Who do we think we are?

Why biological links matter and why society should care
Fleur Letcher | Mar 30 2016 | comment  



One of my favourite television shows is the ancestry reality-television show, Who Do You Think You Are?, broadcast by the BBC and SBS. Each series features a range of celebrities, such as Britain’s David Suchet, Nigella Lawson, Jeremy Clarkson and David Tennant, and Australia’s Geoffrey Rush, Sigrid Thornton, Michael Caton and Maggie Beer. The program’s historians and genealogists help these celebrities trace their ancestry back to people and places in their families’ past.

It is fascinating to watch as celebrities discover long-lost ancestors in their family tree and learn that the family “legends” passed down through the generations are usually based on some element of truth!

An interesting theme of each episode is the joy of each celebrity discovering familiar family traits – not just noses and eyes, but occupations and hobbies. A famous cook finds out her ancestors were publicans and vine-dressers; a politician has links to royalty; a celebrity has famous ancestors.

The show is a sociologist’s “Aladdin’s Cave”, revealing not only joy and light, but also the dark themes of broken families, neglect, criminality and comedians with tragic childhoods. It is really quite astonishing to see how these family patterns and inherited traits are passed down through the family tree, and, perhaps less surprisingly, to realise how the “sins of the parents” trickle down through subsequent generations.

We all know the saying, “Blood is thicker than water”, and this series reveals it to be true. We see people weeping over the tragic circumstances of ancestors who lived centuries ago in foreign lands, or defending long-lost ancestors, despite their criminal behaviour. Family history is a tie that binds us to our past and connects us to the present.

When you start to put together your own family tree, you start to uncover the primal importance of genetic links. What do we make of these “blood ties”? Well, we see that each baby is a unique individual with inherited genetic information from both of its parents. In their offspring, each parent sees likenesses, not just to themselves, but also to their spouse. What an inducement for parents to love and nurture their own children!

But wait … there’s more. As the child matures, further family traits are observed – throwbacks to grandparents, aunties or uncles. Why? Because in the genetic information of that child are also traces of the generations that have gone before.

These genetic ties do much more than simply pass down physical or personality traits. They establish what we know as the “extended family” – a biological grouping of humans who are willing and able to help and support each other. In many places in history these families lived with or near each other. Parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents pass down words of wisdom and knowledge, transmute values and give younger generations a sense of belonging, place and identity through the story of their lives. Cousins, for example, play differently together than they do with their friends. They seem to know instinctively the unique biological ties that bind them. So our ancestry – or “biological links” – provides us with a unique connection to those who have gone before us and with those who are to come.

Many individuals, like myself, have undertaken the painstaking task of putting together their family trees. It is a process of discovery and insight, giving you a sense of “who you are” in the scheme of history. Nothing can match the thrill of finding information about a long-lost ancestor, or even uncovering an old photograph and recognising familiar family traits.

When trying to complete my own family tree, though, I came to a “broken branch” – the father of one of my ancestors was not named. Even though this was the only branch I could not identify, it gave me a sense of sadness. I will probably never discover the origins of that part of the “tree”, and not know the heritage passed down through to the child of that particular person.

Consider those unfortunate individuals who can never know anything of their family history. We know that those who cannot access these links can suffer a real sense of loss and isolation. In one episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, actor and talk-show-host Paul McDermott was confronted with the knowledge that his mother grew up as an orphan, and that his maternal grandmother had been removed from her parents due to “reduced circumstances”.

His grief at finding all this out was palpable. He exclaimed, “I can’t imagine what it would be like to live without having any reference to your real parents.”

If you know who you are, then you have a sense of identity. The problem is that today’s society is in danger of squandering these long-held notions that biological, inherited links matter. This is not simply a question of DNA. It is also a question of personal history. Ironically, in this age of the “triumph” of human rights, the basic protections for children to know and have a relationship with both their biological parents are simply not given the priority they deserve.

Many commentators and academics these days seem to dismiss the link between parent and child as a mere “cosmic coincidence”. They view the fact that it takes both a man and a woman for procreation to occur as significant only to the extent of the biological necessity of having male and female gametes when creating a child. They all too often fail to acknowledge that it is essential for the wellbeing of a child to have an on-going relationship with both a male and a female parent.

This misguided thinking has led to more and more people these days being cut off, sometimes intentionally, from their biological roots. The introduction in the 1970s of no-fault divorce and the increasing incidence of single-parent households has greatly contributed to many children being deprived of a meaningful relationship with one of their parents. We now also have anonymous sperm donation, surrogacy and certain fertility treatments deliberately designed to bypass or minimise the biological parents. This can and is leading to the commodification of children.

What right do we have to make this kind of decision on behalf of a child whose voice is now small and seemingly insignificant? Is this fair or just to a child? Does anyone pause to think about what the children might want or need? But the biggest question is: do we have a right to create such children in the first place?

Too seldom do we hear any acknowledgement these days of a child’s need to be raised, whenever possible, by both its biological parents. This ignores the wisdom of thousands upon thousands of generations all over the world. Every cultural tradition agrees that children are designed to be born into this triumvirate structure of father-mother-child for their best interests – not least so that each child has both a male and female role model and influence on its life, each gender donating precious gifts to that child as it grows.

This conviction is particularly strong in Christianity, with its Biblical model of the family and its confidence in the wonderful design of the Creator. But all the major faith traditions agree on this point. Therefore, I believe we all have an obligation to speak up against any policy or legislation that either deliberately deprives a child of his or her biological parents or fails to mimic a natural family structure. Our society has already apologised to the “Stolen Generation” and to children removed from their unwed mothers in the 1960s. I cannot help but wonder if we will be repeating this exercise to children whose biological ties have been deliberately severed by our “progressive” new concepts of family …

In her appearance on the program Who Do You Think You Are?, British actress Zoë Wanamaker declares: “I’d like to find out where I come from and all that stuff that goes into … me!” Of course, she does – and so do the rest of us!

Children are not a “right”, nor are they a commodity. Biological links really matter to all of us in the human family. Who do we think we are, as a culture, to deprive children of this precious link to their past and future?

Fleur Letcher works as the researcher for the Church and Nation Committee of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria. 



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