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A penny's worth of difference

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 11, 2003

Since its starring role in the trial of O.J. Simpson, DNA's ability to pick a face out of billions past and present and send it to jail is known even to schoolchildren.

What is not so widely known, however, is that most of your DNA -- to the tune of 99.9 percent -- can't tell you from Adam.

Nearly all of your DNA just says you have hands instead of paws, teeth rather than fangs, arms and not wings. Most DNA, almost all of it, just says the frog will never be a prince. It does nothing to distinguish us from one another, just from other species of living things. Nearly all of our DNA merely makes us human.

That remaining .1 percent, though, is loaded with details. In it are the markers that say how tall you're going to be, what diseases you're more vulnerable to, what color your eyes are and a bunch of other stuff that makes you you.

Geneticists have discovered that something else is contained in that overworked .1 percent. By examining it, they can learn the continental origins of your ancestors. Scientists at DNAPrint in Sarasota refined the relatively new technique while investigating ways to improve the information they can provide to law enforcement agencies, one of the major thrusts of the company's business, spokeswoman Carrie Castillo said.

In developing tests that can provide police with a physical description from DNA found at a crime scene, scientists at DNAPrint, in research paralleled at Pennsylvania State University, discovered additional markers that allow them to assign percentages of continental mixture in an individual's ancestry.

Ancestral continental origin, without losing too much to simplification for non-geneticists, means race, the operative principle being that humans are genetically the same except for adaptations made to survive the unique environments presented by different geographical areas.

Those traits, race, are contained in a fraction of that .1 percent of DNA, a negligible amount of the whole. Put another way, if you assign the human body a value of one dollar, then there's much less than a penny's worth of difference between Louis Farrakhan and David Dukes.

So why so much ado about so little DNA? Why do we let a penny's worth of scientific difference override a dollar's worth of commonality?

Because race to us is not a scientific designation. We use it commonly as a political term, an emotional reference, a social classification. In the vast sea of human sameness, that penny's worth of difference has provided us with the most apparent means of indulging our human instinct toward tribalism. We bond with those who look like us; we make enemies of those who don't.

We assign our group virtues while we demonize the others. We want to believe our group is smarter, or more caring, more artistic or athletically gifted, more emotionally stable or sexually endowed. At various times, pseudo-scientists have even stepped into the fray claiming empirical proof of qualitative differences between races. At some point we begin to believe our own myths and often allow that penny's worth of difference to become justification for incalculable harm inflicted on others.

Centuries of those actions have created chasms we will not live to see bridged.

All because of less than a penny's worth of difference.

But as tragic as our rejection of each other on something so scientifically trivial as race, there is a compounding irony:

Over time, that fractional penny has depreciated.

"A lot of the Caucasians who do put in the test discover they have a lot of minority in their ancestry," Castillo, the testing company spokeswoman, said.

At Howard University, Professor Rick Kittles made a similar discovery as he worked on a test that would help black DNA donors determine which region of Africa was their ancestral origin. One participant who came in decked in African finery learned that his father's genes had German roots. Kittles, who also is black, discovered that in addition to his own maternal lineage tracking to Nigeria, his paternal ancestry also led back to Germany.

Over generations of voluntary interracial coupling, miscegenation between masters and slaves, and "passing" (the term used to describe a light-skinned person concealing black parentage and living as if white), the scientific validity of race distinction has become at best muddy.

As experienced by DNAPrint and Professor Kittles, regardless of what shows on the outside, most of us are a composite of races.

There are certainly hooded Klansmen with ancestors who roamed the plains of Sub-Saharan Africa. There are black separatists whose ancestors bounced yodels off the face of the Bavarian Alps.

Kittles said the discovery of the German in his ancestral mix came as no surprise to him and caused him no emotional upheaval, but said it could be traumatic for some people. A white man who has vowed, as some have, that no black person will ever set foot in his house might have trouble coping with the racial mix of people who have been sitting around his dinner table all this time. A black man who calls white people devils may find himself unable to cast out his own demons.

DNAPrint recently began offering its test to the public (at a cost of $319) with a kit that uses a swab taken from the mouth. It has been used primarily as a tool for people doing genealogical research and by adoptees searching for their pasts, Castillo said. Racial origins are a part of the information provided as part of the service.

Kittles predicted that the tests will cause "many people, not only African-Americans, to question their conceptions of race and identity."

That will be a positive effect. Our concepts of who we are, and especially our actions based on who we think we are, could benefit from a shakeup.

When we accept that our belief systems built around race are based on myth and that we may not racially even be who we think we are, we may well be on the way to reversing centuries of human conflict.

Perhaps those backgrounds that have come together so harmoniously in a penny's worth of DNA will finally start to do the same in our multibillion-dollar cities.

To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail

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