Friday, August 13, 2010

The Genetic Strand

The Genetic Strand is a lot of things: the memoirs of a man who wants to reconnect with his family history, an examination of Southern culture and family life in the nineteenth century, a science lesson in DNA and forensics, and a challenge of the exalted status of that science.

Ball became inspired to look into his family history after he moved to Charleston, S.C., where much of his ancestry sprung from. He had spent his childhood in various places around the South and recently spent ten years working in New York, which tagged him as an outsider among his extended family. Ball purchased a desk from an elderly cousin in an effort to reconnect and found a secret compartment containing strands of preserved hair as well as the names and ages of those they belonged to. Curious, Ball decided to have the hair tested by DNA specialists, and he ended up learning a lot more and less than he thought he would. One result indicated his family, with its white, southern aristocratic legacy, might have ties to Native Americans and African Americans (which, Ball ultimately learns, it didn't).

The big problem is the book's structure. After the opening chapter in which Ball describes how he came across the desk and hair samples, I expected a more linear path, we would follow him chronologically across his search and learn as he did. Instead, Ball presents the material more like the findings of a study than a narrative, and the organization feels random. Ball jumps around from the science to sociology to history that it's easy to get lost at times. For example, Ball will go from explaining a concept of DNA science to an brief biography of a scientist he interviewed to a summary of an ancestor's life without much transition.

The science is interesting at times, but too often, it feels like a dry lecture. Ball explains some concepts and vocabulary in layman's terms, but it gets overwhelming at times and easy for the reader's attention to wander. In addition, according to several reviews on and other sources, there are several inaccuracies. One reviewer named Margot from North Carolina notes how Ball describes accurately how the hair samples might still contain mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which passes from mother to child, but then he proposes an idea of how a daughter of an Indian father might have passed on native genes, which wouldn't be possible through mtDNA as he implies. In another review, Suzanne Amarra (a top 100 reviewer) contradicts Ball's assertion that Queen Victoria was a carrier of hemophilia, but rather, her kind of hemophilioa was X linked, a "big difference."

In addition, Ball devotes most of the final chapter going after what he believes is the deification of DNA science. Ball asserts we shouldn't put our blind trust in a science still in its relatively early stages and it shouldn't be the end-all be-all. That is an admirable stance to take, but other reviewers pointed out that DNA testing's limits are pretty well known and Ball shouldn't rail against DNA for not getting the answers he hoped for when he should have known he wouldn't. I take issue with Ball because after getting one test indicating there might be Indian blood in his heritage, he learns from subsequent tests that probably isn't the case, so he calls in the reliability of DNA testing. That is science: repeatedly testing a hypothesis to see if it's duplicated (even Ball notes that part).

While the science is confusing and misleading at times, the history and sociology included is far more successful. Using the hair as a springboard, Ball learns much about his family history: marriages, deaths, plantations, mercury and lead poisoning (because of the type of dishes used), Civil War experience, etc. It's a little banal because Ball doesn't recreate any scenes; he summarizes. I liked the poem by Isaac Ball, a Civil War veteran who emerged physically unscathed but was scarred emotionally. Another Isaac Ball (born in 1785) and his wife Eliza were the ones who began collecting hair of their children after two of them died of malaria, and it was those deaths that changed Isaac from a man brought up in vanity and privilege into someone more morose until he died as well.

It was also fascinating to learn why some people collected hair. In that time, the only representation of people available was a portrait or statue, very expensive expenditures. Lock of hair were intended as cheap keepsakes. That all changed after 1850 with the appearance of photography. And it was also an interesting sociology lesson to find out why so many people in southern aristocracy practiced endogamy, or marrying within the family. Ball learns between 1750 and 1900, twelve sets of cousins married in his family tree. This was done both because of the limited number of potential partners (couldn't marry blacks, Indians, Jews, Catholics, immigrants, shopkeepers, or people who worked with their hands) and to ensure money remained within the family. As a result, many people of this lifestyle were nonchalant about marriage; it was something they knew would happen.

The Genetic Strand is more interesting in parts than as a whole. The starting point is great, but the structure is confusing, and the science is suspect. Fortunately, the family and social history carries interest through to the end, even if they work better as self-contained pieces rather than as an overall narrative.

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