Going home, genetically

going home genetically

More than twenty years ago, my then-boss Sharon took a trip to Africa. She took a balloon trip across the Serengeti, and did everything that moderately wealthy people do when they visit Kenya; I think she even stayed at Treetops.



As she showed me the pictures she took there, she said something that echoes in my head to this present day: “It was strange there. It felt familiar. They say our first ancestors came from Africa, and maybe we feel at home there.”



I’ve thought about that statement many times since.



My friend Bill, Irish by descent, spent his honeymoon in Ireland. He visited the Burren in the western part of the country – a strange stark landscape, with limestone moonscapes – which also happened to be the traditional ancestral country of his family. “It was eerie,” he told me. “It was like going home.”



And then there’s me.



Last October Partner and I went to France, and spent four or five days in Normandy. I loved it. It was perfectly wonderful: green fields, grey seashores, tiny fussy villages, narrow streets, ancient farmhouses, medieval ruins.



I felt at home there.



My DNA analysis from 23andme.com tells me that my mother’s DNA stems from Doggerland, a now-submerged country along the North Sea, contiguous with Normandy.



Well, what do you know about that?



My genes felt at home there.

Neanderthal DNA


23andMe.com, the online DNA-analysis company, came back to us with information on our Neanderthal descent. Mine is 2.6 percent; Partner’s is 2.8 percent.

There’s been lots of disagreement about our Neanderthal cousins. They were shorter than us and almost certainly stronger, with heavy brow ridges, and maybe larger brains. But Homo sapiens sapiens somehow swamped them, and now they’re gone.

Except that our H. sapiens sapiens ancestors (evidently) interbred with them.

The Neanderthal genome has been recovered from fossils and compared to the modern human genome. Result: most people of European and Asian descent have at least one percent Neanderthal DNA; some have as much as four percent. (People of pure African descent have none at all, or nearly none.)

It’s fun to think about our caveman ancestry. I even bought the t-shirts that 23andMe offered, with a cute Fred Flintstone-type caveman depicted on them, and Partner’s and my respective percentages printed alongside.

But maybe I’m proud of my Homo sapiens sapiens ancestry too. Maybe I’m proud of all my ancestors, unicellular and multicellular, mammalian and primate. They all had one thing in common: they reproduced, and their offspring lived long enough to reproduce also.

I have not had children in my lifetime, and almost certainly never will. My genome (such as it is) will be lost. But hopefully my nephews and nieces will manage to carry on the odd and unique messages in our family DNA.

I feel like a caveman, thinking about a future I won’t share.

But maybe – just maybe – some fragment of my family inheritance will survive in that future.

Here’s hoping.

Grandpa Narciso Vinci


My mother’s family history was (supposedly) a simple story: an Italian grandfather just off the boat, who married a nice Polish girl. That should make for a nice simple genome, right?

Not so much. According to the 23andMe database, my genome shows similarities to people from Hungary, Finland, and the Czech Republic. I have a small but significant segment of “Balkan” DNA, not to mention a drop of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.

So what happened back in Europe, with my great-grandparents and their forebears?

I know a little about my Polish grandmother Lottie, but almost nothing of my Italian grandfather Narciso. He was dapper and handsome, and he liked posing for the camera – look:


Mom always said he was good with kids; naturally she’d say something like that, but then again, there’s this nice picture of him posing with his kids and stepchildren (I think the one with a bucket on his head is my late uncle Primo):


According to my great-aunt Estelle, Grandpa Narciso was a bit of a dog. He romanced both my grandma Lottie and her sister Julia at the same time; Grandma got pregnant first, so she won the prize (so to speak), and Mom was born a few months after the wedding.

Grandpa Narciso died in a mining accident 1926, when my mother was six years old.

I did a Google search for “Narciso Vinci” the other night, and found his name listed on a website documenting the people buried in the Old Wilkeson Cemetery in Pierce County, Washington State. The website included this note:

Old Wilkeson City Cemetery, Wilkeson, Pierce County, Washington.


(There are two cemeteries at this location. The old Cemetery was

overgrown and all but forgotten; the data is from the old Cemetery only)

Submitted By: Ryan William Wagner as part of his Eagle Scout Project

which included cleaning the headstones and clearing the overgrowth.)

Good for Eagle Scout Ryan William Wagner, for cleaning off my grandfather’s grave and recording his name.



There’s a tree down the street from our apartment building that I always marvel at. It’s a honey locust, which is common enough around here – they plant it as a shade tree frequently on the East Side of Providence.



