side to all this, and a large and growing number of people are finding this side to be personally satisfying. That has to do with family connections, or genealogy. I’ve written about that topic as well.

Scan20080_1 crop
My brother and I. He was five years older.

Last night I solved a very personal family puzzle through the help of Ancestry.com. Both my parents had brown hair and brown eyes. Both their younger children, sons, had blond hair and blue or green eyes.

I’ve spent a lot of time of late with my brother before he passed from a prolonged illness, and I was struck as never before with the purity of the blue color in his almost iridescent eyes. (I’m the one with the green eyes.) When young, both of us had blond hair, which eventually darkened with age. My brother was tall and thin. I was thin, but vertically challenged.

In the next generation, both my children have green eyes, perhaps because I married a green-eyed girl. Our daughter has blonde hair, and even a granddaughter has greenish-brown eyes. And a new grandson baby seems to have blue eyes and blond hair.

I have never ceased wondering, as did my parents no doubt, where those light colors came from. Having believed strongly in my mother’s fidelity, I kept assuming that someday I would discover the source of the blue/green eyes and blond hair.

That happened last night, thanks to the technology of digitization and data mining. I discovered a World War I selective registration document from my Grandfather who died in a hotel fire many years before my birth. At the age of 34 he had blue eyes and “light” hair. He was both tall and “slender”, pretty much a perfect description of my brother.U.S.WorldWarIDraftRegistrationCards1917-1918ForAlbertSidneyJohnstonClarke


The next morning I was able to go through unidentified family photos, and there he was, identified at last, the Grandfather I never knew. So apparently it wasn’t the mailman after all!

ASJ Clarke scan crop


Obviously this discovery is of interest to no one except my cousins and other relatives. However, it does point out the value of computers, computer databases, and the sharing of information that large databases make possible. There is a tangible reward, for both the company providing the product (the database) and the customers who benefit from the data shared.

I’m sure that when my Grandfather filled out his draft card in 1918, he had no idea that the digital image of that card would end up in the hands of his unborn grandchildren and great grandchildren 95 years later.

Which makes me wonder, what will the world know about each of us 100 years from now? We’ll be long gone, but the record of our existence will survive somewhere in the depths of a digital storage facility. Without a doubt our descendants will enjoy reading about the inane things which pleased or troubled us in 2013, and which we so freely posted thinking that no one was listening, and no one really cared.

Believe me, some people will care. And apparently, everybody’s listening.



The Relevance of Genealogy in a Mormonism-Awakening World: or My Ancestors Did What?

Reconstructed Neanderthal. Click to go to BBC source.

Recent science has revealed that we, Homo sapiens, may be carrying genes from the Neanderthals, like the model on the left reconstructed from a nearly complete skeleton discovered 100 years ago in France. But what about our other genes, those contributed by our family ancestors?

The quest for family roots is old, and has kept genealogists, amateur  and professional alike, engaged in a fascinating search of discovery.

That quest has even been politicized, for at least the last five-years, with the public clamoring for information about the roots of presidential contenders. Fortunately for us commoners, information of our forebears is easy to obtain, in comparison, because of its lack of political sensitivity. This search is eased in part by the help of the Mormon Church.

I’m not a Mormon, but if you’ve spent any time at all on the planet lately, you’ve probably heard that a U.S. Presidential contender is, namely, Mitt Romney. My take on Mormons that I’ve known personally is that they are really nice people, with a strong interest in family … and genealogy. I like to think I hold those values in common with them.

They used to say you are what you eat. But now that the war between nature vs. nurture has quieted down, we recognize we are largely what our genes define, with a good bit of good parenting thrown in. But it’s the genes that interest me the most. Supposedly we share 95-98% of our genome, our collection of genes, with Chimpanzees. Well, as I look in a mirror, I realize that remaining 5% is pretty darned important.

And so out of an abundance of curiosity, decades ago I began transcribing my Grandmother’s family history notes into early DOS-based computer databases. Before long I began to see an interesting panoply of historical faces staring back at me.

I soon learned that the Church of Latter Day Saints had extensive libraries chock full of family files, and due to the Mormon fascination with all things family, my database rapidly grew. With the advent of the Internet and family file sharing, the numbers of known ancestors grew exponentially. That’s when things got interesting.

Game Stalker … Photograph by Jim Richardson, National Geographic – “Gordon Muir, a renowned game stalker on the island of Jura.”

My Clark(e) ancestors were Scottish, and after coming to the U.S. in the 1700s from Jura, Scotland, they settled in North Carolina. They were thus Southern.

Being Southern led to a conflict between one ancestor, a tall well-educated man who published a Tennessee newspaper, and a carpetbagger during the dark days of Civil War Reconstruction. The abusive carpetbagger threatened my ancestor, publicly, and got shot dead in the process. Unfortunately, the carpetbagger was unarmed at that moment, and carrying a weapon was illegal for the Southerners. That was problematic.

Nevertheless, my ancestor was eventually acquitted. I think the 19th century lesson was, don’t do wrong to a Scotsman, even one in America.

