French Identity Meets Biology

Melissia Mason
What does it mean to be French? Is it birthplace? Language? Home address? DNA? This question is one that French Instructor Eloise Bererd has posed to her Advanced Studies French Identity class. To inform the conversation, the class joined in a discussion of DNA with a biology class led by Science Instructor Dr. Julie Matthews.
“Why is human DNA so similar to the DNA of a banana?” Dr. Matthews put the question to the two classes, who were gathered together in a Hunter science classroom. After learning that human DNA is approximately 60% identical to that of a banana, students suggested reasons why this might be the case. Identifying the various functions that might be similar. Suggestions like we’re alive, we metabolize, we reproduce, and that we have skin (though the skin of a banana is unlikely to be evolutionarily related to human skin) laid the groundwork for exploring the millions of strands of DNA that create “the message that makes you you.”

With today’s use of DNA tests for genealogical research, discovering potential health conditions, finding lost family, and even solving crimes, many people now have access to an array of information that is held in their DNA. All human DNA is 99.9% the same. But with about 6.4 billion bases in a person’s genetic code, that 0.1% difference allows for over 6 million variations in the traits we recognize as our own. Within those DNA sequences, there are variations linked to traits that allow an organism to live (like breathing and metabolizing food), there are other “silent” mutations that do not show up in a person’s attributes in any way, and there is also a very small quantity of DNA that contribute to a person’s physical attributes. Dr. Matthews explained to the assembled students that these silent mutations, often uncovered in a typical DNA test, can be used to identify a person’s country of origin.

In explaining how DNA can come to be known as “French” as opposed to any other nationality or geographical location, Dr. Matthews presented a painting entitled “French Peasant Girl” from 1871. “Assuming this is a real person in 1871, do you think she is more likely to have babies with a Russian man or a French man,” she asked. Noting the geographic distance between the two locations, and the limited methods of traveling available in 1871, the students agreed that this girl would be most likely to have children with a French man. Given this social context, DNA companies have been able to identify certain markers within DNA as being common to certain regions of the world. One common method of associating certain sequences with a particular population of people is either whole genome sequencing, which can be time consuming, or examining single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are areas in the DNA that vary by a single base.  Since all DNA is heritable, SNPs can be passed down through generations of related people.  SNPs can appear in either the “coding” part of the DNA that is linked to our traits, or within the “silent” portions of our DNA that are not reflected in the way our bodies are formed.  Silent mutations are more likely to be preserved in our genetic lineage because they do not interfere with our basic function.

Over time, humans moved about, taking their DNA with them. In some countries, colonization impacted the spread of DNA to various regions. In the case of France, French colonial countries are spread throughout western Africa and even further around the globe. In an intersection of the history of colonization and the biological reality of reproduction and DNA transfer, students could see how what may be termed “French” DNA could be found in many geographic regions around the world.

So, what does all of this mean for French identity? In France, there is currently a national debate around whether the government can define the French national identity. Is it possible that a French person could have little or no French DNA? And, if so, how can one define what it is to be French? By way of example, Ms. Bererd shared an example of DNA from a family member which showed a small amount of French DNA compared to other geographies, yet that person identifies as French and their family has lived in France for generations.

In AS French Identity, the goal is to give students the tools to reflect on French identity, as well as study the rise of a narrow vision of nationalism, not only within Europe but all over the world. These tools can then be used to gain insight into identity in any part of the world and understand the complexities involved with national identity. Ms. Bererd hopes that studying French identity in this way will allow students to reflect more deeply on their own identity and origin stories.

In addition to the incorporation of biology into AS French, Ms. Bererd leads students to consider diverse approaches (historical, cultural, civic) to find trends in French identity. She has recruited a pool of French individuals from her own life who represent different ages, genders, backgrounds, and origins. These volunteers engage the class through video recordings on Flipgrid, responding to questions about identity, starting with stereotypes. 

The class will go on to look at major periods of French history (from “Les lumières” to the revolution, through slavery, colonization, WWII or the War of Algeria), sociology, and consider symbols, religions, secularism, women’s rights, discrimination, and immigration. They are able to hear directly from French citizens, and will eventually have conversations live via Zoom in addition to the Flipgrid platform. Ms. Bererd also hopes to develop a community engagement connection with a francophone family through the RISSE Center, a local organization which supports newcomers to the Capital Region.

AS French Identity is one of this year’s new Advanced Studies courses developed by Emma’s faculty for Emma’s own unique advanced learning program, designed to go beyond Advanced Placement™ classes. In her second year teaching at Emma, Ms. Bererd designed the class in response to urging from Language Department Chair Gina Egan to dream big. “I said, ‘Really? Are you sure?’” Ms. Bererd explains that she had never experienced this kind of freedom to create curriculum before. Ms. Egan encouraged her to consider something that is her passion and that she herself wants to learn more about. 

“French identity came right to my mind,” Ms. Bererd enthuses. “When she asked me what I wanted to talk about regarding France, I didn’t want to focus on clichés. My goal is to give a portrait that is as close as possible to reality.” She explains that her own reasons for leaving France result from persecution related to her Muslim faith and a lack of freedom to express her faith. “France is not the perfect country, and yet there are so many things I love about my country. The idea is to explore the history to understand why we find ourselves dealing with conflicting identities now. There are a lot of clues to explain why we are here today while still appreciating the beauty of the country as well.”

For her part, Dr. Matthews said, “Humans love to talk about how different they are from one another. In large part I think many ignore that we are largely the same. It is easy for a person to wonder “if they don’t look like me, are they actually anything like me at all?” The answer is yes.  No matter what you look like, you’re 99.9% the same, from a biological perspective, as every other human on earth. We really are one big human family.
French Instructor Eloise Bererd and Science Instructor Dr. Julie Matthews

French Instructor Eloise Bererd and Science Instructor Dr. Julie Matthews