This story in today’s NYT made me think once again about the importance of knowing one’s genetic lineage. That’s a topic that has been frequently discussed here, recently in the context of the Pratten case from British Columbia.
For many advocates of donor-conceived and adopted children, having information about one’s genetic lineage is of critical importance. (I realize that having access to the specific individual who provided the genetic material and having some particular defined relationship with that individual are also important, but I think each of these is slightly different and I only mean to raise the first here.)
As I understand it, information about genetic lineage is important for two reasons. First, genetic heritage provides valuable information about one’s susceptibility to various genetically-linked conditions. Second, genetic heritage is important (at least to some people) in formulating their own sense of individual identity. It is, for those folks, about who you really are.
I’m going to set that second reason aside just for the moment and focus on the first. It does seem that as we have learned more about DNA there is more to be gained from knowledge about one’s genetic make-up. For example, we have a greater understanding of susceptibility to particular forms of cancer or efficacy of different cancer treatments based on genetic analysis.
But it seems to me that for this purpose information about genetic lineage is essentially a stand-in for direct knowledge of one’s own genetic make-up. In other words, if one could directly analyze one’s own genetic make-up, that would be more useful than having information about a family history of illness, etc. After all, not every genetic characteristics exhibited by your forebears exists in your genetic code. And some that were not in theirs may turn up in yours.
It seems to me that the inevitable march of science will lead us to the point where a person could have direct knowledge of one’s own genetic make-up. At that point, the medical argument for access to genetic lineage seems to me to be quite weak.
Which brings me to today’s story about bringing DNA sequencing to the masses. We’re not there yet, but as the story makes clear, we are on the way.
All of this makes the second reason I mentioned above for seeking access to genetic lineage–something to do with formation of individual identity–more important. That’s been discussed from time to time on the blog and I’m sure it will be again. I won’t return to it just here, though, save to note that it seems to me a very tricky question. How we construct our own identities is incredibly complicated. So many different things go into that, it’s hard to pick them apart and try to think about the importance of just one.
But as I contemplate this question, for some reason a conversation between Harry Potter and Dumbledore comes to mind. I think it is at the end of the second book (HP and the Chamber of Secrets.) Harry worries that he might really be an heir to Slytherian. In turn Dumbledore says (here I’m just doing an inferior paraphrase) “It’s the choices you make that define you, not the particular inherent talents that you happen to have.”
But that’s for another day.