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Genes and Identity

Can our genetic code tell us who we are?

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The question how a person establishes and maintains an identity is a thorny one. Everyone seems to feel the need for some way to identify themselves in a complex and variable world; the problem is, it's not exactly clear just what "identity" should entail. Is it more about who you are as a person, right now, or is more about "what" you are, in the sense of your heritage and cultural background?

Culture, religion, and ethnicity have historically been primary factors used by people in deciding what their identity "really" is. Essentially, when this occurs, people focus less on things like their personality or profession and more upon accidents of birth. Thus, if a person happen to be born into a family whose ancestors lived in some geographic location, she "identifies" with that location - its culture, its religion, etc. A new and growing factor in how people identify themselves has been created by modern technology: genetics.

Because of the growing accuracy and availability of genetic testing, due in part to researchers' ability to identify more and more genetic markers, people are beginning to avail themselves of this technology to learn more about their genetic heritage. Presumably, by learning that their genetic codes contain markers for this or that ethnic group, they then learn something about who and what they are.

But does that conclusion follow? It doesn't appear so, for both biological and philosophical reasons. First, the biological reasons should be considered because they are the most difficult to dispute. By its very nature, genetic testing is limited in what it can tell you about your genetic code and the origins of your genes.

There are two basic genetic tests, the Y-chromosome trace and the mitochondrial trace. The former tests for genetic markers on the Y-chromosome, passed down virtually unchanged from father to son. The latter tests for genetic markers on the mitochondrial DNA, passed down virtually unchanged from mother to daughter.

The problem is, a person is only going to have one Y-chromosome or one sequence of mitochondrial DNA - you only inherit the information from one of two parents, from one of four grand-parents, and so on. If you go back 15 generations, your genetic trace is telling you something about just one out of 32,778 of your ancestors.

Is this a valid basis upon which anyone can base their understanding of who and what they are? If you test positive for a genetic marker common to Jews, would you be justified in identifying yourself as a Jew? You inherited that genetic marker from a single ancestor 15 generations ago - someone who might be the only Jewish ancestor you have. Does one out of 32,778 ancestors qualify as a good basis for an "identity"?

Biologically, then, it doesn't seem reasonable for these genetic tests to be taken as having anything significant to say about genetic background, much less about a person's current identity. What, then, about philosophical objections? One serious objection stems from the fact that while people today might be using genetic testing in a benign matter, what they are doing is not far different from what others have done in the past for more nefarious purposes.

The ideology of eugenics has always subscribed to the basic principle that who and what a person is is determined by their genetic code. Thus, good genetic information must be preserved and encouraged while negative genetic information must be weeded out in order to help improve the human species. Eugenecists in the past obviously didn't have access to genetic testing - they had to rely on outward indications like physical looks and intelligence.

Nevertheless, even though the procedures for testing and evaluation differ, eugenics and modern "identity testing" share more fundamental premises in common. Eugenics has been criticized as taking a much too narrow perspective on humanity: opponents have argued that neither a person's genetic heritage nor the immediate, outward expression of their genes is necessarily an indicator of what they might accomplish and what they might do in society. People should, instead, be judged by what they actually do - not by where there once came from.



People seeking to develop an identity by relying upon the discovery of genetic markers in their DNA are doing just the opposite and are instead buying into some of the premises of eugenics. Rather than forging a very personal identity through their own relationships, their profession, and the ideas they develop in their minds, they are looking to attach themselves to a communal identity they can share with others based upon genetic information which is ultimately a dwindling minority of their heritage.

Is that really an identity? I'm not so sure. It seems that when a person pays for genetic testing to see if they show markers which would be common to the Irish or to Native Americans, they are not so much asserting an identity but rather are seeking a group to identify with. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but confusing the two may be.

When a person imagines that a group they are trying to identify with actually constitutes their identity, then they effectively lose themselves in that group. This is the sort of process which fascist and other violent mass movements rely upon in order to gain and control followers, even to the point of having them engage in actions people would never do if they had managed to develop a genuine personal identity independent of group pressures.

Does this mean that people should ignore their genetic heritage and genetic information when attempting to develop a sense of personal identity? Not necessarily, but it would probably be a good idea not to rely upon such genetic information too heavily. Who you are as a person is certainly influenced by your genetics, but it also goes far beyond what genetics can dictate - and even if that weren't true, it is apparent that genetic testing can only provide a very narrow and limited perspective upon your cultural and ethnic background anyway.

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