The Roanoke Times

January 13, 2008 Sunday
Metro Edition


Reviewed by Sidney Barritt

These two books have a great deal in common: Each had its genesis in a personal experience that led the author to question what can and can't be known about heredity from an examination of DNA.

In Jon Entine's case, it was the realization that four, close, female family members developed a type of breast cancer linked to a genetic mutation that is common among Jews. That set him off on a fascinating examination of population genetics that traces the lineage of modern Jews back to the days of the Old Testament. One particular facet of this sweeping story relates to the discovery by a Hispanic Catholic priest in New Mexico that he shares a crucial DNA link to the Jewish priestly tribe of Levi. How could that be?!

For Edward Ball, the story began with the purchase of an ancient piece of Southern furniture, an old desk with hidden compartments, wherein lay snippets of hair from his ancestors, dating back two centuries. He set about having the hair sampled for its DNA, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. When successful, some results suggested that there were genetic markers in various family members indicating African American and American Indian origins. In ante- and post-bellum Charleston, S.C., such findings would have raised more than eyebrows.

At least in its popularized sense, DNA answers questions definitively. Of course, that's not always the case in real life, but these books examine a different aspect of DNA, one that raises all sorts of difficult questions without providing clear answers. Given the divisive nature of discussion of race in recent times, the authors are very circumspect about conflating DNA and race.

The press agent material that comes with Entine's book leads one to think that DNA will tell us why Jews number disproportionately among Nobel laureates, physicians and lawyers. There is no such answer in the book, nor should there be. DNA is a wonderful gift that should only be used with proper caution. There's an obvious paradox in its application: We will understand how similar we all are once we also understand how we differ.

There is merit in both volumes. If only one is to be read, let it be "Abraham's Children" for its treatment of the grand sweep of genetic history.

THE GENETIC STRAND By Edward Ball. Simon and Schuster. $25
ABRAHAM'S CHILDREN By Jon Entine. Grand Central Publishing. $27.99
SIDNEY BARRITT is a Roanoke physician.
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