The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Monday, May 23, 2016

My Genetics Test

Frank Lesko, 23andme Ancestry Report
Click on the picture if you have trouble reading the text.


I sat at the dining room table several weeks ago spitting into a vial for what seemed like an eternity. After I had produced an ample sample of saliva, I sealed it up and mailed it off to for a comprehensive genetics test. Thankfully, the provided return box didn't require any spit to seal.
Several weeks later, a computer spit back a report.


My primary goal was to test for methylation issues. Because of the way I respond to stress and interact with certain vitamin supplements, I am almost certain I have the infamous (and comically named) MTHFR gene. I will be exceedingly surprised if the test does not confirm this. The MTHFR gene is only the first in a long line of potential methylation issues in the body, so it is good to have a thorough test to build a targeted approach to addressing it.

The initial report arrived in my inbox recently. I need to submit the data into another program to get the methylation results, and I may blog about that in the future.

However, what did come back in the initial report is, among other things, a detailed description of my probable ethnic ancestry. It caught me off guard, as I was only half aware that the test would deliver this information. There were some major surprises that have left my imagination swimming since then!

Family oral history

Let's start with what I've always been told. Family tradition has been consistently straightforward: My dad is 100% Slovak, and my mom is 50% Polish and 50% Slovak.

My dad’s parents met in Cleveland, OH, but were from neighboring towns outside of Košice, a city in eastern Slovakia. My Polish ancestors were from southeastern Poland, not far from Košice, as well.  I think my mom’s Slovak ancestors were also from this region, but I need to confirm this.

Somewhat reliable family tradition also says that somewhere in the double or triple great-grandmother level was a German ancestor, both on my mom’s Polish side and somewhere on my dad’s side.

Other than that, though, my background seemed darn near homogenous. It sure looked like my immediate family came from a very specific region of the world! We were peasant class folk who had been living in the same area for as long as anyone knew.
At first glance, the test seemed to corroborate with what I've always been told. However, the more I looked, the more surprises I discovered.
Bombshell #1

I was somewhat disappointed to find that I tested almost exclusively European. I seemed to have a predominately Eastern European ancestry. There were no traces of African, no Ashkenazi (Jewish), no Middle Eastern, no Native American, no Asian—well, except for one small exception.

What drew my attention immediately was that the test showed I have a small representation of genes from East Asia. Granted, it is an extremely small amount, but it’s there! 0.3% of my genes are specifically from the Siberian population of the Yakut people, with an additional 0.2% classified as unspecific East Asian (which could include Chinese, Mongolian, Japanese, Korean or Yakut). 

The mind wonders and wanders how in the world did 0.5% of my genes come from East Asia. Granted, it is a small number, but it is there.

I started imagining scenarios as to how this could have happened. Did a Yakut migrant wander into East Europe? Did a European missionary interact with the Yakutz population? Then it hit me:  This could be a living remnant of the Mongolian invasion of Europe in the 13th century. I remember reading in James Michener’s Poland that many Poles to this day have noticeable Mongolian features. I researched and sure enough, the Mongolian army would have included people from the Yakut population. Chilling.

This kind of genetic report has a margin of error. In fact, there is a sliding bar where you can adjust the algorithms for a more conservative or risky estimate of your ancestry. However, even on conservative settings, a portion of the Yakut genes remained. Wow.

Bombshell #2

At first glance, my ethnic ancestry on this report seems to match what my family had always told me. The test showed me as predominately Eastern European, what we might call northern Slavic. No surprises there, right?

Well, not so fast. When I looked closer, a very different portrait of my ethic ancestry emerged.

The test only showed me as 63.7% Eastern Europe. By all accounts, I should have been a whole lot closer to 90% or more.

By far, the biggest surprise was that the test showed that I have an ethnic makeup of 21.2% from Southern Europe. This includes a whopping 14.7% from the Balkan region, 0.5% Italian and the remaining 6% as broadly Southern European (meaning: the test couldn't drill it down any further).

