What if you woke up one day and found out your father wasn’t actually your biological father?
What if you woke up one day and found out your kids weren’t actually your biological kids?
For a growing number of people, this isn’t just a distressing hypothetical. It’s a painfully real scenario. Secrets that were once easy to keep are now coming to light, thanks to a mix of curiosity, advancing technology, and simple economics. It’s causing a lot of distress for a lot of people, but the fact that it’s happening is somewhat telling.
To understand it, it’s necessary to understand just how unprecedented this situation is. Until very recently, getting a DNA test was exceedingly expensive. Go back 25 years when the Human Genome Project was just getting underway and just sequencing one person’s DNA cost millions. Then, thanks to advances in sequencing techniques and computing technology, the cost fell rapidly.
Today, sequencing your DNA costs less than $1,000. If you just want to test your ancestry, that’s even cheaper with kits costing around $100. You don’t need a court order or contacts at the FBI. You just need a spare $100 and a willingness to spit in a tube. It may not seem like much, but make no mistake. This is uncharted territory for our species and our society.
Ever since we structured our civilization around agriculture, passing down property through generations, and building more diverse societies, there has been a strong incentive to know that your children are biologically yours. This is where taboos surrounding virginity and female chastity come from. For centuries, the best way to assure your kids were yours was for your bride to be a virgin on her wedding night.
However, even in those limited circumstances, it was entirely possible to get around them. The traditional practices of testing young women for virginity are both invasive and prone to major error. If a woman is cunning enough, she can beat those tests and get away with lying about her sexual history. Men could be just as effective about hiding affairs that may have resulted in children with other women.
Now, hiding the truth isn’t just harder in the era of the internet and social media. Certain lies can no longer remain hidden. You can claim videos are deep fakes and that pictures had been Photoshopped. You can’t make those kinds of excuses when the truth is literally written in someone’s DNA.
Sometimes, the truth is just shocking. Take the story of Dani Shapiro, who found out that the man she’d loved and cherished as her father was not related to her. It wasn’t because of her mother’s infidelity, though. It was because her parents utilized an old infertility treatment that resulted in her being conceived with doner sperm instead of that of her surrogate father.
In other cases, the truth can be devastating, such as the case of Sarah Zhang, who found out that rumors of her mother having an affair with a restaurant owner were all too true. This revelation was heartbreaking. In an instant, her entire identity and sense of self had been uprooted. This is how she described the difficulty processing this information.
When I first found out the news, I considered taking a leave of absence from work, because I had difficulty focusing on anything else besides the revelation from 23andMe. On a hard day, I feel heartbroken about my mom’s secret. Her illness created an intimacy between us in the final months of her life and I felt that we were able to tell each other all the things in our heart. This news taints that memory and created a fresh bout of grieving about her death.
These stories are harrowing and they’re becoming increasingly common. There’s even a support group on Facebook for people who learn from these testing kits that their heritage isn’t what they’d previously thought. It’s hard to understand what these people are going through, living their whole lives thinking they know who their parents are, only to find out it wasn’t true.
As DNA testing kits continue to get cheaper and more prevalent, there’s a good chance there are plenty more cases like this just waiting to be uncovered. The fact that it seems to be happening so much says more about our species and our society than it does about the technology behind it.
Think, for a moment, about all the families who lived in the era before this technology became available. How many of those families had secrets like the ones Dani Shapiro and Sarah Zhang later uncovered? How many fathers unknowingly raised children that weren’t biologically theirs? How many mothers birthed children who were sired by someone other than their spouse?
It’s impossible to know for sure and the fact that it was impossible for most of human history might be just as telling as any family secret. I’ve mentioned before at how our notions of traditional romance and family have significant flaws. We value and idealize monogamy and fidelity, but the fact that we go to such extremes to favor it seems to imply that there’s something untenable about it.
Promiscuity and infidelity have existed in every human society. There’s a reason why even ancient civilizations had laws and traditions regulating marriage, adultery, and divorce. Even when there are serious consequences, people still did it. The fact that some of the punishments were so severe imply that a lot of people were getting away with it.
Even so, this didn’t stop men from raising children as their own. It didn’t stop women from loving their children and their spouses all the same. The fact that it was so hard to determine someone’s heritage might have even helped our species from an evolutionary standpoint.
A big part of what makes humans such a successful species is our ability to form tribes, cooperate, and coordinate towards a common goal. In old hunter/gatherer societies, close-knit tribes weren’t quite as concerned about the paternity of their kids. They took a more communal approach to family. Logistically, they had to. They needed that level of cooperation to survive in a harsh, unforgiving world.
Given that humanity spent most of its history in this hunter/gatherer structure, the forces of evolution are already working against those seeking parental certainty. The rise of civilization complicated things, but not to an extent that people couldn’t get away with fooling around. The fact that the average number of sexual partners for people these days is more than one only reveals that the inclinations is definitely there.
That’s an important factor to remember because as DNA testing becomes easier and cheaper, it won’t be possible to avoid the implications. People cheat. People keep secrets. People lie to their kids, sometimes without knowing it. For the most part, it hasn’t affected our ability to function as families and a society. Whether the emerging truth written within our DNA changes that remains to be seen.