Meaning, Time and the Cages We Make for Ourselves

Continued from Time and the Search for Meaning in DNA.

What is the Meaning of This!

I want to take a moment to talk about meaning and how we add value to the information we find. One of the first questions a person will ask about DNA results is “What does this mean?”.  You will see it over and over again; “I have results xyz what does that mean?”.

Searching for meaning and finding patterns is a very human activity. I think that we can’t help it. It’s part of our human condition and if we caught someone not doing it, we’d feel there was something wrong with them. We always want to know how or why something happened and from those things we construct “meaning”. We find the significance and make choices or cement ideas based on it.

Here is an example outside of the world of DNA, a 36 year old woman dies. Is it enough that she is dead? No, people will want to know why or how she died so that they can find the meaning in it for themselves. Heart attack? Oh, she was younger than me! How could she die of heart attack?! We need to evaluate the circumstances of her death by comparing it to ourselves.

Now let’s make it a 79 year old man who dies. I’ve been around enough older people to know that it’s not a shock that 79 year old people die, but you will still hear the same questions. How did he die? We need to know the cause, even if the cause is “old age”. Even when the death is inevitable, we learn the hows and whys and we create meaning for ourselves. Even if the only idea we get from it is “well, what can you do? Everyone dies eventually”.

In the same way, we evaluate everything that happens in life, whether it directly involves us or not, we take in the information and apply it locally. The more closely we associate the people involved with ourselves, the more likely we are try to assimilate the information and find meaning or significance.

Extreme Examples of Information Significance

What is significant to me, may not be to you.

I’m going to go to a dark place, but I think it will illuminate how I..or we, as humans, look for significance. Some of it is based on our mental difference engine. The thing in our heads that classifies people into us and them (for reference here is an article from 2015 that includes some functional M.R.I testing for areas of the brain that light up when others are in pain). I’ll also include a clip from the great PBS series “The Brain” for some studies they did on “in groups” and “out groups” and how we respond to them.

hand with needle poking it

From the PBS series the Brain

I have included those examples on empathy to show how we process information about people at a basic level, really without thinking on it too much. Of course, I’m not talking about empathy or pain here in this post, but integration of information and it’s relevance to myself. I think how I process different groups of people becomes important when I consider scientific evidence that I have DNA from an “out group” while all my genealogical knowledge contains “in group” members.

Outing Myself on Out Groups

Is it easy for an Indo-European like myself, with French ancestry in the 1800s, to apply the information on the recent Paris terrorist attacks to me? Even with a language barrier, the visual queue of Europeans and the cultural queues are still there and they have me instantly placing myself or my kids being gunned down at a theater by gun toting maniacs.

Is it slightly harder to get a grip on what is happening to the Syrian Refugees? Clearly, I understand people fleeing for their lives. Who doesn’t get that? Still, I have to say “yes”, it seems a bit more foreign to me, visually, I still see my cousins, who kind of look like me, struggling, but without some clear cultural or local tie to Syria the pain is more distant and different.

Is it just that much harder for me to assimilate the attacks on students in Kenya? Just as I struggle to be the African that I am, that we all are? How does it make me feel to have students in Kenya killed for the same reasons, by the same groups? Do I make the connection to myself? I have been a student. Is that enough for me to feel their pain?

Now make one of those students who were murdered a visiting European student on exchange. How does the story change for me? How does the significance change? Is it easier to apply it locally? For me, I think (unfortunately) the answer is yes.

Kenya muslims

In the examples of empathy and my reactions to terrorism, you can see  that I (and I think various studies show that most people) tend to find more significance in information and events if the other parties involved are part of the “in group”. The issue in genetic genealogy is almost the opposite, I have news that the “out group” is already a part of me. Now I need to make that information meaningful.

When DNA Forces the Issue

When information like my mitochondrial DNA is presented, it begins a search for meaning and significance. You can’t get more local than your own DNA. Nothing is closer to you. It is already all about you! What is the meaning of T2a for me? That is the question I ask and immediately, I’m presented with something from 5000 BC and a people and culture that seem to be very far removed from my current state.

This information is outside the little pool of time that I swim in where everyone in my family for every generation I can find, is a European.

All of the sudden, I have local information taken from my saliva that connects me to a group that is foreign and alien to me in culture, in location and in time. I am forced to handle information that doesn’t fit with what I know and see of my family.

egyptian farmers

5000 BC collides with my little boxes of time I’ve created for history and the genealogical time where information is relevant to me. I cannot point to any family members from the middle east or west Asia, but I am consistently being presented with a picture of ties to that area in various formats.

What do I do? What do we all do in these situations? I think that depends on us as individuals, what our goals are and how we deal with things that are beyond our scope.

Investigating and Integrating Results.

That search for significance and the categorizing of out groups and in groups explains (to some extent) why we try to find the significance and meaning in our DNA and also how our biases come into play in evaluating that information.

People test DNA for a lot of reasons and there are a lot of reactions to the results we get. Some people are excited to investigate their results and some people are happy to ignore them. Some people will try to integrate what they’ve been presented and others will deny their results. Everyone is on a spectrum of investigating and integrating.

