I feel badly that I have been so absent here. (And so many of you have carried on so nicely without me.) There–better to just start with that. But why haven’t I been here? Life intervenes? Not in any dramatic way, and not in a bad way (thanks for those concerns) but just in the mass of little things that pile up.
I’m tired, too, of dashing over to this, apologizing, putting up one meager post, and then failing to find the time to build momentum. But you know, being tired of it doesn’t mean I don’t stop trying. It just makes it harder to try. So here I am–I will try again to get myself on more regular footing.
I must have 17 tabs open with things to comment on , none of which seem totally pressing. I think what I will try to do is put together a few things that in some (as yet not totally clear way) seem related to me. The uniting theme–if there is one–is about DNA and inherited characteristics and the cultural stuff around that, I think.
So I’m pretty sure most of you saw the stories about the blond children turning up in Roma families. Here’s one of the later ones, just as an example. There is so much to say (and much has been said) about this story. Even just looking at the picture there’s so much I’d like to unpack.
So clearly the line of reasoning we are invited to follow is that the child does not look like the adult, ergo, the adult isn’t the child’s parent. Or perhaps it is really that the adult isn’t the child’s genetic parent. (That difference–between the unmodified parent and the genetic parent–is important to me, of course.)
Now in this case it lead the authorities to investigate a range of possibilities including kidnapping and child-selling. It turns out that indeed, the parent is not the child’s genetic parent. As far as I know, a range of questions (Was the child sold? Was there some scheme to illegally claim benefits?) remain.
So one thing you can fairly say is that this is one of those instances in which DNA helped us find at least a part of the “truth”–it allowed us identify the actual genetic parents of the child. This is clearly a good thing. But it doesn’t mean that our reliance on DNA should be uncomplicated or that it is always good.
For instance, I think it’s pretty clear that the reason this case came to attention is that people looked at this child and looked at this adult and thought they couldn’t be genetically related–because the Roma woman (like most Romas) has dark skin and hair while the child is blonde. Indeed, this same rationale lead to the removal of other blond children from other Roma adult’s care in the following days. The assumption was that these “white” children must have “white” genetic parents. (I’m putting “white” in quotes because I’m not sure what it means, really.) You can see this from the initial stories about who the blond child might be.
So here, in a way, is DNA at work again. Not directly–as via DNA testing–but as the underlying rational for some cultural assumptions–assumptions that children physically resemble their genetic parents in various regards. Of course, the actual DNA testing showed that the blond child in question was in fact a child of Romas–though not the Romas she was living with. And two Irish children who were removed from the custody of their genetic parents because of the blond/Roma contrast were returned when DNA testing established that they were indeed genetically related.
It’s hard for me to miss the irony here–that at once DNA can help us find certainty and also support assumptions that lead us away from certainty. The Irish Roma parents were both victimized by assumptions about DNA and genetics and rescued by the reality of DNA testing.
What I think this shows is that thinking about genetics and DNA is complicated. DNA testing is quite useful. It helps us find out the truth about specific facts–just imagine how these cases would have gone without DNA testing–those Irish children would probably never have been returned to their actual parents.
But the science of DNA gets simplified (and distorted?) when it enters into the public imagination and then it may operate in ways that can be quite troubling. There’s a whole other layer to the story about the Roma children–one that has a lot to do with how we (generally) think about race. I don’t think is chance that the children were blond and the suspected parents dark. It’s right to wonder whether a dark-skinned child with blond parents would have attracted the same kind of attention. And the Roma, in particular, have long been associated with child-stealing in ways that seem to have as much to do with racism as historical facts. Whatever the history, the idea that the white child must have been kidnapped by the Roma fit comfortably into a pre-existing belief structure and what we think we know about DNA just made it seem like a reasonable assumption.