Sunday, May 25, 2008

Blog 2: You Look Just Like...

In genealogy we can determine who are grandparents and earlier ancestors were even if they died before we were born and we know little or nothing about them. We do, however, share a measure of their genes and that can be determined by today’s technology. I once heard a grandnephew of Herbert Hoover speak at Stony Brook’s medical school and he looked remarkably like our former president. I also once knew a lady my wife and I visited who had an oil painting of one of her direct ancestors that was painted in Germany in the eighteenth century. Once again there was a remarkable similarity in appearance. But I have also gone to weddings where biological siblings are so different they would be taken for strangers. As a geneticist this makes sense because some genes are passed on and others get shuffled and are not passed on to a descendant. We actually have few experimental or scientific studies of the passing on of facial features – like shape of ears, nose, lips, and other characteristics that are often familial. Part of that paucity comes from an unfortunate use of human pedigrees in the 1920s and 1930s when it was used to justify a spurious belief in the heredity of social failures. After World War II ended and eugenics effectively died, so too did attempts to publish essentially normal human traits. Would a new attention to such normal features risk a return to “social traits” associated with failure and thus resurrect the biases of the old eugenics?

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