But this one – this one! – has huge dangerous-looking thorns sticking out of its trunk!



Partner pointed it out to me several years ago. “What the hell is this thing?” he said.



Well, I looked it up. Honey locusts, which are sweet and gentle as city trees, were originally very nastily thorny. They were bred out of it, but now and then they remember.



This is called “atavism”: the reversion to an earlier or more primitive form.



Partner and I did the 23andMe thing, which told us that we had some Neanderthal DNA (but not very much).



I see, however, that some people on line have lots more Neanderthal DNA than we do.



And, on a daily basis, I see a world full of short stocky people with pronounced brow ridges.





Glaucoma and marijuana

glaucoma pic

I’ve told you recently that I have been getting loads of genetic information from 23andme.com. Among other things, I have learned that I have a significantly enhanced chance of developing something called “exfoliative glaucoma.”



I have read several descriptions of this interesting condition. As I understand it, little particles of dead tissues (often described as “dandruff-like”) begin to accumulate within the eyeball. (Actually they accumulate within the “trabecular network,” but let’s not get too technical.) At any rate, your eyeballs turn into miniature snowflake paperweights, full of inert whitish material. This increases the fluid pressure within your eyeballs, and – presto! – glaucoma.



The average chance for developing this charming disease is 0.7 percent. Mine is 2.2 percent. Not huge, but more than triple the average.



This is interesting. There’s no glaucoma in my family that I know of, but we seem to be capable of generating nasty little mutations of our own, so I’m sure the folks at 23andMe.com are not making this stuff up.



So what’s to be done?



Glaucoma is treatable. There are eyedrops, and laser surgery, and other things.



Also there is always medical marijuana.



One of the first uses of medical marijuana was to reduce the fluid pressure in the eyeballs of glaucoma patients. It’s not the most highly-recommended treatment – damn medical research! – but it’s still used in many cases.



And medical marijuana gives you the nicest giggly feeling, and the most tremendous appetite.



Ah well. There are much worse things than glaucoma.




When we were in Caen in October, I saw a little place across from our hotel window: Pizzeria la Neustrie.

Neustria? It rang a faint bell.

I looked it up. Neustria was an area in northern France, back in the late Dark Ages. It was, in fact, most of the northwest of France.

I like thinking of this, even though it’s the memory of a pretty barbaric time. I’ve read Gregory of Tours, and I know that modern France and Germany were a patchwork of principalities and kingdoms in those days, full of petty tyrants and evil queens and benevolent squires. If you didn’t like the area, or the local king or queen, you just put your things in a cart, and rode down the lane a few miles, and you were in someone else’s kingdom.

Of course, this assumes that you were able to leave your home. Most people weren’t. Most people were desperately poor, and unable to leave their homes, even if the local queen was drinking out of a human skull (as I seem to recall Gregory of Tours recounting).

But what’s all this? It’s fifteen hundred years later, and everything seemed quiet and charming when we were there, in Caen and Bayeux and Honfleur and Paris.

And, too, 23andme.com has identified that part of my ancestry comes from Doggerland, which is the land around the English Channel. Which is to say: Neustria.

I am a Neustrian (partly). And proud of it.

Bring me a drink in a human skull.

The ACHOO gene

photic sneeze

Years ago, my mother used to hang her laundry out on the line in our backyard to dry. She wore sunglasses, even in the weak Northwest sunlight, because the sunlight made her sneeze.

It makes me sneeze too. Not every time, but often.

This is the “photic sneeze reflex.” It has a couple of other names, including (seriously) the Autosomal-dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst reflex (ACHOO!), as well as the Peroutka Sneeze Reflex.

Why? I’ve read many explanations over the years. First, it was said that blue-eyed people were prone to this, because (somehow) our pale irises let more light into the eyeball, which was somehow irritating. Well, I’m blue-eyed, so fine. But my mother was brown-eyed. So let’s try again.

How about this one? When you look into bright light, your pupils contract very suddenly. The muscles which control this don’t usually work that fast or that hard, and they twitch. This feels like a tickle inside your nose, and – achoo!

This theory doesn’t hold up experimentally either, apparently.

The reflex appears to be genetic. 23andMe, the genetic-assay project which both Partner and I joined recently, tests for this, and – guess what? – I have the gene.

So it’s genetic. So what?

What else can you think of that’s genetic and caused by sudden exposure to light?

How about epilepsy?

(And this, brothers and sisters, is what genetic research is all about.)

(And – you see? – I’m a mutant after all.)

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