One of a Kind or a Chip Off the Old Block? – Thursday Thoughts

Photograph of a pile of fried potato chips accompnaying hisotrytrace blogpost "One of a Kind or A Chip Off the Old Block? - Thursday Thoughts". Image copyright reeimages.com / Emre Nacigil.Have you heard either of these two expressions said of you? You look just like your mother / father / grandfather / sibling? You will know which relative you share family resemblances with. I’ve even said this of my daughter who, on occasion, to me, looks just like I did according to a photo I have of myself aged about the same. Of course she looks like me, but she also looks like her father, and her brother, and also very much like herself.

Physical family resemblances are to be expected and we are relieved when we see them, since quite often on a basic level reinforcing family connections feels goods. Where family members unexpectedly look different this can throw up questions, but at a genetic level we now have a far greater understanding of the range of possible genetic permutations and the probabilities of similarities and differences. Human physical variation is amazing, even twins can be born with different skin colour.

We share genetic material with our parents, siblings and direct relatives, however to what extent does this actually account for physical similarities? An abroadintheyard blogpost looks at just this – what role DNA might have in causing family resemblances.

But what about the perceived family resemblances in behaviours, aptitudes and personality? Are you a chip off the old block? Do you seem to have “inherited” family predispositions to certain skills or characteristics?

What interests me most is why we are so interested in seeing family resemblances and commonality of character and ability, and how these perceptions can be expressed both positively and negatively and the subtle impact this can have on one’s self-cognisance. We are all of course unique despite the similarities we share with others, related or not.

But why do we feel a greater sense of self-worth or justification if we perceive generations-old tendencies to rule the roost or claims to social or intellectual prowess? Why do we readily pin down a foible in a loved one by blaming or explaining it by way of inheritance or upbringing?

This comes back to a topic I talked about in Nature Versus Nurture where I considered the fascination with this debate from the perspective of family history research. Naturally we will share similarities with those we are related to as well as those with whom we have grown up and lived. As part of our environment they have shaped us immensely as has our genetic makeup.

Although we are now able to see more deeply into our family’s past through DNA analysis, we still like to be able to visually and relationally comprehend where we come from, in terms of perceived physiological descendance, family lineage and social heritage. By seeing likenesses and recognising so-called family traits, we see a tangible marker of belonging and rootedness. However not everyone has that possibility if a maternal or paternal family line was terminated for some reason or is unknown. With DNA testing there are also possibilities here to gain new knowledge where previously information was inaccessible.

I recently decided, out of purely family history curiosity, to have an ancestral DNA test done to ascertain my ethnic makeup. I had gifted the same test to my father who also got his results around the same time and reassuringly the programme immediately flagged up the fact that there was indeed another person in the database who was very closely related as either my parent or offspring. Eager to see what other less obvious family connections the database might plumb, I read on. However the next category of potential DNA connections listed were more distant – 4th, 5th or 6th cousins. My instinctive human recognition behaviour was to look at their faces. But alas, most of them had not personalised their user avatars, and those that had did not inspire any sense of similarity. I saw for a moment how for individuals who search for their birth family and relatives, the use of DNA analysis now has the potential to provide family information beyond the missing generation, providing connections which conventional channels cannot unlock.

Whether we are a self-made man or woman who sees little connection with the preceding generations, whether we know just a little about our forebears, or whether we feel that our lives owe a great deal to our ancestors – there is a perennial human fascination with origins. Perhaps as a deep-rooted marvelling at where we come from physically, but also on an existential level, we cannot avoid the fact that we are in every respect the human summation of previous generations, whether we know something about them or not.

Hannah Gill, historytrace, 11/02/2016

Historytrace can help you to explore your ancestry and get behind DNA results to illuminate generations of your family’s ethnic heritage. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family history on a deeper level.

You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “One of a Kind or A Chip Off the Old Block? – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016; image copyright: freeimages.com / Emre Nacigil.

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Link:Who Do You Look Like? DNA and family resemblance across generations”, online at http://www.abroadintheyard.com/dna-family-resemblance-across-generations

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