When Nara Milanich wrote Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father—a history of the scientific, legal, and social conceptions of fatherhood in Western civilization—she wasn’t expecting that her publicity tour would be full of interviewers asking her whether she’s done 23andMe. And, truth be told, she’s not that into the question.
Of course people ask. The direct-to-consumer DNA-testing kits are the latest and trendiest technological development relevant to her subject matter. But given the history she’s just written about how sensitive, fraught, and complicated the subject of biological provenance is, Milanich is particularly attuned to how the question of whether someone has done 23andMe could be an intensely invasive one. People are asking whether she’s spent $99 and sent in a swabbed sample of her saliva to find out whether the family she’s always understood to be her family is genetically related to her or not. The next time it happens, Milanich told me as we sat in her office, in the history department of Barnard College, “I’ve decided I’m going to turn it back on them and say, ‘Have you?’”
Paternity traces the long history of how society got here, to a place where biological paternity is a patently knowable fact that’s apparently fair game to ask a stranger about. As Milanich explains in the book, certainty of biological paternity is a relatively new concept in the long arc of human history. Though it’s been known for centuries that every person has one biological father, the notion that this biological father could be determined by science first broke through in the early 20th century. Milanich’s book illustrates in detail how paternity testing became both a useful tool and a powerful weapon, depending on whose hands the technology landed in. As she pointed out when we spoke, the history of paternity testing may provide valuable clues as to the potentially huge consequences of DNA testing’s swift proliferation as a consumer product.