When genetics meets the Bible

Gender studies scholar Venla Oikkonen is interested in culture-bound emotions related to biotechnology. How can population genetics change the story of a nation?

Modern population genetics allows people to link themselves to the genetic continuum of humankind or to local history. Anyone can buy a genetic test online and send a sample for analysis.

“These tests appeal to the desire to find one’s roots. They are a new form of personal genealogical research,” says Venla Oikkonen.

In reality, however, we have thousands of ancestors, and each path to the past represents just a tiny branch of our huge family tree. Mitochondrial analysis (link in Finnish) provides us with information about the matrilineal lineage alone, whereas the Y chromosome uncovers only the patrilineal lineage.

In the United States, genetic testing is marketed particularly to African-American people, who have found it difficult to establish their family trees because of their history of slavery.

Says Oikkonen: “African-American men who buy a genetic test are warned that the Y chromosome of about one-third of them will reveal European ancestry. But the majority of their genetic makeup may actually be something else.”

Applications of population genetics are based on theoretical models and certain interpretation methods, or “best guesses”. But this is often forgotten in the popular discourse.

Genes and a storybook romance

Oikkonen won the 2015 Catharine Stimpson Prize for her article on “Mitochondrial Eve”, to be published soon in the journal Signs. Named in honour of the founding editor of Signs, the prize is awarded to recognise excellence and innovation in the work of emerging feminist scholars.

In her article, Oikkonen traces the story of “Mitochondrial Eve”, the most recent common matrilineal ancestor of modern humans. In its popularised version, what was originally a theoretical model has gradually transformed into a storybook romance with “Y chromosome Adam”, created in the 1990s.

In the scientific sense, the figures of Eve and Adam are not historical, but rather genetic mutations that researchers have managed to trace to a certain point in prehistory.

“When the figure of Eve emerged in the late 1980s, even science journals referred to the biblical imagery of Eden,” Oikkonen points out.

Newspaper headlines and other popular imagery later perpetuated the idea of a heteronormative Western romance.

“Initially, the figure in the story was an independent and specifically dark-skinned woman. The original imagery included a celebration of multiculturalism, but Eve and Adam soon developed – jokingly at first – into the cliché of a couple,” Oikkonen notes.

Clichés can be deconstructed

Oikkonen does not oppose stories or advocate technophobia, but yearns for critical media literacy. What assumptions do we make about gender, ethnicity and sexuality? How is the culture around us recreated and produced? Does it reinforce prejudice?

Oikkonen points out that there is no clear boundary between cultural discourse and science. Our cultural framework and needs also guide science.

As she notes: “Biotechnologies as such are neither good nor bad. But they have the potential to both deconstruct and promote worn-out stories.”