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English Literature and Creative Writing

Double Helix history

Understanding how DNA sequencing changes the way people think about themselves and their relationship to the past.

Genealogy is one of the biggest activities on the planet. Genealogy is supported by massive subscription websites like Ancestry.com and Findyourpast.com, by huge institutions like the National Archives, and through a number of TV programmes and public history groups.

Ancestry.com and the like provide access to millions of records around the world for the user, and an interface which both encourages the construction of vast 'trees' but also the uploading of data as well as social network interaction with other users.

Genealogy, it might be argued, is the most influential way that people access their past, and certainly it is the most wide-spread citizen-history activity on the planet.

magnified dna strand

Increasingly these websites are adding a new tool to the researcher's armoury: DNA sequencing. The armchair genealogist investigates their past by spitting in a tube. The creation of huge repositories of DNA information about database users allows for data analysis to be undertaken, leading to 'scientific' speculation regarding the ancestry of the individual. Such sequencing changes the way that the participant thinks about the past, and about themselves. At the same time, information about 'ancient' DNA is constantly being reported in newspapers, as scientists discover more and more about the 'species' that is homo sapiens. DNA science is squeezing both ends of the chronological spectrum, defining the 'human' thousands of years ago and attending to a precise sense of human identity in the present. Therefore understanding of the past is profoundly changed by understanding of, and use of, genetic science.

This AHRC-funded project, led by Dr Jerome de Groot, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, seeks to think about what Jackie Stacey and others have termed the 'genetic imaginary'. That is, popular understanding of the work of DNA and, more particularly, how we might understand, represent, and visualise it. In particular, the project is interested in how DNA sequencing for 'leisure' purposes - making a family tree - might change the way that people think about themselves and the past. The project investigates the complicated intersection of genetics and popular narratives of the self and the past. How is this science represented and understood? How is it visualised? What does this mean for privacy, and the projection of the self online? What are the imaginative implications of sharing DNA data? Does DNA render an identity 'outside of history'? The project particularly seeks to understand how DNA sequencing changes the way that participants think about themselves and their relationship to the past.

For more information about the project, please contact the Principal Investigator, Dr Jerome de Groot. A list of Dr De Groot's publications on the subject and his contact details are available on his University research profile.