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  • The Gene / Genealogy Forum: Following the Genetic Trails in Genealogy

    Edwin M. Knights Jr., M.D.

    Published Date : December 18, 2003

    All genealogists share a common trait -- perhaps we are linked by a common gene! That trait, of course, is curiosity. We like to learn about our heritage, perhaps to be able to understand ourselves better or perhaps fathom why our relatives are so weird. The reward for our diligence is knowledge, facts about our ancestors to be shared with others in our family or passed on to future generations. Fortunately for the genealogist, satisfying curiosity becomes ever easier with the proliferation of computer-based databases and websites such as this one, being continually expanded by NEHGS.

    Several years ago the Society made a decision to explore the relationships between genetics and genealogy and to pass on information that might be of value and interest to Society members. The Society has undertaken many ambitious projects during this brief period. At the same time, one cannot read the newspapers or watch television without appreciating that we are being deluged with information about DNA and the applications of its research. The fallout from this new information has had wide repercussions in the area of criminal law, and it is literally revolutionizing the practice of medicine. It has created the new industry of genomics. We live in an exciting era!

    Ralph Crandall feels that the Internet is the proper medium for this subject, as we can discuss breaking news or emerging concepts in a timely manner. And we promise to make every effort to keep things as simple and clear as possible. There is another goal -- this effort should be INTERACTIVE. We need input from our readers -- questions when they have questions and answers when they have answers. All of us could benefit by sharing our experiences with the ever-expanding applications of DNA in genealogy.

    Before plunging into Lake Ligand, however, we feel it is important to see how we came to the shore. It has been a long slow journey, but it helps us appreciate how dramatically our horizons are expanding at the present time. After all, it was as recently as 1733 that Alexander Pope wrote:

    "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
    the proper study of mankind is man."

    One cannot study man without soon coming to the realization that man and his environment are intimately entwined. Although we tend to think of man as being unique in many ways, genetic research (as we will see later) has made us realize how much we share with the fauna and flora around us.

    While various religious beliefs strongly influenced attitudes towards human inheritance, there was slowly emerging evidence centuries ago that plants and animals could evolve with new traits, and by selective breeding, acquire traits which were considered more acceptable or desirable. In the western hemisphere, wild maize was cultivated and better food for humans created. Elsewhere, wolves were generally domesticated into dogs, wild boars into swine. Date-palms were cross-pollinated along the banks of the Nile.

    13,000 Pea Plants Can't Be Wrong
    In the nineteenth century a monk was having considerable difficulty adjusting to monastic life. He was ill at ease dealing with people, even his fellow monks, and eventually they left him to himself, tending his little garden within the monastery walls. He spent eight years growing peas, which couldn't have been very exciting, but then he counted the peas -- over 13,000 of them, which probably would have qualified him for the funny farm if he hadn't come up with a new wrinkle.

    Quite a few wrinkles, in fact. Brother Mendel found he had discovered the secret of producing smooth or wrinkled peas. Mendel gave a talk on his findings to the local scientific society in 1865 and then had a paper published in a recognized journal. It was received with such enthusiasm that is was reviewed and acclaimed by three European botanists -- 34 years later. It was the foundation of modern genetics.

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