Loving gene flow
Gray Matters

Loving gene flow

/ 04:15 AM February 27, 2024

For the road, one more heartfelt article for February, this one inspired by the usually cold science of genetics.

I draw from the concept of “gene flow,” which refers to genetic material flowing from one place to another, contributing to the variety of life that makes our planet so exciting.

Gene flow among humans can become complicated, not quite as simple as the birds and bees, for example, birds taking in siling labuyo seeds, flying off and pooping (literally) those seeds kilometers away into someone’s garden and surprising the homeowner months later with new siling labuyo plants.


Human gene flow depends on humans moving from one place to another. Our current human population in the Philippines is the product of many waves of migrating humans within the Philippines as well as internationally.


Migration is all too familiar to Filipinos in the 20th and 21st centuries, with the massive diaspora we’ve been witnessing. Early human migrations were spurred in part by curiosity, but more often by basic motivations of survival, escaping hunger, disease, wars … the wars sometimes led to forced gene flows, as the defeated were carted off as spoils of war.

The genes don’t flow though just because of human movements. People have to settle down in the new place and then exchange genetic material (smile). While much of the breeding may have been coerced, or in other cases, involved quick lustful encounters, I’d like to think, too, of people overcoming physical and cultural differences and falling in love, flirting, courting, and “gene flowing.”

Perhaps our prudishness prevents us from being more imaginative and celebratory about the migrations and encounters of humans. Here are a few examples from historical texts on the Philippines that would make good material for multi-season, multi-episode romance telenovelas, with gene flow in the background:

The Spanish colonizers weren’t just ruthless conquistadores and friars; there were also ordinary Spaniards conscripted from the floating populations in the streets, as well as from jails. Imagine them in the Philippines, many rabble-rousers and troublemakers but even among the most hardened among them, I’d like to believe many of them found love with the indios (the natives). They deserted the army and stayed in the Philippines. Stories like that were repeated again during the Philippine-American War, when African-American soldiers, often victims of racism, deserted the American army, stayed on, and married local women.

I think, too, of the extraordinary Balmis expedition, the King of Spain dispatching an expedition to spread smallpox vaccination from 1803 to 1806. At that time, smallpox vaccination was done through live carriers of the smallpox virus. The carriers were young orphaned boys taken from Spain to Mexico, where they were replaced by another batch of orphans. The boys from Mexico reached the Philippines, and as far as we know, were left behind even after their life-saving mission. The boys grew into adulthood, presumably falling in love, starting families.

From Ma. Luisa Camagay’s history of women laborers in Manila in the 19th century, we find the story of Manila authorities arresting mujeres publicas (public women, or sex workers) and exiling them to Davao or Palawan. One story was that of a woman about to be shipped out when a man showed up and insisted on going with her!


What spurred me in this sudden search for loving genes? I was in Cagayan (up north) two weeks ago, invited to give a talk on Chinese migrants to Cagayan. There were no published reports on this topic so I visited the Chinese cemetery in Tuguegarao looking for some answers. The tombstones in such cemeteries are usually in Chinese scripts, including the names of ancestral villages.

In Tugeugarao, many of the tombs in the Chinese cemetery no longer used Chinese script, suggesting early cultural assimilation of the Chinese migrants. Also catching my attention were the number of wives whose names were clearly not Chinese and my Tuguegarao hosts clarified they were indeed local women. One tombstone had this Ilocano inscription beneath the name of the Filipino wife: Dungdunguen ken ay-ayatendaca iti aguanayun. Loosely translated, courtesy of Glenda Arnedo-Tubangui of the provincial Cagayan Tourism Office: “We cherish and love you, forever.” (I love the way long Ilocano statements sometimes translate into a few words in English.)

Back to that tombstone, I thought of how un-Chinese that tombstone was, older and not-so-old Chinese being quite stoic and unromantic, the type who’d go, “Hey, let’s gene flow.”

That Tugegarao tombstone of a Chinese migrant’s well-loved Filipino wife speaks of love bringing people and genes together.

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TAGS: Genetics, opinion, Science

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