Here’s a story from the UK that once again demonstrates the power our belief in genetic linkages possesses today. Keeley Hall and Elizabeth X (I’ve removed her last name here) are both donor- conceived. In 2004 they each registered with UK Donor Link, a government funded agency intended to help donor conceived children locate genetic relatives.
The two women were told they were half-sisters, that they had been conceived from the sperm of the same donor. Hall travelled from Australia to meet Elizabeth. The article recounts that on learning of their relationship the were “overjoyed.”
“[T]hey told of the many resemblances between them – their similar eyes and hair, their shared love of languages – and how they already felt like sisters.”
Only after they had forged a substantial relationship did UK Donor Link tell them that in fact, they were not genetically related.
It’s not hard to understand how much anguish this train of events might cause. That reflects, I think, the extent to which DNA defines our social relationships. In this case, the genetic link was never there. But believing it was changed the way these two women thought of each other. It allowed them to see similarities that might otherwise have seemed less remarkable. And as they thought of themselves as sisters, it formed the basis on which they built their relationship.
In the same way, when the belief in a genetic link was taken from them it changed their social relationship. It’s not that they’ve reverted to being strangers. But the assumption on which they constructed their relationship has been proved wrong. And that does change things.
I wrote about a similar tale that was in the NY Times some months ago. That story told of a woman who believed she had located the man who had helped conceive her–she had discovered the identity of her father. There, too, in the end it turned out that the genetic link wasn’t there. But before the absence of the link was discovered, a relationship premised on its existence had been forged.
Though these stories may be rare and isolated, I think they offer us an opportunity to consider the role our belief in genetics (rather than genetics itself) plays in our human relationships. This is not an area where one can propose scientific experiment, so you have to glean what you can from the occasional (and generally unfortunate) tales that arise by accident.
Whether genetics really creates ties or not it is clear that many people believe that it does. And that belief itself can affect reality, even when there turns out to be no genetic relationship. I don’t know any way to determine how much of the evidence for the importance of genetic connections is a product of our belief it the importance of genetic connections and how much is “real.” But stories like this one do make me wonder.