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Originally published Friday, November 30, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

DNA tells family story in "Genetic Strand"

How timely it is that Edward Ball's new book, "The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History through DNA," comes out after the recent flap over racially charged comments by famed molecular biologist James Watson.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA"

by Edward Ball

Simon & Schuster, 265 pp., $25

How timely it is that Edward Ball's new book, "The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History through DNA," comes out after the recent flap over racially charged comments by famed molecular biologist James Watson.

In 1962, Watson and his colleagues won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, the microscopic blueprint of all living creatures, the stuff our genes are made of.

But when Watson was quoted last month, seeming to suggest that Africans may not possess the same aptitude or intelligence of other races (he later apologized), he was forced to leave his prestigious job as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

The whole episode was a lesson in the many perils of wedding science to concerns that are, at heart, social.

"The Genetic Strand," a wittily told examination of Ball's own genetic makeup, offers us Lesson No. 2.

Ball won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1998 for his book "Slaves in the Family," an exploration of his South Carolina ancestors, who owned thousands of slaves prior to the Civil War.

"The Genetic Strand" picks up, in a sly way, where that book left off, by broaching the touchy question of just how close the Balls were to their black servants, as well as the Native Americans who for a time coexisted with European settlers in colonial times.

The book centers around locks of hair from Ball's ancestors, mostly clipped, wrapped and labeled between the late 1700s and mid-1800s and hidden away, like "a strange treasure," in a desk that had been passed down the family line for 200 years.

Ball decided to see what tales those strands of hair told by having them tested at DNA and forensics labs, and he schooled himself in the field's intricacies in the process.

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Not only do we get a good ol' fashioned family mystery full of bizarre twists and relatives with colorful names (Polycarp Constant Lecorgne?), we get a crash course in DNA science, complete with Ball's bemused, irreverent asides: "It's the most tearful zone of DNA science, the one in which a buccal swab can tell you who was in the bedroom at the moment of conception. ... Cases end in melodrama. 'You're not the father!' is one denouement. 'You're the father!' another."

The drama of Ball's DNA adventure, which includes having his own DNA and that of a couple of living relatives tested, involves the surprise finding that his family may not be as purely white as he'd been raised to believe.

Had his ancestors produced offspring with Native Americans and blacks and simply snapped those branches of kinfolk off the family tree to keep it racially pristine?

As Ball is quick to point out, sex between the races wouldn't have been uncommon, despite the stifling social taboo against it. A small percentage of white Americans possesses genes from sub-Saharan Africa, while many blacks carry European ones. The races mixed plenty but privately, and at great risk to social standing and physical safety.

"Whites aren't as white as they seem, or believe themselves to be," Ball concludes. "One doesn't hear about this in the discourse on race."

Ball uses genetics to peek through the boudoir curtains. What he comes up with is more uncertainty. His family's biological past doesn't offer itself up so easily, even with precision tools like genetic testing. "After falling under the scrutiny of genetics, I could no longer be sure who or what I was," he writes. "Whereas there used to be no doubt."

DNA, "the majestic manual of life," as Ball describes it, may not lie.

But the story it tells can be a murky one.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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