Biological vs. cultural heritage, also known as nature vs. nurture, is a question withstanding the test of time. If DNA testing reveals surprises in your family tree, consider what “family” means to you.
Genealogy is full of surprises. As I was wrapping up a large pedigree project for one of our clients recently, a couple of birth records that had been lost in the mail finally arrived. They revealed that the man the client had always known as her paternal grandfather was not actually biologically connected to her family after all.
Now that DNA testing is affordable and available to everyone, these genealogy surprises (called non-paternity events) are becoming more and more common. Of course, they have always been there – we just didn’t usually know about them before! People are finding cousins whom the family had never known existed, and others are finding that what the records say were their ancestors (or parents!) differs significantly from what their DNA says.
Discovering True Biological Ancestry
The rate of non-paternity varies depending on many factors, including nationality, social customs, and class. However, it happens everywhere: I have even worked on a case that occurred in Salt Lake City among early, clean-living Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint pioneers. In fact, it is estimated that between 5% and 14% of a typical 5-generation pedigree can be “wrong” – meaning that the biological ancestry is different from the traditional paper-trail ancestry.
These non-paternity events can be exciting, but also unnerving and overwhelming when they are suddenly discovered. We’ve compiled a list of resources that can assist in these situations. You may begin to wonder who you really are and what information you can really trust. Therefore, it becomes very important to remember how all of this actually affects knowing where you came from.
Nature vs. Nurture
It is well established that there are two major factors that make us who we are: nature and nurture. Nature is our genetics; nurture is how we are raised. We received our genetic makeup from our biological parents, who received it from their biological parents, who received it from theirs, and on back and back. This is our biological heritage and affects such things as our coloring, bone structure, and predisposition to certain inherited diseases.
Our cultural heritage, on the other hand, comes from the people who knew and loved and raised us. This heritage includes such things as health habits, mannerisms, figures of speech, and ways to deal with things. We picked these up from our parents – whether they were biological parents or adopted parents – who picked them up from their parents, who picked them up from their parents, and on back and back.
So, although our biological heritage may be responsible for our curly brown hair and well-formed vocal chords, our cultural heritage gave us the strong work ethic and an affinity and love of music that turns us into a talented musician. In this way, both heritages contribute to who we are.
What Does “Family” Mean to You?
In addition, the concept of “family” is not biologically exclusive: a family is created and built through shared experiences. These experiences often turn into stories that are told and retold, binding families together across generations. The whole point of family history is to gather and record these stories so that they will not be lost. A family’s stories, and therefore a family’s identity, come from its cultural heritage.
In discussing her case with my client who had just learned her paternal grandfather was not her biological grandfather, I was thrilled to hear her confirm that she still wanted us to include the extensive information we had already gathered on this man’s genealogy. In her eyes and in the eyes and hearts of the family, he was still, after all – and always had been – Grandfather.
You can read about how DNA helped another Legacy Tree client here. You can also go here to learn more about which DNA test is best for your research goal.
If you have questions you suspect may be answered through DNA testing, we can help! Our team of experienced genetic genealogists combines expert DNA analysis with thorough records research and can resolve your questions. Contact us today for a free estimate.
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