From the discovery of the double helix in 1953 to the mapping of the human genome in 2003, our understanding of the biology that makes us who we are has never been greater.
If the 20th century cracked the code of life, the 21st is bringing it out of laboratories and into our homes. Although it cost $2.7 billion to sequence the human genome in 2003, today, many direct-to-consumer genetic tests sell for less than $100. At prices like that, no wonder millions have used DNA tests offered by companies like Ancestry and 23andMe to learn about both their family history and potential health risks. The trend shows no sign of slowing down. Industry experts predict the global genetic testing market will exceed $22 billion by 2024.
Along with information about individual genes and ancestors’ origins, these DNA tests give some users the most precious gift of all: family. Inspired by a film about identical triplets separated at birth, Michele Mordkoff, an adoptee, took a genetic test to learn about her own birth family. She never expected the results to lead her to a twin sister living across the country; their heartwarming reunion was captured in a short documentary. Of the experience, Mordkoff said, “We missed out on what sisters should’ve had together, but that being said, we have each other now for future times together and happy occasions and [to] support each other.” DNA testing has given Mordkoff and countless others the crucial sense of identity and connection that come from being part of a family.
However, what genetic tests give, they can also take away. As author Dani Shapiro chronicled in her latest book, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, the results of her own DNA test—showing that the man she had always considered her father was not her biological father—undid 54 years of assumptions about her identity. She remarked in an interview, “Everything that I knew myself to be was that I’d come from my parents, from our ancestors…First there was the shock and disbelief that goes along with a traumatic discovery, but this was, in fact, my story—the story that had always been behind the other stories.”
Both Mordkoff and Shapiro’s experiences attest to the prominent role of genetics in shaping our sense of self and our place in the world. However, it’s far from the only factor. In a recent essay, author Kaitlyn Greenidge explored her family’s unique history, much of it unknowable solely through genetic tests. “A DNA test…would not tell me anything about one of the enduring stories in my family, that my great-grandfather helped to found schools for his people at the turn of the last century and was forced to leave North Carolina when his entire town was burned to the ground, presumably by people who disliked the town’s organizing.”
Greenidge suggested it was this knowledge, along with other equally powerful stories about her ancestors’ lives, that laid the foundation for a meaningful connection to her heritage. Instead of fixating on the physical characteristics inherited from her ancestors, she asked, “What if we mapped the strengths passed down, for the things that helped our ancestors survive in a hostile world? Isn’t that an echo of what we are looking for when we try to determine which tribe in West Africa we may have come from, which kin group we might claim? Sometimes we’re looking in our blood for a map from our ancestors, when it has always been here, in how we talk to and love one another.”
Research in psychology has provided at least one answer to Greenidge’s insightful question. Author Bruce Feiler detailed the results of studies showing “the more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” For a myriad of reasons, it’s imperative that we help our children and grandchildren develop this “strong intergenerational self” by sharing with them the experiences that changed our lives and the lives of those who came before us.
Telling these stories is more challenging than spitting in a vial and sending it off to a lab. However, by taking part in bioGraph’s life-writing process, you gain a partner in preserving your family’s legacy for future generations. Our approach to storytelling is holistic, weaving together detailed interviews, family photographs and treasured heirlooms to create meaningful and entertaining narratives customized for your family’s needs.
Maybe you want to share your great-grandmother’s harrowing journey across an ocean to start a new life. Or, perhaps it’s important your family not forget how your father lost his business during the Great Depression, only to dust himself off and thrive in a new line of work. Inspiring stories like these open the lines of communication about subjects not usually discussed around the dinner table; at the same time, an engaging style resonates with each generation so the messages hit home. bioGraph strikes this delicate balance for each of our clients.
We pass along our genes to our children, but it’s just as important to gift them our family’s narrative. bioGraph is here to help you tell the stories that shaped your journey through good times and bad—stories which have the power to do the same for those who follow.