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Jen Gilman Porat

The Neanderthal

Illustration by Lily Padula

Jen Gilman Porat | Longreads | December 2018 | 14 minutes (3,447 words)

A couple of years ago, I purchased a pair of 23andMe kits for myself and my husband, Tomer. I intended to scientifically prove that Tomer’s most irritating behaviors were genetic destiny and therefore unchangeable. I’d grown tired of nagging him — oftentimes, I’d hear my own voice rattling inside my brain in the same way a popular song might get stuck in my head. I needed an out, something to push me toward unconditional acceptance of my husband. My constant complaining yielded zero behavior modification from on his part; on the other hand, it was changing me into a nasty micromanager. I briefly considered marital therapy, but that’s an expensive undertaking, costing much more than the $398.00 one-time fee for both DNA kits. Plus, couples’ therapy could take a long time, requiring detours through our shared history. In much appealing contrast, 23andMe, promised to launch us straight back to our prehistoric roots, to an earlier point in causality, one that might provide Tomer with something akin to a formal pardon note, thereby permitting me to stop fighting against him, once and for all. I imagined we could help others by way of example too, for what long-married woman has not suffered her husband’s most banal tendencies — the socks and underwear on the floor, the snoring? Not me, actually, because my husband puts his used clothes in the hamper, and I’m the snorer. Really, I’m probably blessed as far as masculine disgustingness goes. But my husband is flawed in one repulsive way: his barbaric table manners.

I have no doubt this is a genetic situation, for even back when we were first dating, I’d shuddered upon seeing my father-in-law poke through the serving bowls of a family-style meal with his bare hairy hands. My husband’s father has also been caught eating ice cream directly from the carton (the thought of which I now appreciate for its built-in binge deterrent). Moreover, my father-in-law eats like a caveman-conqueror, reaching across dinner plates to pluck a taste of this or that from his mortified tablemates. A family dinner looks like a scene straight out of Game of Thrones, minus any crowns. And so, when my husband first began to exhibit similar behaviors, I had to wonder: Had I suffered some rare form of blindness previously? Did some barrier of unconscious denial gently shield my eyes each day, year after year, but only at mealtimes? It was as if a blindfold suddenly fell from my face, or as if Tomer had finally removed a mask from his own. My gentleman turned into a beast, seemingly overnight.

I watched with horror, one Sunday evening, as my husband served himself a plate of meat and vegetables with his hands. His fingers ripped skirt steak in lieu of cutting it with a knife. He abandoned his fork altogether, and I lost my appetite.

Had Tomer suffered some obscure symptom of the mid-life crisis? Or was this a regressed state? During a phone conversation with a close friend, I described my father-in-law’s vile eating manners and wondered if his pre-existing condition had grown contagious. She suggested Tomer’s change of behavior might indicate an epigenetic effect; she’d read somewhere that some aspects of our genetic code lie in wait and get activated along the way. Apparently, some inherited traits remained invisible for years, hiding patiently in our cells until: Surprise! Just when you hit middle age and are totally comfortable in your own skin (despite the new fine lines around your eyes and those brown circles that are hopefully age spots and not melanoma), some new biological fact of your genetic code makes itself manifest, waking you up from your mid-age slumber.

Another interesting detail I could not ignore: Around the same time Tomer stopped liking forks, he’d adopted the Paleo diet, (versions of which are known as the caveman diet). He’d cut all processed foods from his intake, eating nothing but meat, nuts, vegetables, and fruit. Prior to going Paleo, he’d suffered from a severe case of irritable bowel syndrome and relied on bread products, thinking that challah and croissants were the softer, gentler foods. I suspected a gluten allergy and told him to lay off all the Pepperidge Farm cookies. I probably even told him to “eat like a caveman,” but I only meant for him to eat a more natural and gluten-free diet, in order to heal him, which in fact, it did.

“My stomach is no longer a quivering idiot,” Tomer said, and he said it more than once, to countless friends and family members, until he’d worked up a complete narrative on how he’d triumphed over his very own stomach. And each time he told this story, he lifted his shirt, pounding his fists upon his midsection. His proud smile began to appear, well, wild and hungry, as if he’d tamed his digestive system but in doing so, had activated a primitive gene and sacrificed his own civility.

Shortly thereafter, I came across an article pertaining to Neanderthal DNA. According to modern science, the Neanderthals and our prehistoric ancestors mated, leaving many of us with a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA. I did more Googling and learned that 23andMe can tell you how much Neanderthal DNA you carry. Although they do mean different things, in my mind’s eye, the words “Neanderthal” and “Caveman” summoned identical images: that of savage meat-eating maniacs ripping raw meat from bone with fat fingers and jagged teeth.

And this was it — the thing that sold me on 23andMe: the chance to determine one’s degree of Neanderthal-ness. Without any consideration of all the possible consequences of submitting one’s DNA to a global database, I ordered two kits, grinning and convinced that my husband’s result would show a statistically significant and above average number of Neanderthal variants in his genome. Since Father’s Day was only a month away, I decided I’d giftwrap the kits upon arrival too. I’d kill two birds with one stone.
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