Heinz 57

Sunday 2 November 2014 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — All Souls Day

Father Tom Costa and I were chatting during the recent priests’ retreat. Let me hasten to assure you, dear readers, that in no way were we breaking the Sacred silence of the retreat. We were chatting in the specific time allotted for such social activity. You know me, I would never break the Spiritual discipline of silence let alone lead someone else into temptation. At any rate, we were talking about (of all things) — canine DNA. Tom and I are both dog people. 

Tom mentioned that, through the miracle of modern science, you can now (for a fee) have your mutt’s saliva tested. By a simple test, scientists can establish the breed mix and thereby settle the matter once and for all. No more guessing that the legs look like part Dachshund, the body perhaps St. Bernard, and the head definitely a Chihuahua’s. Neither Tom nor I were the least bit interested in having our dogs’ DNA tested. It would make no difference to us whatsoever. 

Greyhound Transit and his adopted cousin Justin are purebred. Racing dog owners make a big deal about the animal’s bloodline. There are carefully inscribed archival documents and websites dedicated to this matter. When you adopt a greyhound, you must solemnly swear never to breed the animal (even with another greyhound) and thus mix the lineage. But then I got to thinking — which always gets me into trouble. Is any dog really purebred? Don’t all domestic dogs descend from the wolf? There must be genes other than greyhound in there someplace. Furthermore, I can tell at a glance the difference between an American Greyhound, an Irish Greyhound, and an Italian Greyhound. How can all three be purebred? As they used to say back in the day, “My dog is a Heinz 57.” 

When I arrived home from my retreat, there on my desk was a sealed envelope. Inside the envelope were the scientific test results on my DNA. This is not normally something one finds on one’s desk. Here’s the backstory. 

Every few weeks, the pastors of Falmouth meet for supper. The table conversation turned to DNA testing. Father Arnold Medeiros had sent a sample of his DNA to a lab to investigate his ancestry. It’s part of the revival of interest in genealogy. Father Arnie was born in the Azores. Naturally, he had always considered himself to be 100 percent American-Portuguese. Was he ever surprised to learn that it simply wasn’t the case. There were other bloodlines in his family. This I found fascinating. Noticing my enthusiasm in the matter, Father Arnie generously offered to have my own DNA tested. This is the reason a DNA report appeared on my desk. 

Now, I know the ancestry of my four grandparents, so I expected the results to indicate I was 50 percent Irish, 25 percent Yankee, and 25 percent Azorean. The test proved that I was about half Irish, so I got that right. It was the only thing I did get right. 

First, what I am not. There is no measurable trace of Native-American in me, no Asian and no Pacific Islander. Not surprising. I was surprised, however, to learn that somewhere in my family tree is a person from North Africa and another from the Middle East. I am 98 percent European ancestry, according to the report, but some of the European genes come from unexpected places. Here’s the breakdown: 47 percent Irish, 15 percent British, 14 percent Scandinavian, nine percent Roman, seven percent West European, five percent Portuguese, and one percent European Jewish. 

Where did all these Scandinavians come from and why are they hanging out in my family tree? My guess would be Viking raids on Irish settlements. My sister is unquestionably a redhead and I did have a reddish beard before it turned grey. Roman? Well, the Romans did occupy the Iberian Peninsula. So did the Moors. That would explain the Middle Eastern and North African genes. What about Jewish? There were Jewish colonies in Portugal during medieval times. 

The report stressed the results were “approximate.” The technology is still developing. Even so, a simple test proved that I am really not just Irish, Yankee, and Azorean. I am Heinz’s 57 varieties. So are you.

I suspect that with increasing refinement in the area of DNA testing and with the storage of DNA data from around the world, there will come a day when the peoples of the world will finally realize that we are all somehow related to each other. Then an anthropologist somewhere in Africa will discover an ancient tooth containing a tiny bit DNA. The DNA will contain a single chromosome shared with every modern human being. Some scientists call this Holy Grail of anthropology “Mitochondrial Eve.” Since Mitochondrial Eve, there has never been such thing as a purebred nor will there ever be.

When this day of discovery dawns upon the human race, the saber-rattling; ethnic cleansing; bigotry; and racism that have plagued the earth for countless millennia will at last be understood for what they are — complete and total foolishness.  

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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