Absolutely nothing in my family history corroborates this in the least.

21.2% is a large swath—it is almost the portion of a grandparent! The Balkan region identified by this test includes everything as far south as Greece/Crete on up through Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, Bulgaria, Moldovia and Macedonia. Perhaps this explains my longstanding fascination with all things related to the Ancient Greeks! Romanians are Slavic people from the Balkan region but also have a Roman heritage, so perhaps that is a connection?

Again, my mind wonders and wanders through scenarios. My grandma Lesko used to tell me stories of encounters with the Gypsies and the tensions between them and the local Slovak population. She was often not very polite about the problems between these groups. Had there been any mixing with the Gypsy population, given the tensions and stigma, it is highly possible that it would have been hushed and the child raised as Slovak. But would the test regard Gypsy ancestry as “Balkan?” I am not sure about that. I’m actually surprised "Gypsy" doesn’t have its own category, given what must be a very unique genetic history. I think 23and me is working to expand and develop its genetic database and may include more categories in the future.

The Balkan region includes some of the poorest parts of Europe--Albania and Bulgaria come to mind. It would have made sense for people in this region to migrate looking for work or as war refugees. For a thousand years prior to the 20th century, most of Eastern Europe had been united first under the Ottomans and then under the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. As a result, it probably would have been easier to migrate within this empire than elsewhere. Perhaps Slovakia saw an influx of people from South Europe who just blended in over time. Perhaps it was individual workers or even whole families who came to call themselves “Slovak” or “Polish” over time. 

The test cannot show which parents the specific genes come from, but it can suggest whether the genes are from a single parent or from both parents. In this case, it seems that both of my parents have some of these South European genes. It seems safe to say that there was more than just a single person of Balkan ancestry who got mixed into the family. [If another family member took the test and linked up with mine, the test could better determine which side of the family the genes come from.]

My Polish great-grandfather said that before coming to America, he and his brother (Karol and Kasimir) were often farmed out—literally—across western Europe. Since the family was “poor as church mice” back in Poland, they followed the harvests as migrant workers in France and Germany in the early 20th century. It is well within reason that people from the Balkans did the same thing in earlier generations, either as individuals or as whole families, and either settled or left some offspring in Slovakia or Poland. There has been far more genetic mixing in the "Old World" than most of us are willing to consider.

Still, 21.2% is an extremely large percentage, and it is surprising that not a trace of this history remains anywhere in the family's collective memory, given that it probably had to have been pretty recent.

Not a Bombshell, but Still Fascinating

Despite family tradition, the test showed no decisive traces of German ancestry. However, there is a category of Northwest European, which could include German. This accounts for 5% of my ancestry:  2% Scandinavian, 0.4% British/Irish, 0.2% Finnish and 2.5% Broadly Northwestern European. So perhaps this piece does corroborate oral history.

The small portion of Scandinavian ancestry could also have a wartime origin. The Vikings were well known for invading the British Isles, but they also terrorized Poland centuries ago with a war as recently as the mid 1600s. Given the close geographical proximity, though, there are other more benevolent possibilities for how those genes got mixed into the family line. Perhaps a missionary, soldier or a traveling royalty mixed with the local population.
Further Reflection
It is very unnerving to discover that my ethnic ancestry may be quite different from what I have always been told! I spent a day or two just finding my footing. Still, I have to wonder: Is this test accurate? Am I getting carried away for no reason? Did the test "sensationalize" my ancestry, creating a more imaginative background than reality? If these other ancestries are true, how far back could those genes come from?

A concept like "ethnic ancestry" is a constantly moving target. All of humankind is ultimately related, and some say that every human on the plant shares at least one common ancestor going back perhaps as recent at 5,000 years ago. That seems hard to believe until you do the math.

