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Home > Focus > A man, his history and his DNA

A man, his history and his DNA

by Redazione FGB [1], 2 July 2010

by Margherita Fronte [2]

One of humankind's oldest needs - to know oneself. One of the most modern technologies - the DNA testing of a single individual. These are the 2 ingredients of the book entitled Go Ask Your Father [3]: One Man's Obsession with Finding His Origins Through DNA Testing (Bantam Books, 2009 [4]), written by Lennard Davis [5], Professor of English at The University Of Illinois in Chicago and eclectic scholar. His interests range from biotechnology to disability and from art to the social, economic and human sciences, all in the conviction that biomedical technology can only play a positive role in society if it knows how to accept and use findings from other fields of knowledge.
This idea is expressed through Project Biocultures [6], and closely tied to Davis's own personal experiences, recounted in his book in a narration that is closer to a detective story that a scientific essay. Davis is the second child of an British Jewish immigrant family in the USA. On the death of his father the author is told that his genetic father is really his uncle who agreed to donate his semen for artificial insemination in the late 1940's. The revelation was made by the uncle in question himself - a person that the protagonist and his family had always considered untrustworthy - and required verification, something that Davis searches for and eventually finds through DNA testing.

From the point of view of responsibility and innovation it is important to note that the paradoxical situations in which Davis finds himself during his research are all born of the the absolute lack of regulation governing the first attempts at artificial insemination, and tied to a certain non critical approach adopted by the doctors that practiced it. This situation (and certain revelations) provoked reactions that even lead the author to think that his genetic father could even be his mother's gynecologist, as at the end of the 1940's the practice of the few doctors that carried out this technique of using their own semen to improve the probability of success was anything but rare! Today this and other procedures carried out by the doctors of the day seem abhorrent, but it raises the question of how much responsibility can be attributed to those that exercised a profession in an era in which the debate of bioethics was still unfounded.
This theme was also raised during the round table discussion that was held in The Bassetti Foundation conference suite. Even though Davis himself tends to absolve the doctors that carried out these procedures in the absence of regulation, if we extend the concept to other disciplines we should still remember how some scientists in different circumstances have know how to reflect upon responsibility and restricted their scientific work. The case of the physicist Franco Rasetti is emblematic. When invited to participate in the atomic bomb project and after a lot of thought he refused, saying that science should not sell its soul to the Devil even for a just cause (after Hiroshima and Nagasaki he definitively abandoned physics in favour of paleontology and geology).

But the Davis experience also lays open the route to other reflections and thoughts, such as upon for example the images that non experts have of the most advanced technology. The author himself came to biotechnology as a lay person and holding an almost blind faith in the technology (in the book the laboratory where the first DNA tests are done is referred to as 'The Oracle Of Delfi'). But the more he learns about the mechanism of molecular biology and understands its limits the more his faith is weakened. This change of behaviour is quite frequent in the biotechnological sector and at its basis are the behaviour and announcements made by scientists in the past. At the beginning of the 1990's for example the launch of the human genome project required a large amount of investment. The researchers procured this investment using affirmations that the sequencing of human DNA would lead to enormous progress in the medical field. This excessive emphasis generated great expectations that are still widely held common assumptions. Twenty years later however the suppositions upon which these affirmations were based have not fallen, but there are still very few concrete applications for the genome project even in respect to the expectations of the most prudent researchers.

Throughout Davis's journey it seems that doubts regarding the potential of biotechnology emerge in parallel to the understanding that a technology, however advanced, cannot answer the questions posed by human existential problems. In Davis's case these questions relate to the story of his life and relationship with his parents and his father. 'At the beginning I effectively had faith in the fact that DNA would tell me who my father was and who I am, but in the end the result is not important' states the author. On the other hand biotechnology has allowed Davis answers to questions that he had not asked, in particular about his predisposition to certain illnesses and the most antique origins of his family. This point is also worthy of reflection. The author's experience demonstrate how results from one technique can generate new questions and open development fronts that were completely unseen. Davis approached biotechnology in order to discover the truth about his genetic parentage, he discovered that the answer did not allow him to lay to rest the ghosts of his memory (that relate to the problematic relationship between himself and his presumed father) but once its limits were realized he 'made peace' with the technology and saw previously unseen potential that could be interesting in other aspects of his life.
It is no coincidence that Davis chose to not use them all. Reconciling his personal needs to the the possibilities offered by DNA sequencing the author decided not to run any tests in order to discover his disposition to certain illnesses, but instead conducted an in depth look at the most antique origins of his family.

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Some images of the round table whose participants included: Cristina Grasseni [7], Piero Bassetti [8], Lennard Davis [9], Michele di Francesco [10], Jonathan Hankins [11], Margherita Fronte [12] e Tommaso Correale Santacroce [13]:

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] /it/pagine/2007/11/margherita_fronte.html
  3. 3] /it/rassegna/2010/02/go_ask_your_father_about_dna.html
  4. 4] http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780553805512
  5. 5] http://www.uic.edu/depts/engl/faculty/prof/ldavis/bio.htm
  6. 6] http://www.biocultures.org/flash.php
  7. 7] http://www.unibg.it/struttura/struttura.asp?rubrica=1&persona=1236&nome=Cristina&cognome=Grasseni
  8. 8] /it/pagine/2007/08/piero_bassetti.html
  9. 9] http://www.uic.edu/depts/engl/faculty/prof/ldavis/bio.htm
  10. 10] http://www.unisr.it/persona.asp?id=352
  11. 11] http://it.linkedin.com/pub/jonny-hankins/10/aa3/314
  12. 12] http://it.linkedin.com/pub/margherita-fronte/0/5a3/bb4
  13. 13] http://it.linkedin.com/in/tommasocorrealesantacroce
  14. 14] /it/focus/img/cc-FGB_Davis01.jpg
  15. 15] /it/focus/img/cc-FGB_Davis02.jpg
  16. 16] /it/focus/img/cc-FGB_Davis03.jpg
  17. 17] /it/focus/img/cc-FGB_Davis04.jpg
  18. 18] /it/focus/img/cc-FGB_Davis05.jpg
  19. 19] /it/focus/img/cc-FGB_Davis06.jpg
  20. 20] /it/focus/img/cc-FGB_Davis07.jpg
  21. 21] /it/focus/img/cc-FGB_Davis08.jpg
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Read also: Go Ask Your Father about DNA by Jonathan Hankins
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