The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA Hardcover – Nov 6 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Some locks of hair found in the secret compartment of a family heirloom was the catalyst for Ball, a National Book Award winner for Slaves in the Family, to embark on a genetic family history. He became animated with the thought that through DNA analysis of the hair he could discover some truths about his Ball ancestry, such as whether his father's maternal grandmother, Kate Fuller, was part African-American. As he relates his experiences with various DNA labs, Ball also describes the hard science behind DNA forensics, informed by conversations with experts in the field. But the account's drama comes from a finding that suggests a Native American ancestor in his family tree. Another lab contradicts this evidence, and the error affects Ball profoundly, leading him to rail about the fallibility of science, the dangers of making science the new religion and scientists, specifically molecular biologists, the new priests. Forensic DNA testing has become hot (exemplified by Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s televised testing results), and as Ball's own emotions show, is also playing into Americans' sense of identity. Ball's tale will intrigue America's many amateur genealogists and also serve as a cautionary tale. (Nov. 6)
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"Powerful...Ball contributes to at least partly reclaiming the humanity slavery worked to obliterate. He reminds us that slavery was not just about economics or politics or even abstract questions of morality but most essentially about the millions of human beings imprisoned within its chains." -- Drew Gilpin Faust, The New York Times Book Review
"Ball is a first-rate scholar-journalist.... Outside Faulkner, it will be hard to find a more poignant, powerful account of a white man struggling with his and his nation's past." -- Shane Harrison, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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When Ball finds a collection of family hair in an old family desk, he wonders what the hair can tell him about the past. He explains that a DNA analysis of human hair is limited to the mitochondiral DNA, which he correctly notes is passed from mother to child. The mtDNA can only tell about a person's ancestors along the female line - child to mother to mother's mother, and so on. Ball seems to understand this, until a final suggestion he makes (p.104) in explaining what appears at that time to be a Native American ancestor in his family tree. He asks, "Could a Huguenot woman have become pregnant from a rape, and, afterward, decided to keep the girl? Twenty years later, this hypothetical daughter would have been marriageable, and with her mother's help, she might have found a way to navigate society. She might have been the strand of Indian DNA smuggled into the white stream." Since mtDNA is inherited only from the mother, this would not be possible. This hypothetical half-Native American girl would have had mtDNA from her white mother. DNA from her Native American father would only be found in her cellular DNA.
In another section of the book, Ball offers a few examples of studies of the Y-chromosome and human behavior, where researchers look at topics such as how often those who have the same British surname also carry a distinctive genetic marker on the Y-chromosome. Ball also mentions a similar study where the Y-chromosomes of self-identified members of the Jewish priestly lineage (Cohan)are examined for a distinctive genetic marker. In explaining this, Ball confuses the priestly lineage with the profession of the rabbi. He says that "...paternal descent from a rabbi has always been the method by which male Jews enter the clergy,"(p. 174). The priestly lineage has nothing to do with whether or not someone can become a rabbi. Some rabbis have ancestors who are rabbis, but this is roughly similar to a doctor's son becoming a doctor. When someone wants to become a rabbi he (or sometimes she) embarks on a program of study followed by ordination. The Jewish priesthood was chiefly of importance in ancient times, when worship was centralized on the Temple in Jerusalem. Membership in the priestly lineage is conferred by descent from a male who is himself in that lineage. Because there are a few limited situations in Jewish religious life where a Cohan (member of the priestly lineage) is needed, those who identify as members of this lineage usually pass on the knowledge to their children. It is surprising that Ball is so naive that he thinks that all rabbis are members of the priestly lineage, and even more surprising that his editors allowed such an error to remain in the book.
Sadly, Ball takes an interesting idea, and writes a poorly organized book with a number of misleading and confusing errors.
One of the deep, dark, secrets of American genealogy is the amount of admixture to be found in most people. There is no such thing as a "pure" Indo-European, Sub-Saharan African, or Native American, though many still maintain that they are racially homogeneous. On the other hand, many who have done a little reading and a little experimenting with DNA research themselves tend to make the assumption that the science is so crystal clear that all the answers are right there, ready to be cheek swabbed and analyzed. Ball does a good job of demonstrating that both assumptions are false. His research indicated possible Native American and Sub-Saharan African ancestry mixed in with his "Nordic" Ball genes, then later indicated that such ancestry might not exist after all. The hair samples sometimes yielded much information, but often remained frustratingly silent. In chronicling his research into his family's past history Ball also gives a good overview of the science behind DNA research, making sense of highly technical terms and jargon so that general readers can get a better sense of what actually takes place in DNA analysis.
As a genealogist with a Southern family background very similar to Ball's, I enjoyed reading his stories about his ancestors and his quest to learn more about their racial makeup. One of my great-grandmothers made a collection of hair from herself and her husband and oldest son which I now possess, so I was interested in reading Ball's history of this nineteenth century custom and how he made use of it. I have also had my own DNA analyzed and learned some intriguing things about my own ancestry. In my case, a family legend that a great-great-great-grandmother had been a full-blooded Cherokee Indian was disproved when my mitochondrial DNA, which I inherited from her, proved to be of European origin.
Ball has done a good job of making a highly technical science understandable and, more importantly, of demonstrating that that science is still in its infancy and capable of error and uncertainties. His book should be read by anyone considering having DNA research done or by anyone interested in this new and fascinating area.
However, the promise pretty quickly fades away. There are no really interesting results from the hair that hold up, and I get the feeling that the author therefore had to use a lot of filler---long long disgressions about various scientists at the labs he goes to, detailed scientific descriptions which, while informative, don't really fit in with the rest of the book, and then various DNA tests on living family members in order to somehow find SOMETHING interesting.
The most jarring problem with the book for me was the scientific inaccuracies. I have a strong interest in genetics, but am certainly a layman on the topic, but I know the kind of hemophilia that Queen Victoria was a carrier for was NOT a recessive kind, but rather X linked, a huge difference. There are a couple other mistakes of this kind here and there, which always makes me wonder about the parts of the book I am not sure of the facts about---are they correct or not?
The most interesting parts of the book for me were the old family stories. The author has an interesting family past, and he is a good writer overall---I wish he had just written a family history that perhaps had the genetic testing as a small part of the story.
There you have it. That's pretty much the whole book. Now, I HAVE spared you:
* Tortured musings about what it all means
* Opaque explanations of all the science involved
* Long, convoluted descriptions of the kin and how they're all related
* Boring, shallow descriptions of the modern-day people involved (scientists, relatives), mostly focusing on predictable things like height, hair, clothes
* An oddly subdued, rather flattened style that seems to take the air out of everything
The author really seems to be making a living out of this ancestry thing. Now, it may have worked for Slaves in the Family (Ballantine Reader's Circle), but it definitely doesn't work here. Promising topic, but almost no real development.
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