DNA and the Power of An Idea

One of the most interesting stories in today’s NYT magazine feature on DNA (see yesterday’s post, too) is the tale of Denny Ogden and D’Arcy Griggs.   I’ll summarize it here.  

D’Arcy Griggs was 34 years old when she called Denny Ogden and said he was her father.   Ogden knew that a woman he had had a summer romance with in college had become pregnant and given the child up for adoption.  He’d never traced that child.   He had married and had three more children.   He was 54 when D”Arcy Griggs called. 

She said she had tracked him down after her birth mother died of cancer.   He checked her background to make sure it wasn’t some swindle and then they began exchanging e-mails.  He began to think of her as his daughter.   They reveled in the little things they had in common.   After a few months, they decided to meet and he came to Seattle where she lived.  

They spent four days together, again marvelling over how similar they were.   At the very end of the time, they decided to get a DNA test, though by then they were both sure what it would show.    Except that it did not.  It turns out they were unrelated.  This was devastating to both of them.

Happily enough they didn’t give up on each other.   They have remained close and D’Arcy no longer searches for her birth father.   

It’s a fascinating story.  It is clear that their belief that they were related helped establish their relationship.   They found so many similarities to prove what they believed to be true–that they shared the same genetic code.   And they formed a connection likely far more substantial than they would have formed had they met under other circumstances.   All because they believed (wrongly) that they were genetically related.    

Surely this demonstrates the power of the idea of genetic connection.   Not the power of actual genetic connection, for it was lacking for them.  But the power of the belief or the idea.  

At the same time, having created a relationship, D’Arcy Griggs and Denny Ogden found they could in fact continue without the genetic link.   They didn’t need the actual DNA or, in the end, even the belief in the DNA.   Whatever drew them together turned out to be more substantial that the mistaken belief in the genetic link. 

What does this mean in the end?   I’m not sure.   But it seems to me it tells us what a powerful hold our belief in genetics has in our culture.   It’s very hard to think about the idea of genetic linkage separate from the actual fact of genetic linkage, but I think this story offers us a chance to try to do that.  

I’m struck that when they thought they were related they identified all these common traits.   That’s always a theme in a siblings-separated-at-birth-now-united-story.   No doubt they have these traits in common, but it’s no more than chance that they do.   When they thought they were genetically related, the coincidence had special meaning.  But now we can see that it is just coincidence.  

I suppose what I want to suggest is that, enthralled as we are with genetic linkages these days, it’s very hard to tell how much of the meaning we attribute to genetic linkages is reflective of the genetics and how much of the meaning is simply the product of our own enthrallment.   A man’s daughter is suddenly not his daughter.   Or a stranger suddenly becomes his daughter.    What I like most about the story of Griggs and Ogden is that their relationship, once formed, survived.   Griggs no longer searches for her father, because she found Ogden   And Ogden may not be the man who provided half her DNA, but he fills a space in her life nonetheless.


7 responses to “DNA and the Power of An Idea

  1. Of course they going to look for and cite similarities. I look like you, Julie, and like academia as well. These two people meeting up in wrong-footed extra-ordinary circumstances and then deciding to stay in touch because they like each other doesn’t make a case against reunions. Lesbians and single mothers may groan, but Griggs may yet go looking for her father.

  2. There’s a fascinating story currently in circulation in the media about an adopted man who traced his birth mother and found out his father was Charles Manson via rape of his mother. Despite the fact that this man is a quiet peace loving vegetarian who won’t even kill bugs, he professes a love for his biological father despite having suffered depression after finding out the news. Here is the story.


    Note what he says about his feelings about Manson. “He’s my biological father. I can’t help but have some kind of emotional connection. That’s the hardest thing of all – feeling love for a monster who raped my mother,” Roberts said. “I don’t want to love him, but I don’t want to hate him either.”

    It definitely shows the acute need for people to know the truth of their parentage – no matter how bad the news! It also shows the immense value people associate to DNA. If this adopted man would not have regarded Manson as his father he would have said, genetics are irrelevant, but clearly he doesn’t feel that – and he’s the adopted one, his views should count most!

    • I have two responses.

      First, I have no argument with you about the truth. Ultimately I do believe it is important to be honest with children and to teach them to be honest with others. I don’t think that tells us how to behave in the first place vis-a-vis sperm donors, etc. but it does give us guidance on how to proceed if one chooses that course. Honest information needs to be provided to children is a way that is age-appropriate for the individual child. I feel much the same way about sex ed.

      Second, the story about the man who learned of his relationship to Charles Manson doesn’t really contradict what I’m trying to say. I gather the man felt no particular affinity for Manson before he was aware of the genetic link. Thus, the genetic link in and of itself created no kinship. It is his knowledge of the genetic link that has created the bond. That’s the point I mean to make when I say it isn’t the DNA in and of itself. It is what we think about DNA.

      This makes a lot of sense to me. Last summer I learned, for example, that once a whale mother separates from her calf, she doesn’t appear to recognize the calf as her offspring when they meet in following years. In other words, she has no inate ability to sense the DNA link. Neither do we. What we do have is scientific tests to tell us when the link exists and then complicated social structures to tell us how important it is.

  3. I happen to agree with you on this one, but that doesn’t make the perception of the genetic link less important. Human psychology doesn’t change so fast, just because technology does, and become some special interest groups would wish it so.

  4. There seems to be evidence that there is much more to the importance of genetic links (which are primal and instinctual) than just the perceived social dictates/structures we place on DNA relatedness. Two examples are:

    * “Genetic Attraction”(http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2003/may/17/weekend7.weekend2)

    * “Grandma Hypothesis”
    (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18065 )

    “Why women evolved to live so far beyond their reproductive years is a mystery long debated. Now there is new evidence backing the “grandma hypothesis” – that they stick around to invest in their grandchildren, safeguarding the genes they share.

    Leslie Knapp and her team at the University of Cambridge reasoned that if the hypothesis is true, how much grandma invests in her grandchildren should depend on the proportion of genes they share. So they came up with a way to test this.

    Due to the way X chromosomes are transmitted, grandmothers share an equal amount of DNA with their daughter’s sons and daughters, but a smaller proportion of DNA with their son’s son than with their son’s daughter. So the team reasoned that paternal grandmas might invest less in these grandsons than these granddaughters, which in turn might have a measurable effect on life expectancy.
    Boys beware

    Knapp’s team examined historical records from seven countries, including England, Japan and Ethiopia, which ranged from the 17th century to today. “We wanted to test whether the effect was independent of culture,” says Knapp.

    For kids who grew up in the same village or lived in the same home as their grandma, they noted if she was paternal or maternal and when the children died.

    Sure enough, the researchers found that in all seven countries, males died earlier if they had grown up with their paternal, rather than their maternal, grandmother. This was not true for the girls.”

  5. You might also find this link of interest which supports the theory of kin altruism:

    The genetic evolution of social behavior

  6. Has anyone in the D’Arcy Griggs and Denny Ogden investigated the possibility that the DNA tests were not right? Mistakes are made in DNA testing. I’m just wondering

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