The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA

Jeff Wheelwright. Norton, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-393-08191-6
From breast cancer to secret Jewish rituals, hidden links signify unlikely kinships in this meditative exploration of the science of racial connectedness. Wheelwright, a science journalist, tells the story of Shonnie Medina, a young Hispano woman in Colorado of mixed Indian and Spanish ancestry who died of breast cancer in 1999. She carried a genetic mutation, BRCA1.185delAG, with implications both scary (a high risk of aggressive breast and ovarian cancer) and intriguing, because geneticists consider the mutation a reliable marker of Jewish descent. Wheel-wright maps the mutation’s itinerary from the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century B.C.E., when geneticists believe it first appeared, through the voyage of conversos—forced converts to Christianity—from Spain to the New World, where hints of Jewish practices persist among Hispano Catholics. But Wheelwright also ties Shonnie’s fate to culture and temperament: the apocalyptic expectations she drew from her Jehovah’s Witness faith; her vanity and feistiness, which led her to reject a mastectomy in favor of “alternative” treatments. (The author’s quiet indictment of New Age medical quackery is devastating.) Wheelwright pairs a clear exposition of the controversial sciences of genetic screening and ethnogeography with a sensitive account of how a modern identity is woven from ancient physical and spiritual strands. 10 illus. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 10/10/2011
Release date: 01/01/2012
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