DNA Tests: The Great Genetic Reckoning - THE DAILY CRUCIBLE



Thursday, February 4, 2021

DNA Tests: The Great Genetic Reckoning

By Abimbola Adelakun   
On Monday, a judge of the Delta State High Court, Anthony Okorodas, ignited some furore when he revealed that he learnt through DNA tests that the three children he had with his ex-wife were not his biological children. It is confounding why a whole judge thought it prudent to make this information public. Why subject the innocent children to the trauma of living down the shame of parental indiscretions? Three young people thrown to the wolves of clickbait and rumour-mongering based on decades-old sins. Why? There should be more sensible ways to disgrace one’s ex-wife and her family.

If there is a form of darkness that modern science has been shedding blinding light on for the past few years, it is the composition of our genes. Worldwide, especially in developed countries like the USA where DNA genetic testing has proliferated with personalised test kits that sell for as little as $100, peoples’ entire worlds have been massively ruptured by discovering their true lineages. There are stories of people now in their 50s and 60s who were looking to find out their history only to find that their DNA does not match that of the rest of their family. Men that sold or donated their sperm to fertility clinics in their younger years now have to deal with the awkwardness of dozens (and sometimes, hundreds) of children reaching out to them and wanting to meet them. What they thought they did discreetly in their younger years is forcing a reckoning, massively upsetting their calibrated world.
In some of the accounts relayed by these people, they spoke of how massively their world was upended by the discovery. How does one start a conversation with one’s aged father about paternity fraud? Some would have asked their mothers for the truth, but the women are either dead or suffering memory loss. One woman narrated how she begged her 80 something-year-old mother to tell how she could find her father, but the mother kept denying anything ever happened. Someone narrated how she was helping her husband trace his family, only to find along the line that she too was not her father’s biological daughter! The stories are perplexing. Discovering that the safe and reassuring world one had built around oneself was a falsehood cannot but bewilder. Several stories tell how people developed a mental breakdown following the jarring revelation of being someone’s dirty secret. The science behind DNA is not perfect, but it has led to some important discoveries.
Nigeria has not been spared of the drama of this reckoning. Now and then, we hear a case of a man who found out that the children he thought he sired were not his. On hearing such stories, Nigerians predictably go gaga and launch the jaded commentary about how “women of these days” can no longer be trusted as if adultery started only yesterday. Just like the westerners who are now finding out -no thanks to DNA tests- that their mothers were not simple housewives who had eyes only for their fathers, we are also reckoning with the rupturing of the falsely-held belief that cheating is a male thing. Practices of infidelity are as old as time, and our grandfathers and great-grandfathers were not always ignorant of the possibility that some of the children their many wives produced could not be theirs. What is different between then and now is that DNA testing at least gives us an objective means of determining a child’s paternity.
Traditional societies tried to mitigate the fallout of adultery with all kinds of taboos. In some cultures, they say that if a woman should ever have sex outside her marriage, the husband would die. Now we know all of that is complete nonsense borne out of the misogyny of patriarchal societies that makes a woman bear the burden of the suspicion of his death. A man could die at any time and for any reason that had nothing to do with the wife. In some cultures, they make a woman swear in a shrine to never cheat on her husband. Some cultures devised spurious tests for ascertaining whether a child belonged to a man or not, and much of those tests can be debunked with even a basic knowledge of science. For a society to have instituted those practices to control waywardness, it means infidelity is not novel. What we will never know is the degree to which people who lived in those traditional societies routinely violated those taboos around extramarital affairs unless we carried out genetic testing on every one of them.

The DNA is a god before whom an adulterous person can hardly swear falsely, and the truths they unleash are difficult to bear. They are hard on the man who not only discovers his wife’s betrayal but also finds that the children he supposed would carry on his lineage traits have links to another man. The consequences are hard on women who discover the living proof of their husbands’ indiscretions and sometimes find themselves thrust into inheritance battles. Then, the children. They often find themselves amidst a war for which they never asked. During the alleged paternity scandal involving a bank Managing Director, we saw how nosy people gleefully circulated the photographs of the underage children involved. The impulse to chomp on gossip completely trumped concerns for the mental state of the poor children who would now bear what is tantamount to the mark of Cain. We should be careful how we dramatise these private issues when underage children are involved.
Paternity fraud will keep unravelling for many years in our future. Now that the genetic testing companies are seeing the massive interest people are developing in knowing whether their children are truly theirs, Africa will be their next business destination. Already, genetic testing is a gigantic enterprise, worth up to $60billion. They can shoot up that figure in developing countries if they make those tests much cheaper and far more accessible. Soon, the things some of us have done in secret will be brought to light. We will be forced to meet step-siblings, aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and grandparents we never knew we had. Some of us will be so overwhelmed with all of it and walk away, and some of us will redefine our ideas of what constitutes “family” and embrace what we can. Some of us who have built our identity around our various tribes will be shocked that those we denigrate are our family. It will not be pretty, but it is coming.
On the brighter side, DNA testing might be one of the best things that happen to us. Most of the commentaries on the issue of paternity fraud have been preponderantly focused on paternity fraud and adultery scandals. That is quite understandable. Issues of sex generate natural deposits of rage, and the media through which we circulate such discourses makes them easy to mine. We will do well to know that even with the availability of DNA tests, extramarital affairs will always happen. People will only be more careful now that children’s paternity can be factually determined. Beyond the outrage of who has had sex with who that we are currently concerned with, there are other important reasons to welcome DNA tests.

Over time, as they get more popular and more genetic profiles are acquired, there will also be the advantage of tracking our ancestry more definitively to keep track of the diseases to which lineages are prone. We are a society that spends endless hours praying against “ancestral demons” we blame for disrupting our lives. With DNA, we can at least map out our ancestry more objectively and keep track of those demons that came to us through our genes. This possibility will be invaluable for our society that does not diligently keep birth records, and where people buy children from baby factories. Once we finally get to move past the regular outrage at who has slept with who, we will discover a universe of possibilities that will change our world in profound ways.

•Abimbola Adelakun is a columnist of The Punch. 

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