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Differences, Demonization, and DNA

By Tessa K.J. Haining, Contributing Opinion Writer
Tessa K.J. Haining ’23 lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

“I note the obvious differences / in the human family,” begins Maya Angelou in her poem, “Human Family.” “Some of us are serious, / some thrive on comedy.” She goes on: “I’ve sailed upon the seven seas / and stopped in every land, / I’ve seen the wonders of the world / not yet one common man.” Yet she finishes: “I note the obvious differences / between each sort and type, / but we are more alike, my friends / than we are unalike.”

“We are more alike, my friends, / than we are unalike.”

That’s not a message we hear a lot of these days. If I’ve learned anything from the recent election, it’s that we’ve come to a world where the sheer ubiquity of “demonization,” to quote President-Elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s Nov. 7 address, has prevented us from seeing those who disagree with us as human beings, let alone alike. They’re people, too, but we’ve seemed to forget that.

But what are we trying to get out of all of this moralizing, accusation, and condescension? The election has finished. Now that the match is over and the court lights are being switched off, how should we think about that “other side?” We can’t just denigrate and dehumanize those with whom we don’t agree and still expect them to listen to and understand the changes we want to see. We have to listen to them in turn. And to do that, we have to acknowledge that behind every red and blue are human beings, too. It’s what Biden said in his address: “We are not enemies. We are Americans.” It’s what Maya Angelou said in her poem, that we are “more alike […] than we are unalike.” And if we look inside ourselves, we’ll find this to be true.

Because we are indeed more alike than we are unalike, scientifically as well as philosophically. What makes us “us,” from a biological standpoint, are our genes: stretches of DNA, double helices usually coiled up tight in the nuclei of our cells. DNA is made up of nucleotide “base pairs,” adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine, the building blocks of the genetic code that tells our cellular machinery what kind of proteins to produce. In the mid-nineteenth century, long before we knew what genes or DNA were, an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel grew forests of purple and white pea plants to speculate that parents might pass down different flavors of a trait to their children. A hundred and fifty years later, we know that Mendel was onto something, and thus the complicated field of genetics was born.

If we consider a gene to be a potentially million base-pair long segment of DNA, then what makes each individual human unique is that across all the 25,000 or so genes that together comprise the human genome, the sequence for no two humans is exactly the same. A combination of inherited differences and random mutations, each human’s genome can be thought of as a DNA “fingerprint,” driving the wealth of diversity that creates human genetic variation.

Most genetic variation results from SNPs — pronounced “snips” — or “single nucleotide polymorphisms.” A SNP is basically a one-base-pair differential between two given variants of a gene, an A instead of a G, for example. That tiny alteration in the genetic code can change one particular Lego block in the massive protein structure that that gene encodes, which then in turn keeps our cells and bodies running. Most of the time, the SNP has no effect on protein function; sometimes, it can have deleterious consequences; and sometimes, it just changes the trait, like the SNP that encodes lactase persistence as opposed to our ancestral lactose intolerance. Often, countless SNPs occur for a given set of genes; that’s how we get the rainbow of traits we know as humanity.

Never have we known more about the millions of SNPs in the human genome than we do now. The first sequencing of the human genome in 2000, a beacon of scientific global collaboration, gave us our first base-pair reference for the genetic code. And in 2015, the 1000 Genomes Project found that across thousands of sequenced genomes of 3 billion base pairs each, from 26 different human populations, only 0.6 percent of base pairs differed by various SNPs.

In other words, we are greater than 99 percent genetically similar to our neighbor, no matter what ethnicity or gender or culture they may be. This fact runs so radically contrary to the divisiveness with which we’ve considered different cultures and populations throughout history — a satisfying scientific repudiation to twentieth-century “race science.” In our biology, we are far, far more alike than we are unalike.

There’s one more aspect of Maya Angelou’s poem that I didn’t appreciate until just now. The poem doesn’t say that we are more alike than we are different; it says that we are more alike than we are unalike. In fact, most of “Human Family” is an appreciation of the “obvious differences” between people, treating difference as specifically not the antonym of alikeness. It’s just like biology: We are all different, with our eye color and hair color and other SNPs that make up our DNA fingerprint, but we as humans are 99 percent alike.

We are all Americans, as Joe Biden said. We have our spectrum of differences, but we can’t let those spiral into demonization, dissociating us from each other. We as Americans and as humans are fundamentally more alike than we are unalike, and we need to establish that as a baseline in politics going forward.

Tessa K.J. Haining ’23 lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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