History’s Double Helix

I was pleased to read that a group of scientists has decided to crowdsource some of their genetic research by creating a “Gene Wiki,” where individual contributors can add to gene stubs. The group outlines this structure in their report, “A Gene Wiki for Community Annotation of Gene Function”: “Each gene stub consists of a sidebar detailing the symbols and aliases, external identifiers, gene function (as represented in Gene Ontology), and genomic location.” Normally, I would duly note the development and chalk it up to another example of how the sciences are far more open to collaboration and innovation than the humanities. However, I then read a post by Pearl Duncan detailing how ancestral DNA research is transforming the ways in which some African-Americans pursue their own family’s genealogy and history.

A cursory search shows that Duncan is far from alone in pointing to this trend. The decrease in the costs of genetic analysis in the past two years mirrors a rise in the number of genealogists employing this technology, and in particular African-Americans in uncovering their ancestry. Provided you have enough disposable income, this is a great opportunity for someone to reconnect with their own personal past. For the descendants of slaves, DNA analysis gives voice to a history that has been disproportionately muzzled by the annals of history.

Over the summer of 2006, while I was doing research on Venture Smith, a group of researchers spearheaded the exhumation of his gravesite in East Haddam, CT. Included in this archaeological excavation was an attempt to locate enough DNA material to conduct a full-scale analysis of the man and his family. The efforts garnered international attention (from USA Today and BBC, among others) and were strongly supported by Smith’s descendants. While ultimately unsuccessful in obtaining DNA, the project was a success from an education standpoint.

I would love to see a project that sought to document and analyze an array of historical genetic material. As someone who has not taken a real science class since high school, this is in the realm of pipedream. But imagine being able to see some of the genetic differences between people from different regions and time periods. What if you could compare the genetic make-up of Teddy Roosevelt with a 19th-century Chinese farmer? What if you could map patterns of genetic disease and resistance across space and time, and in turn see how this may have impacted other historical areas?

People continue to have a strong fascination with recreating the past. For the vast majority of armchair history enthusiasts, bringing the past to life (whether through a book, exhibit, TV show, movie, etc.) is the magic that keeps them hooked. The prospect of being able to physically connect with past through genetic analysis fundamentally grips people in a way that a traditional monograph has difficulty achieving - see the continued success of PBS’s History Detectives, just starting its sixth season.

However, there remains a general resistance within the hallowed halls of History to precisely these kinds of non-traditional approaches. It seems that time and time again, the impetus for innovation and collaboration in the field comes from outside the academy - from the genealogists, libraries, museums, and public historians who have rolled up their sleeves and plunged into the fray. When academic historians are finally prodded into reacting to these efforts (instead of contributing to them from the start), the results can often be ugly: see the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemmings debacle in the late 1990’s. As a result, “real” historians who stand on the sidelines lose the valuable chance to bring their unique skills and perspective to the discussion of how technology such as DNA analysis is utilized for historical research.