A test like this only shows ancestry going back maybe 10 generations, which would probably have been around 250 years ago (if you average 25 years per generation). 10 generations ago, there were 1024 people who were my direct ancestors--each of them would have been my grandparent with 8 "greats" in front. Each one of those people accounts for slightly less than 0.1% of my total genes.  The test doesn't drill down any more than 0.1%. And that only takes us back to the mid 1700s.

If you keep doubling the amount of ancestors every 25 years, then there would have been about 8 thousand ancestors during the most recent Swedish invasion of Poland and a whopping 536 million people who were my direct ancestors at the time of the Mongolian invasion of Poland. That assumes that there was no "overlap" in the family tree, which is impossible. It is doubtful that there were 536 million people in East Europe at all during that time. I am unclear whether the genes I have today would match a modern Yakut or Scandinavian person or whether those genes would have come from something much more recent.

So I'll continue to brood over this and share more insights. Whether this test is accurate or not, it is fascinating to imagine what could have happened and where we all come from!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

How Is Everything Tasting?

I’m not sure when it came into use, but a few years ago I started noticing that wait staff in restaurants would come to my table with a new question:  How is everything tasting?

It’s in near universal use now. In fact, it is quite noticeable to me whenever a waiter doesn't use this exact wording, because those times are extremely rare. In those cases, I figure it must be a trainee who is quickly taken out back and throttled after this faux pas.
This question disturbs me. It’s not just because it's a grammatical hack job: I certainly hope that my food is not tasting anything at all, because I prefer my food to be dead before I eat it. I am the one doing the tasting, not my food, thank you very much. If that’s not the case, I would certainly like to know, so I could make my exit and find another establishment where I could enjoy a meal of good, dead food. I’m okay with a few living microbes on my plate, but animals and plants should not be alive when the wait staff brings them to me. It sounds morbid to state this out loud--and it is, quite literally-- but it is the reality .

I'm not much of a grammatical snob. I enjoy regional variations in dialect. Language evolves, and what’s incorrect today may be in the rulebooks tomorrow. This particular phrase does stick in my craw, however, as it is particularly tasteless, if you pardon the puns. 
But that’s not what’s really bothering me.
No, what bothers me is that mealtime has been downgraded from a holistic experience of culture, memories, dreams and relationships to simply a matter of bodily pleasure.

I consider this a telltale sign of the downward trajectory of the health of our culture.

In the past, a waiter might have asked: How are you?  Or: How is everything?

Though very general, those are open-ended questions through which the staff would have been trying to gauge all aspects of their patrons' dining experience--food, ambiance, service. Within that, there would have been a deeper, implied question--how are you?

Mealtime is a cornerstone of human culture, so these questions are mightily important.

To now ask, how is everything tasting? reduces the meal experience to only an experience of pleasure sensations. Complex social interactions are being described as consumer transactions. You are purchasing a product, and the sly-but-ever-so-significant implication is that its taste is the only relevant factor in the dining experience. In fact, this question is not only a sign of the decline of civilization, but it actually helps to facilitate that decline.
How so?  It's an illusion of choice: You are not being told outright what opinion to have. No, that would never happen in freedom-loving America. Your opinion absolutely matters, as any marketer would tell you. It is, after all, all about you.
But it's not. What is going on is much more sinister. You are being told the category and range in which meaning itself is recognized or, dare we say, allowed.  You can like or not like the food all you want, and the wait staff and their employers really want to know. But it's taste is the sole criterion for your opinion.
Human flourishing, cultural meaning, the spirituality of mealtime--those are non-criteria. Those are not to be discussed. Those aspects are not being refuted or argued against--no, that would actually give them power. Even worse, they are completely ignored altogether. They simply don't exist. Those kittens have been drowned in the river. Human hope, where the sum is greater than the parts, that language is gone. No, we are merely cogs in the wheel of consumer transactions, moving from one sensation to another.
Please, pass the red pill. I hear it's really tasting good.