Monday, July 07, 2014

People and Pedigree

We have a purebred dog...Remy, a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon of excellent pedigree. We also have Kirby, a little shelter dog of much less fancy and much more diverse lineage. Is one dog better than the other? No. They're just different. We mostly knew what we were in for when we brought Remy into our home. He is intelligent, athletic, obsessed with birds and is an absolute clown. He has wiry hair that doesn't shed much, never requires combing and repels burrs like teflon. He is devoted and affectionate and doesn't want to be far from his poeple. He has his own unique personality that is certainly different from our first Griff, Baxter, but he still has these characteristics that are just part of how Griffs are.

With Kirby it has been an ever-unfolding mystery. He pounces on his toys and gives them the "terrier death shake" with aplomb. He is little, but he defends our house with the ferocity of a Rottweiler. He also herds us down the beach as well as any collie and he points at birds (granted, he might have learned the latter from living with a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon most of his life). Kirby is a sort of Renaissance dog with a little Napoleon thrown in.

When it comes to genetics, I am a bit of a mutt within the broad category of Western Europeans. When my ancestors came to seek their fortunes in America (most in the 1600s and 1700s), they had unique cultural and ethnic identities. For a few generations they stayed within their cultures. But by the time my great-grandparents came along, it must have been a lot more accepted to marry outside one's community. An Irishman married a Pennsylvania Dutch German. An Englishman married a French-Canadienne. That's my mom's side. My dad's side stuck a little closer to the "British" ethnic home with marriages among English, Welsh and Scots-Irish. Mind you, my older relatives on the Scots-Irish side were certain to emphasize the "Scots" portion of Scots-Irish -- they were fierce Protestants with a disdain for Catholics. I'm not sure they even knew why, at that point, having lived in Illinois and Iowa for generations, but somehow the old rivalries managed to get carried on along with the stubborn Scottish DNA.

I don't look like I have a pedigree of any certain origin. In North Iowa I grew up with a lot of people who were pure-blood Norwegians and Swedes (think "A Prairie Home Companion: South of the Border Edition"). Many of my friends had blue eyes, blonde hair and names that ended in -son and -sen. I was fascinated by their family traditions and foods like krumkake and lefse. The closest thing we had to a family food tradition was my mother's use of herbs and garlic (French) and my father's British range of food preferences (from brown to white).

So when I got my DNA test back from, I was a little surprised to learn that despite having no known heritage suggesting Nordic ancestry, my DNA tells another story. It says I'm 12% Scandinavian. At first I thought the DNA test must be wrong. Then I got to thinking about where the Vikings landed and my Scottish and English ancestors...(and probably a few Norman ancestors as well). Somehow, that Viking blood managed to make its way through so many generations it landed in me with absolutely no discernible Scandinavian family names as far back as I can trace my family history. How many of those fierce Campbells of Scotland (my tribe of human terriers) got some of that ferocity from the Vikings who landed there? Probably more than a few.

But does DNA matter, really?  Not unless you have some sort of family gene that indicates a susceptibility to a certain disease, and even then, as the science of epigenetics is revealing, even that is not a blueprint, as you can turn on and turn off genes through your environment, your lifestyle and the food you eat, among other things. And those genes can be passed down as well. What your father or grandfather had to eat during his lifetime might have as much or more influence on whether you get diabetes or cancer than the presence of a particular gene would indicate.

In any case, the search for DNA markers that indicate ethnic heritage is an interesting line of study, I think. It's fascinating to me that someone might have, say, an Italian last name, but no measurable amount of DNA markers associated with Italian people. The family name was carried down through the fathers, but the "Italian genes" that went with it got diluted or simply not passed along somewhere in the process of marrying out to a few non-Italians down the line.

This happened with me. Another puzzle in my DNA results was the lack of Irish DNA. My great-grandfather on my mother's side came to the US from Tipperary, Ireland. This we know. We have the records. He is my most recent connection to an old country of any kind. So you'd expect that DNA to be pretty significant in me. We had my mother's DNA tested and she came out 28% Irish. According to the DNA test results, Irish people have a pretty strong set of DNA markers -- a native Irish person has a score of 95% (some others, like English, are more admixed with other ethnicities that have overrun the country at various times...(Vikings, Normans, Romans, etc.) But Irish is one of the most pure ones in terms of recognizable DNA markers. For Mom, whose grandfather came from Ireland, a DNA match of 28% seems pretty expected.

You'd think mine would then be at least 12 to 14%, right?  Nope. 3% Irish. I have more "Iberian Peninsula" (5%) and Italian (4%) than I do Irish, and I have no known heritage from either of those regions. Apparently those Scots-Irish Campbells were so stubborn, even their DNA kicked out the Irishman in my inheritance.

I don't care. I'm still wearing a green shamrock on Saint Patrick's Day, just like Grandpa told me to.

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