Spitting in a vial or swabbing your cheek and then sending it off for DNA testing is frequently done with casual curiosity. People are often excited about the prospect of digging into their genealogical past. Television shows like PBS’s Finding Your Roots and stories from friends and neighbors who’ve discovered new cousins across the country or traced their ancestors back to exotic locations only enhance the allure.
The genetic testing market has exploded in just a couple decades to include tens of millions of people’s genetic fingerprints. Libby Copeland in The Lost Family, calls the people pulled into the world of DNA testing “seekers.” She writes, “They are people obsessed with figuring out just what’s in their genes.” Curiosity and sense of identity fuel the seekers. Because it’s so easy — and fun — those who send off their DNA don’t always fully understand the ramifications of figuring out the stories in our genes. People can find truths they aren’t prepared for; they can uncover secrets that might be more painful than surprising. Copeland presents riveting examples that span the spectrum of what DNA testing can yield. Some people find relatives who fit into their life like a missing puzzle piece. Others find relatives who wish they hadn’t been found. Mistakes have been made, too; found relatives turn out to be unrelated after all.
Tracing the history of DNA testing, Copeland takes the reader to the first DNA testing company’s headquarters in Houston. She shares a rare tour of the biggest DNA testing company in Utah, where she also spent time in the archives at the biggest genealogical library in the world.
The thread woven through the book is the story of Alice, a tech-savvy seeker who discovers that her father wasn’t who he thought he was. He was told that he was an orphan of Irish descent, adopted and raised in a Catholic family. But when Alice’s DNA comes back showing that her heritage is half Ashkenazi Jewish, she commits to discovering how that could have happened. The story has all the elements of a great mystery, full of seeming dead-ends and unexpected plot twists.
Even if someone hasn’t personally spit in a tube and sent it off, this deeply-reported and well-written book matters. It’s very likely that enough of all of our relatives have done so that anyone can be found using a process of “triangulation.” This method is how DNA has led to apprehensions in a number of cold criminal cases. It also has serious consequences for privacy that few of us have fully considered.
Copeland writes, “This is the story of the seekers, who are grappling with questions about identity. What makes us who we are?” Whole generations are now able to ask the kinds of questions they never expected they’d be able to answer. The Lost Family ably puts those questions in context.
Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a science writer living in Austin, Texas and the author of Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. Her book on the future of coral will be published in 2021.