Thus Spake Zuska

Technology and Genealogy

What makes you a member of family, or a citizen of a nation? Over at Sciencewoman, Alice reports on a session she attended at this year’s NWSA conference:

In a session on the technologies of citizenship, Banu Submramaniam of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst talked about the developing practice of doing DNA maps to understand your heritage, and then linked into a discussion about how caste is argued by some activists as analogous to race, and then DNA scientists go in to study caste with no sociological or historical theorization of what it means.

It’s all very interesting to me, especially in light of an article in the recent issue of Seed.

The article (which I do not think is available online) is “Inheriting Confucius”. Its subject is the effort currently underway to complete the fifth major revision of Confucius’s family tree. This time, it’s not just all about the men; “women, ethnic minorities, and other previously excluded groups will be able to contribute their genealogies.” Yay!

The main point of the article, however, is that DNA will not be used in preparing or verifying the genealogies. The reasons given are several. Conservatism: traditionally, genealogy relies on records and documentation. Genetic genealogy is not as popular in China as it is in the Western world, because those interested in genealogy are likely to be the most traditional and conservative. Cost: completing the project would cost 100 times more using DNA.

And there’s one more reason. Records and documentation can contain lies. If you want to demonstrate an unbroken chain of male heirs to Confucius, it’s possibly that now and then “adoption and even deceit” are going to creep in. That, of course, raises the question I posed at the beginning: what makes you a member of a family? Is it only DNA? Can you only be descended from someone if you share their genes? Or is there a sense in which cultural inheritance is significant, too? Some say that DNA testing can help to authenticate the genealogy – but what is authentic in this case?

I am sure that adopted children – and their parents – would have something to say about the idea of family, inheritance, and authenticity. Clearly, an adopted son somewhere along the line in the Confucian genealogy is not going to share in the genes for Confucius’s eye color or blood type. But the other, cultural, inheritance is surely theirs to claim. The question is how much value you place on blood – on DNA – and in the case of the Confucian genealogy, it seems the Chinese take the view that DNA is not the be-all and end-all.

Bryan Sykes, professor of human genetics at Oxford University, is quoted in the Seed article as saying “The Confucius family tree has an enormous cultural significance. It’s not just a scientific question.” The Seed article ends this way:

Han Dong-hui, a professor at the Bejing-based Renmin University, argues that the cultural importance of Confucius – and the role his apparent descendants play in his resurgent veneration – means it is not a perfect window into the Chinese public’s feelings toward science. But perhaps it is: Given the potential implications of genetic knowledge for long-presumed members of the Kong family, they think it better not to know. And so, in this case, science takes a back seat.

Does science really take a back seat here? Certainly social science must be at play in revising the genealogy. It’s not like people are just making it up. I’m guessing plenty of science and technology are involved in handling and processing all the information that’s been gathered. What takes a back seat is not science, but DNA, and that’s a reasonable thing to do in this case. It’s frustrating to see being scientific conflated with using DNA technology. Choosing not to avail ourselves of the information DNA offers is not a choice to be unscientific. Understanding ourselves only or primarily through DNA is not our only option. The Confucius genealogy is not purely scientific, but it’s not only cultural; it’s a hybrid that is too complex for DNA technology alone to comprehend.

By the way, the author of the piece is Jane Qiu, who I think may be this person.