Friday, January 30, 2009

Huh? DNA determinism?

Earlier this week this blogger turned on the radio and was listening to NPR's Talk of the Nation. The Jan 27th episode, "'African American Lives 2' searches for roots," happened to be on, in which the host Lynn Neary was interviewing Henry Louis Gates Jr. and discussing how he (Gates) was using DNA testing and genealogy research to unravel the family histories of people (including a number of African-american celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Chris Rock, Tom Joyner, and others...)

Well, in this particular episode they discussed a number of people for whom Gates had performed this service, uncovering some amazing stories in peoples' backgrounds. For example, for Tom Joyner you can follow the link below. However, it's not this that struck this blogger, it was the interview with Tom Joyner. The dialogue went like this:

NEARY: All right. Well, joining us now by phone from Dallas is Tom Joyner, host of the nationally syndicated radio program "The Tom Joyner Morning Show." Good to have you with us.
Mr. TOM JOYNER: And Skip Gates changed my life.
NEARY: Yeah. How did he change your life? Explain that - what you mean by that.
Mr. JOYNER: OK. "African American Lives 2" - I'm one of the celebrities that he does the genealogy.
NEARY: Right.
Mr. JOYNER: And I didn't know where all this success and all this philanthropy came from. You know, I thought it came from my environment because I come from a rich town in Alabama, deep in the heart of Dixie, rich with black history. I am a Tuskegean.
Prof. GATES: Yeah.
Mr. JOYNER: And not only am I from Tuskegee, but my parents - both parents - came to Tuskegee to be a part of the Tuskegee Airmen program.
NEARY: Mm hmm.
Mr. JOYNER: So, I thought it all came from this environment of a can-do attitude, you know. But when I did the genealogy with Skip and the people that he had out in Utah - oh, man. It let me know where everything - I admit, I didn't know a whole lot about DNA. As much as I knew about DNA, I got from the O.J. trial.
NEARY: Well, you're…
Mr. JOYNER: But you do the DNA - you know, what he was just talking about, you know, you put "Roots" in a test tube. I mean, it is amazing. And he took me all the way back - he took me all the way back to Africa. And…

At this point the conversation went into some of what they found out about Tom Joyner's background, that he got his eyes from his maternal third great-grandfather (a Supreme Court Justice from North Carolina); and that his great-uncles had been executed after being falsely accused of murder... The conversation then continued as follows:

NEARY: Would you say - I mean, you said at the very beginning, Tom - and we only have a couple of minutes left - but you said this changed your life. I mean, literally changed your life? Do you really think differently about yourself now?
Mr. JOYNER: Yes. Yes. I've often, you know, stopped and wondered where all this came from. I used to be ashamed to admit it, but I'm very successful.
Mr. JOYNER: And not for reasons that most people are successful. And I have found that, through doing my genealogy, where it all comes from, that it's - the DNA is some kind of map, and I happened to fall at this place, at this time on that map. I am truly the right place at the right time. I have been blessed to have been put here through a series of, you know, these ancestors over here and the ancestors over there, and it all came together.
NEARY: All right, Tom Joyner. Thanks so much for joining.
Mr. JOYNER: And I feel I'm living the perfect storm.
NEARY: Thanks so much for joining us today, Tom.
Mr. JOYNER: Thank you.

OK, so maybe this blogger has misunderstood what Joyner really meant, especially since he didn't come out and say it, but it really sounded like he was saying that he now believes that it is his DNA which has determined the path of his life, and that his success is not due to his environment, his family, and his upbringing, but due to his DNA! Sounds like genetic determinism, or biological determinism... DNA is cool and such, but this is really over the top!

African American Lives 2 - Tom Joyner
Nature vs. Nurture

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