DNA Fatigue

Worn out by a nucleotidal wave

BY the time DNA testing finally brought confirmation, or something close to it, a few months ago, most paleoanthropologists had already come around to the view that Neanderthal people, though humanoid and sentient and perhaps even sentimental, were not direct ancestors of modern human beings but instead represented a side branch and an evolutionary dead end. Still, the genetic investigation was remarkable. Scientists first extracted an uncontaminated sequence of DNA from the original Neanderthal skeleton, a fossilized specimen discovered in Germany in 1856. They then compared that sequence with corresponding sequences in Homo sapiens. Because genetic mutations build up naturally within any species over time, at a rate that can be estimated, comparing parallel DNA sequences yields a snapshot of genetic closeness or distance. The comparison also allows an estimate of the date when related species began to diverge. In the case of the Neanderthals and us, according to DNA tests the two phyla began to separate 600,000 years ago. Despite the suspicions that we all entertain, little or no interbreeding appears to have occurred.

Shortly after learning about the Neanderthals, I happened to watch an installment of the CNN public-affairs program Crossfire, and a question came idly to mind. Might there be some way, analogous to the methods used in biology, to evaluate the buildup of mutations in the cultural sphere? The distinguished hosts of the Crossfire installment were John Sununu, a former chief of staff to the President of the United States, and Geraldine Ferraro, a former Democratic nominee for the office of Vice President, and on this day Sununu and Ferraro had as a guest the model-actor-caretaker-opportunist Kato Kaelin, with whom they discussed the difficulty of finding a buyer for O. J. Simpson's house in Los Angeles. (Sununu: "Kato Kaelin, you lived in this facility. You know these are supposedly great buildings with beautiful grounds, pool and all. How come nobody bid?" Kaelin: "Well, I think it's the way they did it, John.") I would be interested in knowing what the genetic analysis of a sequence from this improbable program would reveal. Is it culturally of a piece with the larger continuum -- showing somehow an evolutionary affinity, despite some mutations, with samples extracted from Austen, Disraeli, and Kant? Or are the mutations significant enough as to indicate a parallel but distinct phylum, one that split off sometime prior to the Renaissance, say, or even prior to development of the prehensile thumb?

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No doubt we'll never know -- and perhaps we should be grateful. Fascinating as genetic analysis can be, I must confess to increasingly frequent episodes of what might be called DNA fatigue -- a kind of irritable lassitude brought on by DNA's prominent involvement in almost everything. Deoxyribonucleic acid, the blueprint of life, enjoys the status of truth serum and Delphic oracle, judge and jury, architect and master builder, talisman and philosopher's stone. It brooks no argument. "Evidence from archaeology and palaeontology is seldom clear-cut," an editorial writer observed in the journal after the Neanderthal findings were published, "whereas DNA research seems to provide unequivocal answers." Medieval mystics professed an awesome wonder at seeing the hand of God apparent in all things -- in the concourse of the cosmos, a blade of grass, the evanescence of a snowflake, the breath of a gnat. The sin these mystics had to fight, commentators say, was weariness at all the reminding.

The reminders of DNA are no less constant. Jurassic Park. Dolly the sheep. Almost any publicized criminal trial. Exhumations to obtain telltale genetic fingerprints now seem to take place every other week. Jesse James has been dug up for this purpose, as has the possibly innocent convicted murderer Sam Sheppard. DNA analysis was employed to confirm that bones found in a shallow grave in Ekaterinburg, Russia, were those of Czar Nicholas II and his family, executed in 1918. Potential claimants have raised the prospect of exhuming DNA from the rock star Jimi Hendrix and from the Argentine dictator Juan Peron, in each case with a view to establishing paternity. Queen Victoria remains a target of investigators, because the genetic source of the hemophilia she passed on to her descendants has never been satisfactorily explained. (There is no record of hemophilia in her parents' families, and some speculate that her mother may have taken a lover. If Victoria was illegitimate, researchers say, the British monarch today should be Prince Ernst August of Hanover, the grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II.)

