Tuesday 29 October 2013

Grassing up the cuckolds

"timeo Danaos et dona ferentes" Aeneid. "Beware the Greeks when they bring gifts". Or when they give people ideas. Blonde and blue-eyed children have been in the news again these past days.  A new push on the hunt for Madeleine McCann by the Portuguese police brought a comment from a media-savant that this story would have dried up and blown away years ago if the child had been less photogenic. Another b&b-e girl was discovered under a bed in a Roma encampment by the police in Greece and found to have been 'donated' to the parents by an indigent mother (or not: the story is still trundling).  Our own President was given away to his aunt and uncle by his own troubled birth family, so the practice is not wholly reprehensible - just unregulated. Our increasingly monolithic state feels the need to regulate ever more aspects of our lives.

So something murky may have happened at the far end of the EU but in Ireland it woke up a number of people to the fact that their darkish neighbours had a b&b-e child in their midst and thought it was their citizen's duty to telephone the Gardai.  The Gardai had never been put into that precise position before although they have a key role to play in child protection when snap decisions have to be made often at night.  They took two children (from two unrelated, geographically separated families) into care over the protests and the paperwork of their parents.  DNA tests were carried out and within 48 hours the scientifically (huzzah!) legitimised childer were returned to their parents.  I have to ask "who owns the DNA tests?".  Because those things can be sensitive.  Do you just hand a copy of the results back to the people who have (unwillingly, maybe) given you a buccal-smear or a hair-follicle to analyse?

D'you remember grandfather's portentous comment in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf "and if a wolf did come out of the forest, what then?".  I allude to a metaphorical wolf in cuckold's clothing.  What will the HSE and the Forensic Science Laboratory and the Gardai do when the next one of these mother-father-child triads shows unequivocally that the last is not, cannot be genetically, the offspring of the declared father, what then?  And having made the discovery, who knows?  There seems to have been a raree show out in Tallaght last week as media people went out to rubber-neck.  They are not allowed (to protect the innocent child in the family) to broadcast what they find but their press passes allow them to hang out (and know where everyone lives).

Because there's a lot of that about and if the state aspires to regulate extra-marital sex, then a bankrupt state definitely won't have the resources to police it. When I say 'a lot of it about', I mean non-paternity not merely adultery or journalists gawping at the distressed. For the rate of NP, you have the pick from a wide range of estimates: 0.03% to 30%, (four orders of magnitude) depending on what point you wish to make.  These data, all supposedly about the same thing, are difficult to reconcile and/or incorporate into a meta-analysis.  They come from a wide range of sources, some anecdotal, some formal science, some with very large sample sizes and some with small.  The largest estimates of the rate of non-paternity tend to come from legal cases where paternity is actually in dispute and the smaller numbers come from solid respectable bourgeois families and the mid-range estimates come from the dispossessed. I should say that some of these studies predate DNA testing by decades and several of them predate Crick & Watson's elucidation of the structure of DNA - those being based on simple Mendelian inheritance like ABO blood groups and the ability to taste PTC.  The urban legend figure is 10-15% but most people reckon that's too high. I would bet €100 that 3% is within half an order of magnitude (range, say, 1-10%) for random Irish mother-father-child triads.  I'd take a punt that the children of the Oireachtas number about 500, so there are 15 mothers to the Oireachtas who really don't want the state to implement DNA testing at birth, or have widespread testing in the community of legislators.

If you don't ask, you can't tell what the result of any 3-way test is; but having carried out the test you have to answer, and probably pay, for your actions. Here's a recent editorial in Nature about the issues of childhood genome testing sparked by such cunning plans as the GSNSD Genomic Sequencing and Newborn Screening Disorders project.