Chances are, you’re more likely to run into the people who are somewhere on the “investigation” side of responses.  I think people who are going to attempt to investigate this new information are going to be the more likely to participate in conversations and groups, even if their version of investigating is not the same as your version of investigating. You are more likely to meet and chat with the investigators. People who trend toward ignoring their results, will find it easy to ignore you too.

I have a story of a man who investigated and didn’t completely deny the results, but the way he integrated them was…well it was the way he “could” do it. He investigated and found a way to integrate the information that was acceptable to him.

The Old Man and the Sin

There was an older man from Scandinavia who tested at one of the autosomal companies. After reading some of his posts, it was easy to see that he had tested with some curiosity, but probably hoped more to validate what he already knew about himself. Pretty common thing. In fact, probably what the bulk of people would like to do.

In his posts he was discussing how disappointed he was with his mother because of her “sins”. He had gotten his MTDNA results and he was from a haplogroup that was pre-historic, but tended to be most common in Israel and in the Jewish community. He pulled that information all the way forward and associated it with something his mother had done wrong. He seemed to feel that she was somehow tainted and a product of some sin or a sinner herself.

I gathered from the discussion that he was a religious person because of the importance of sin in his life. He also appeared to be racist or antisemitic because he equated his mother having MTDNA associated with Jewish populations with “sin”. When others tried to explain that his MTDNA haplogroup was 10,000 years old and had little bearing on his mother (side stepping the antisemitism), he could not accept that information. Especially when the world was only about 4000 years old.

In the end, there was nothing anyone could do to help. I felt sorry for him. He had obviously tried to investigate and integrate the information, but, because of his own biases and inability to take on a larger time scale, it caused him (and likely those around him) nothing but fear and pain.

eve and the apple

I don’t think he’s alone. We all have biases and they affect how we deal with the information we get. We may choose to handle it differently, but the bias is always there.

My Biases and Limited Time Scale Lead me Down the Wrong Path.

In my MTDNA example, I chose to investigate and then integrate the information. My bias is towards Europeans, just like the old man in my story. I think the big difference between the track he took and the track I presented is that for me, it’s not really “wrong” to have middle eastern DNA. It’s unexpected. I can’t hate this part of myself that is unexpected.

The man in my story “made it fit” as a crime perpetrated against him and against God. I “made it fit” by creating an adventure story myth and compressing time. They are different ways of going about it, but in the end, the results are oddly similar. Both of us are compelled, by the need for meaning, to come up with a story that works for us whether or not it is supported by the best evidence.

When confronted by a time scale I cannot understand and what is likely a slow prehistoric migration of people I don’t identify with, I attempt to make the out group into my in group. I compress time to a context I can understand. I don’t prosecute my mother or grandmother, but I do pull my MTDNA ancestors closer than I should. Maybe it’s Arab traders in Norman France or Moors in Spain. I begin to weave a story that makes them Europeans in a time frame that I am comfortable with. Coming out of the near east with the first farmers and slowly trudging across Europe for 5000 years, is beyond my scope.

My biases and limitations have trapped me too.

The Trap is the Same Old Trap Even if the Bait is Different.

If you begin where I began with my history teacher and his thoughts on time, you will see that I take some of the facts I know about him and then I imagine him to be the man I would like to be. For all I know he was roundly a jackass and a curse on those near him, but I pull him into myself and assign him attributes I would like to have.

Reading county histories, you can get many facts. You can find out who owned what land and where they moved in the county. The county histories though were written for the people in the county, so they would remember what they could about their ancestors and then likely fudge things a bit to make them relevant and meaningful to them. So in the same book you might get census information on your ancestor but also read that his arms were “like iron” or that he had internal fortitude that helped him survive and thrive in a hostile place.

Recalling the county history for Butler PA, I think it came down that there were three Thompson brothers and every family in the county was related to one of them. I remember finding the 1850 census and noting that one of the Thompson families there was German and clearly not related to the other Scots Irish Thompson families.

Having everyone in the county named Thompson being related to one of three semi-mythical brothers was probably easier to deal with than the complicated truth of surname changes and immigrant migrations in Pennsylvania. The people in the county need a history that brings them together. They need heroes of old. They need to validate their idea of themselves as the in group.

I may have more information or different information than they did, but my needs and biases and limitations are not that different. I am prone to fall into the same traps. Just like the old man in my story or the people associated with the county history, the traps are of my own design.

These are the very human characteristics that, I think, help all of us build traps for ourselves:

  • We have a skewed view of time and history and we think everything applies to us more directly than it may.
  • We naturally look for patterns and, even without knowing what we’re doing, we seek out those answers that fit our current world view rather than seeing things in the context in which they occurred.
  • We compress and condense time to bring events closer to us so that we can understand them better.
  • In the absence of good data, we do the best we can to integrate new information.

This is a fine mess I’ve gotten myself into. How do I get out? I have a few ideas that I think might help.



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