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The History of Misattributed Parentage

The secrets of DNA tests have been hiding in plain sight throughout history.

The revelations of DNA testing can bring about surprises, as it has for the estimated 10 percent of commercial test-takers, equaling approximately 3 million people. However, the secrets unveiled by these tests are nothing new, as the storyline of misattributed parentage goes back throughout human history. The science has only just caught up with a component of humanity as old as time.

DNA itself was discovered accidentally by Swiss biochemist Frederick Miescher in 1869, taking another 80 years for it to be fully appreciated. Eventually, DNA was applied in criminal investigations beginning in 1986 in the UK, and discoveries in DNA science have been made steadily ever since, leading to the availability of commercial testing that began in the year 2000.

In her book The Lost Family, Libby Copeland details the history behind testing and the companies that developed the at-home kits that have changed millions of lives from learning they were not the children of the men they were raised to believe. Referred to as a non-paternal event (NPE) by the genealogists that coined it in 2000, it is also now referred to as misattributed parent experience or not parent expected; they learned their family and conception stories were very different, hiding a secret. Yet the stories are not so different that they haven't been heard of before.

Well before the science revealed secret affairs, sexual assault, or offered the opportunity for donor conceptions, humanity was engaged in a struggle between the biological drive to have sex and cultural need to control it. Like a puzzle constantly trying to fit together without a key piece to finish it, biology and culture have been at odds, frustrating one another. The drive to have sex is intended to be strong in order to promote the survival of the species; because we are compelled to have sex through a biological drive, we will.

Somewhere in human history, we began to use controls for sex, engaging those controls via culture and social norms, most often influenced by religion. Despite those controls, sex continued creating problems, mostly for women, along the way. It’s all there in the historical, literary, and cinematic record.

Pop culture offers the most prescient examples of NPE in beloved cinematic stories like Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back, Creed, The Mask of Zorro (1998), Thor: Ragnarok, and Indian Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Misattributed paternity represents the central plot twist to several stories in literature, like The Count of Monte Cristo and cult favorite Outlander, and is nearly a preoccupation for Greek mythology as most demigods discover their true paternity in their hero quests. Indeed, our own American cultural mythology uses the theme abundantly in the superhero origin stories of Superman and Wonder Woman.

The NPE theme is also seen in several books of the Bible, including Moses in Exodus, and in the least talked about misattribution, maternity: Abraham uses Sara’s servant Hagar as a surrogate. Perhaps the most well-known NPE story is the Christian story of Jesus, learning his true paternity on his 12th birthday in the most novel of ways, by an archangel.

I propose misattributed parentage is a common theme in our literature, film, and mythology because culturally it represents confusion regarding inheritance and property rights, and one can assume from the strictest definition that if one controls the breeding, one controls property rights. Now that these revelations have become more commonplace, they are losing their shock value for the public somewhat as people realize the theme has been hiding in plain sight over the centuries.

For the discoverers who are left putting the pieces back together after these revelations, it is little comfort how prevalent the NPE theme is due to the unwanted changes in identity and family dynamics. The overt condemnation of the reasons leading to misattributed parentage will continue, pitting biological forces against manufactured cultural norms to control them, perpetuating the quiet fascination with it. The secret may be out, but the effects of the secret are just beginning