The relevance of DNA testing is nearly boundless. It led not long ago to the realization that an expanse of mushrooms in Michigan covering some forty acres was in fact a single organism -- a fungus, mostly underground, that weighs upwards of a hundred tons. Textual archaeologists are hoping that DNA from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written on animal skins, can help to match up hundreds of orphaned fragments. In France and England investigators have used DNA testing of mass populations to find criminal suspects who match the evidence in hand. Genetic tests now exist to predict almost 500 medical conditions. As is well known, DNA has also been implicated in predispositions ranging from sadness and shyness to aggressiveness and novelty-seeking.

A novelty-seeking gene would help to explain the emergence of DNA kitsch. People have been carrying DNA around for millions of years, usually without even knowing it; now one can display one's DNA in amulet form. A mail-order company called Third Millennium Research, in Seattle, will for $55 stabilize and preserve a sample of DNA obtained from a person's skin cells and send the sample back in a glass capsule. "Pass your unique collection of genes on to the future," the company's brochure advises. There is no reason to restrict the procedure to one's own genetic blueprint. The biochemist Kary Mullis, a pioneer in the science of DNA manipulation and the winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1993, last year announced plans to sell a limited-edition pocket watch containing the DNA of Abraham Lincoln (from a lock of hair). If this prototype proves successful, the line might be expanded to include jewelry with DNA from Einstein, Elvis, Fred Astaire, and Napoleon.

So far DNA investigation has remained primarily in the hands of adults. But proliferation is only a matter of time. In the small town where I live -- and my town can hardly have taken the lead -- a number of parents this summer sent their children away to something called DNA Camp, where a biotechnician imparted skills and knowledge that most adults will never possess. As part of the camp experience the campers compared DNA and proteins extracted from store-bought chicken nuggets with DNA and proteins extracted from store-bought chicken parts. "The students discovered," according to a terse account of one experiment published in the local newspaper, that "while some of the proteins from the two samples matched up, there were some additional, mystery proteins in the nuggets."

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For all the insights that DNA provides, does it ever warm the heart? The only case that comes to mind is that of Cheddar Man, a 9,000-year-old skeleton found a century ago in a cave near the village of Cheddar, in England, and now reposing in boxes at London's Natural History Museum. A genetic assay recently determined that Cheddar Man is the direct ancestor of a forty-two-year-old schoolteacher named Adrian Targett, who was born just a few miles from the cave, and whose family has lived in the Cheddar area for, well, generations.

Cheddar Man's family saga is an uplifting affirmation of the possibility of stasis in the face of corrosive change. But stories like his will do little to deflect the backlash against DNA -- against what the philosopher Philip Kitcher calls "genetalk" -- that for a variety of reasons seems sure to come. Many people are already perturbed by the determinism that genetics can imply, many others by the invitation to tampering or misuse. More numerous by far, I suspect, are the ranks of those afflicted simply with some stage of DNA fatigue.

It is not incurable. One person I know has sought to banish all considerations of DNA from ordinary life in favor of what he calls the "baked-potato paradigm" of human biomass, which holds that thinking of people as consisting of a firm but indistinguishable pulp, rather than as a variegated amalgam of nucleotides, will actually get one through most days just fine. I have seen the baked-potato paradigm win immediate converts whenever it has been explained (although a few observers worry that the concept of DNA may sneak back in through the idea of "toppings"), and have come to appreciate its utility and its simplicity.

Another response to DNA fatigue might be to set aside large tracts of genetic ignorance as wilderness preserves. The ancients understood that too much knowledge could actually impede human functioning -- this at a time when the encroachments on global nescience were comparatively few. Today ignorance preserves would be valuable not only as crucial reservoirs of psychodiversity but also as sources of solace and replenishment for those beset by an ever-increasing burden of knowledge and insight.

Does the baked-potato paradigm have a future? Should the need for a Terra Incognita National Wilderness Area be emphasized in public schools? I look forward to hearing the discussion among Geraldine, Kato, and John.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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