The article from the Associated Press is headlined, “Human genes reflect impact of historical events,” and goes into some detail of how researchers used nearly 1500 DNA samples to map genetic links going back 4,000 years. What they found was surprising to some. To others, not so much.
Science has never really been my strong suit. Whether it was earth science in elementary school, biology in junior high, or a brief but thoroughly disastrous flirtation with chemistry as a senior in high school, a solid “C” was all I could ever hope for. But as the years have gone on, I’ve found myself drawn to the subject. Physics helps me better understand the universe, biology the world. And while much of it still flies straight over my head, that small article from the AP truly struck me. It made sense. And more than that, it helped confirm what I’ve considered a strong possibility for quite some time.
These researchers managed to link certain strands of DNA to historical events. They used samples from the Tu people of China to show they mixed with the ancestors of modern Greeks sometime around 1200. They confirmed that the Kalash people of Pakistan are descendants of Alexander the Great’s army. They showed how African DNA spread throughout the Mediterranean, the Arab Peninsula, Iran, and Pakistan from A.D. 800-1000 due to the Arab slave trade.
Interesting stuff to be sure, but on the surface maybe not that interesting. Truth me told, I clicked off that article and moved on to something a little more my style (it happened to be a recap of this past week’s episode of Justified) before hitting the BACK button and reading it again, slower this time. Because buried beneath all those dates and facts was a reminder I sorely needed, something magical and amazing, though for the life of me I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
And then it hit me that too often we consider ourselves merely in terms of the physical and temporal. I am a mass of flesh and blood and bone with a soul hidden somewhere inside. My thoughts rarely extend past this present moment and rarely beyond the things that have a direct impact on me—what I need to finish now, what I need to do next. Sometimes the future will pop up, and I’ll think about tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. Oftentimes the past will rear its head as well, and I’ll ponder how far I’ve come and how much I’m still stuck in it.
That’s all, really, and I’d venture a guess that your life is much the same. We all live in the same world, and yet in that one world are billions of smaller ones. There’s my world and my wife’s world and my children’s worlds. There’s your world, and a separate world for everyone you know. And every one of those smaller worlds are marked by a kind of inherent selfishness in that we really don’t care what happens unless what happens interferes with us—unless it enters our own orbit.
But there’s much more to us than our own past and present and future. There’s more than our own individual worlds. Imbedded within the very fiber of our being is a record of all that has gone on before us, millennia’s worth of wars and droughts and migrations, ages of histories long lost and forgotten. I am not a single person, and nor are you. We are instead the product of countless generations who came before, who settled and lived and struggled through hardships we cannot fathom and yet found a way to continue on. Our ancestors may be nameless and inconsequential to history. They were very likely poor, unknown. And yet they live on as microscopic strands of our DNA because they managed to do one incredible thing: endure.
There is something wholly magical and noble in that. We are unique and special, and yet no more so than all who came before us. The struggles we face were once theirs, as well as our fears and our dreams. That makes me wonder just how separated we all truly are.