Max Sparber didn't know who he was for 45 years. Suddenly, on Christmas Eve, that changed.
In an instant, Sparber went from playing a game on his iPad to staring at a screen detailing his genetic self.
He discovered answers to questions he'd wondered about his entire life, and he found confirmation of things he never thought to question. He's Irish-American (an important fact for reasons revealed soon). His ancestors came from the ancient Near East. They brought agriculture to the world.
His ear wax is wet.
These and other revelations came to Sparber through 23andMe, a Google-backed company that offers $99 genetic testing to consumers. Until recently, 23andMe provided customers with their ancestral information along with an optional health profile. You could spit in a test tube and in a matter of weeks see your risk probabilities for such diseases as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Then, last November, the Food and Drug Administration ordered the company to stop marketing its health profile. Given such information, the FDA suggested, some people might react excessively without getting appropriate medical guidance.
The ruling meant new 23andMe customers, at least for the time being, could receive only their ancestral information.
However, a group of customers unknowingly snuck through before the wall went up. They sent off their saliva before the FDA decision.
Sparber was one of those spitters. He mailed away his test tube. Close to two months passed.
“It was the longest wait I've ever had for anything,” he said.
In a way, the wait began in 1968, the year Sparber was born in Minnesota and adopted by a Jewish couple. Culturally, he identified as Jewish, even as he grew increasingly interested in his biological background. His parents told him what they thought they knew: that his birth parents were Irish and English. That, too, then became a pronounced part of his identity — to the extent that he taught himself to play the penny whistle at age 18. As a playwright and an actor, he formed an Irish-American theater company.
It all felt right.
But what if he was wrong? What if he learned he wasn't Irish?
The more Sparber invested in an identity he couldn't be sure about, the more he risked. And that led to a bigger question.
What is identity?
“That's been one of the central questions of my life,” he said. “When you're adopted, you know that there is more to your story. And you don't know what that is. I know that identity is a manufactured thing. Like the Irish-American identity was created by Irish-Americans to say this is who we are. The Irish identity was created by the Irish. They took a bunch of separate tribes and said, 'Well, if there's one thing we're not, we're not Viking, we're not English, so we're all the same.' And they took a bunch of different myths and glued them together and said, 'Now we're Irish.'
“I think that individually we do that as well. We take elements of the world and we glue them together and say this is what I am.”
But Sparber is also an analytical guy. It wasn't enough to feel. He needed to know.
And so a few years ago, he contacted his adoption agency. He paid about $100 to obtain non-identifying information about his biological parents.
“My biological mother is the one who gave me up for adoption, and she gave a pretty detailed inventory of herself and her own family,” he said. “She gave a semidetailed inventory of my biological father, but he was also adopted, which was a real surprise to find out. Actually the whole thing was a surprise to find out.”
He learned that his birth mother was a journalist with an interest in theater. His birth father trained in agriculture but also worked as an art critic and illustrator.
“The only one of all these things that I have no connection with is agriculture,” Sparber said. “I'm a playwright, a journalist, an art critic and an artist. And so somehow I went from being this kind of oddity in my adopted family to being a product of genetics.”
Still, Sparber had no way of knowing for certain how much of this was true. These were details handed over during a delicate moment 40 years earlier.
The old questions began to nag him once again.
In October, Sparber signed up for a 23andMe kit and sent off his saliva. Every day, he checked his account online to see if his results had been uploaded.
“I was checking in literally every 20 minutes for 2½ months,” he said.
On Christmas Eve, he took a break from playing a game on his iPad, logged into his account, and there they were.
“Especially for me, it was going from unknowing to knowing in an instant,” Sparber said. “I don't know that we emotionally have tools for that.”
More and more information appeared over a couple of days. He learned he is in fact Irish and English. The profile listed popular surnames of people DNA-related to him. Murphy and O'Donnell led the way.
“There is an element in my life where my Irish identify always felt like a put-on,” he said. “There was always this feeling that maybe this is not true about me, which is replaced by this is absolutely true about me. It does make that connection feel honest in a way that it never has before.”
For someone enthralled by history — Sparber recently became a research specialist for the Douglas County Historical Society and much of his writing takes a historical context — what he learned next blew him away.
“I found out my (paternal) ancestors came from a now lost land bridge between Great Britain and Europe that was called Doggerland, which I had never heard of before,” he said. “I found out my maternal line actually comes from the ancient Near East and moved westward, bringing agriculture with it. So it's like my people brought civilization to Europe. For somebody who never knew any of that stuff beforehand, I'm now in contact with the birth of man. That's a pretty amazing thing to suddenly know.”
There was something else on the screen staring back at him. Lots of them, actually. Relatives.
They were all distant relatives — mostly third or fourth cousins and beyond — but his profile listed the number of people in the 23andMe database genetically related to Sparber.
“I've never had a genetic relative, prior to this,” he said. “Now I have 691 distant cousins.”
It's just a number on a screen right now, but it's not static. The number could grow. And a number could appear someday showing a second cousin, or first.
He learned things he never could have known. According to his results, his probabilities are low for heart disease, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
“It really was quite a relief,” he said. “I am very glad to have learned my health stuff.”
He learned things he never thought to wonder. He received scientific confirmation he has wet ear wax (common for Europeans) and can taste bitter.
“I didn't realize there are people who couldn't taste bitter,” he said.
He learned he's 2.9 percent Neanderthal (the same amount, it turns out, as his girlfriend — and about a half percent more than most people, according to 23andMe).
The biggest surprise? That his test revealed so few surprises. Nothing totally unexpected. And that kind of disappointed Sparber in a way.
But as the days carried on, he started to look at his information in a new way, and he discovered something that amazed him.
For decades, he had obsessed over his connection to the world. He'd thought for so long in terms like Irish-American, because that was important to him.
But now that word, connection, took on a new meaning.
“We think of ourselves as part of nations that really only formed 100 and 150 years ago when the nation-state arose,” he said. “We don't typically think of ourselves as descended from ancient man.”
But there it was on his iPad. His genetic haplogroup, a wide swath of humanity winding its way back tens of thousands of years.
“It's locked into every cell of my body,” he said. “There's this map to the ancient world. And that's just extraordinary.”