In Scotland, on the Isle of Jura, there seemed to be little to do except make whisky, drink whisky, fight whenever it seemed useful, and contribute the 5% of their unique genes, as often as possible. Not a bad lifestyle, in my opinion.

Some Scotsmen signed an oath of Loyalty to the King of England before leaving Scotland and emigrating to the Unites States. Some of those so-called Loyalists ended-up on the wrong side of the U.S. Revolutionary War.

I admit, some of my Scottish ancestors made bad choices, but they did so with conviction and a sense of honor. A promise made is a promise kept.

The record shows that both Scottish and American women shared a perilous lifestyle, arguably equal in finality with warring Highlanders. The birthing of babies occasionally ended in maternal mortality. Oddly enough, the genes usually won out, because when a mother died, her younger sisters oftentimes were the next to marry the grieving husband. The family genes stayed together, or so says the historical records.

Sir. Henry Hobart

As time went on, the wary North Carolina Scots finally began choosing those with a British ancestry as mates, so the blood lines did not remain isolated for long.

Families have a way of romanticizing their lineage. For instance, I’d always heard that I was related on the maternal side (Harrison) to the unfortunate President William Henry Harrison who died after only 32 days in office. After years of casual researching, there is no relationship, best I can tell.

But I did discover a potential connection to Sir Henry 1st Baronet of Blickling Hall and Chief Justice of Common Pleas Hobart, circa 1500s. (Blickling Hall is reputed to be the most haunted home in the U.K., haunted by the headless ghost of Ann Boleyn.)

I would be impressed with myself, thinking I came from such a distinguished Englishman. But then I realize that his genetic contribution would be like adding a single drop of chocolate syrup to a tanker truck full of milk. We’re a long ways from ending up with a truck full of chocolate milk.

So what is the relevance of all this esoteric knowledge to our daily lives? Well, to the Mormons it’s very relevant, for religious reasons. It’s their way of extending salvation to lost souls; an admirable motivation.

For the rest of us, the relevance is less compelling, unless you enjoy discovering stories like those I’ve shared. It’s like seeing a reality show with an entirely new episode revealed each time you turn on the computer. And in the rolling credits of this show are people who happen to be in some way related to you, contributing the parts of you that make you unique.

Personally, I think history is much more interesting when it is your own.









Searching for Native American Roots

A few years ago I sat next to a half Native American woman at a family Thanksgiving dinner. Among our conversation topics was reincarnation; she believed in it, strongly. That interested me enough to do a little research, whereupon I discovered a book called  “Amerindian Rebirth: Reincarnation Belief Among North American Indians and Inuit.” It was published in 1994 by the University of Toronto Press, edited by two anthropologists, Antonia Mills and Richard Slobodin.

I had no idea that American Indians ever believed in reincarnation.

Shortly after that discovery, I began work on the manuscript for a science fiction novel that includes segments on the Osage Tribe in Oklahoma. The Osage were originally from the Missouri River valley, later “relocated” to Oklahoma, close to the location of the Cherokee Nation.

One of my first discoveries on the Internet was a set of historic photos in various archives. Two of them, immediately below, struck me as being particularly noteworthy.

Click for a larger image.
Click for a larger image.

The first photo of a young Osage mother with a child (pappoose) on her back continues to hold my attention. Although the mother is only in profile, the way her baby is looking toward the photographer is particularly fetching.

As I studied the mother’s face, I realized that she had what I perceived to be, in my ignorance, a European appearance. Her cheekbones were high, her nose appeared slim and her face looked silky smooth, showing none of the effects of the rigorous native lifestyle I would have expected. Her skin tone, her clothing, and the manner in which she carried her child were the only signs that identified her as Osage. Her overall appearance was one of lustrous youth. The second photo also showed a young mother; and I would guess the ages of both girls as no more than sixteen.

As I write this, I remember that I used to call my two young children “pappoosem”. I don’t know why, but it was obviously a term of endearment.

A Cherokee in Osage Country

My interest in the Osage compelled me to travel last year to Pawhuska, OK, the seat of the Osage Nation. My only disappointment was that there appeared to be no Osage in town, at least on the weekend.

The Osage aren’t mentioned in “Amerindian Rebirth”, but many closely located tribes are, like the Ponca, even the Seminole. They’re both tribes on reservations near the Osage Nation, although presumably they’re not closely related, genetically. And to be fair, once the Tribes became Christians, many of their former beliefs became hidden.

Now, as my family of descendents is enlarging, my daughter and I are searching for possible Native American relatives. Both my granddaughters are reputed to have relatively close genetic ties to various tribes, one being Cherokee, and the other from an unknown tribe from the North.

Even my wife’s family has an oral tradition, on the female side, of a Georgian who married a Cherokee Princess. I am dubious of that claim, since my genealogical research has so far turned up nothing. And besides, I suspect Cherokee Princesses were few and far between back in the 1700s, when my wife’s relatives were in contact with the Cherokee.

But we’re still looking.