Moment Editor Nadine Epstein on Jews and Genes

December, 05 2012

“There is no hiding from DNA research; it is one of the forces of our time.”

— Moment Magazine editor and published Nadine Epstein, quoted in Tudor Parfitt’s new book.

Nadine Epstein, who has written extensively about DNA, including “King David’s Genes” in Moment’s March/April 2012 issues, will be talking about with geneticist Harry Ostrer TONIGHT at 7:30 pm at the DCJCC as part of the Moment Magazine Salon Series. Here, she shares her thoughts on the intersection of religion, genetics, and the human fascination with DNA.

I am a huge fan of DNA research. I am hungry for what I can learn from it, both about my genetic makeup in terms of health, and what I can learn about genealogy. As someone who has labored hard and long to trace my lineage back even three or four generations, DNA has helped fill in holes that genealogical work couldn’t and led to the discovery of relatives i would never have found. As someone with a parent who late in life developed what could be a genetic disease,  the clues DNA analysis has provided have been helpful.  Even the variants/mutations I carry have led to a deeper genealogical understanding. All around, the new knowledge has enriched my life and those of others around me.

Still,  I hesitate to say this new lens through which to see our ancestors genes is an all-around win win for civilization. We are just at the start of this new science and soon the lens will sharpen and broaden, providing us with perhaps more information than we can wisely use.

What will we do with the knowledge suddenly unveiled and no longer shrouded by the mists of time? What if we can with little doubt trace ourselves back to the greats of the past,  but there exists an all too human fascination with lineage? (In Jewish world the word used is yichus.)

For millennia some families have held onto notion of descent from long ago figures,creating dynasties of all kinds—political, banking, rabbinical, etc. Yet descent is no guarantee of future behavior or even an indicator in a world where men and women and judged on their merits, something long-fought for and worth all the effort. All of us are descended from both the great and the non great and Millions are descended from prolific breeders such as powerful leaders such as King David and Genghis Kahn. Given human nature, are we in danger of strengthening old elites and creating new ones based on increasing knowledge of the past? I hope not. Human life is a march to the future, that is progress. and needs to remain so.

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