Why Don’t I Look Like My Parents?

It was 1979 in rural Mississippi and Navin Johnson was celebrating his 18th birthday. His mom prepared his favorite meal: tuna salad on white bread, a Tab cola, and some Twinkies. Surrounded by his loving family, the birthday boy graciously accepted their eclectic, but heartfelt gifts.

After dinner, Navin’s mother took him aside for an important conversation.  He was a grown man now, she reasoned, and needed to know the truth.

18 years earlier, Navin had been abandoned on the Johnsons’ doorstep. They decided to adopt the orphan and vowed to raise him as their own child.

At first, Navin struggled with this new information. Although he looked nothing like the Johnsons, he never questioned where he came from. His parents had been true to their intentions and he grew up in a loving home, surround by a large, extended family.

(If you haven’t figured it out by now this story is not real. I’m describing Steve Martin’s character in the 1979 film The Jerk.)

Navin and Mother Johnson
Navin and his mother. Image Source: Fandango Movie Clips.

Upon hearing the news, Navin cried in disbelief, “You mean I’m going to stay this color??”

The Jerk 1979
Image source: Universal Pictures

While The Jerk’s premise is far-fetched, there have always been people unknowingly raised by non-biological parents. Similarly, many siblings have grown up unaware they have different fathers.

In the past, lack of familial resemblance may have been dismissed as a genetic fluke.  Recessive genes could be blamed for an unexpected eye color. A mysterious great-grandparent may have been mentioned as the source of otherwise inexplicable features — but not anymore.

With DNA tests becoming so mainstream and inexpensive, almost anyone can confirm parentage for less than $100. Milkman jokes are almost a thing of the past. If DNA results come back proving no biological link to mother or father, the follow-up question remains — “Who are my birth parents?”

If family members are unwilling or unable to answer that question, the adoptee may turn to his DNA matches for answers. Though relatedness is measured by percentage of shared DNA, people often look for confirmation in shared physical features.

While DNA testing may lead someone to his biological relatives, there’s still no guarantee he’ll look anything like them. He may even resemble his birth parents less than his adoptive parents. And thanks to the randomness of DNA, he may look just like his father, but just as likely, he’ll be the spitting image of an uncle or a great-granduncle.

Below is my aunt Judy (1957-) and her great-grandaunt Catherine (1884-1984). When Judy asked me to help find her birth parents, I sorted through her DNA matches and looked at their shared family photos. I stumbled upon Catherine. This woman had to be related to Judy.

Judith and Catherine
Judy (left) and Catherine

Judy has since connected with many maternal aunts, uncles, and cousins, but none seem to share such a striking resemblance as her great-grandaunt Catherine.

Thanks to sites like Classmates.com and Archive.org, many high school and college yearbooks can be viewed online (for free).  Here are the senior photos of a father and son.  On the left is Richard, and on the right is his son Jake, 30 years later.

Jake was not adopted. He’s just an example of someone who doesn’t strongly resemble his parents. Also, both of his parents have dark brown eyes, but Jake’s eyes are blue. How is this possible?

Now would be the perfect time for a Punnett square, but I’ll save that for another post.

I went through some of Jake’s old family pictures and found the answer. I also found a photo of Jake in a swimsuit when he was 21, and I made a copy.

Jake is my husband, so this is not as weird as it sounds.

Anyway, his maternal and paternal grandfathers both had blue eyes. I also noticed Jake looked a lot like his father’s father, Ernest, below (on the left). Both are about 35 years old in these photos.

Black and white photography doesn’t quite capture the glory of Jake’s magnificent blue eyes, so here is a another photo and a Pantone chip.

My husband doesn’t look like his parents. I don’t look like my parents. I’ve used DNA to verify my ancestors back to the 1700s (because that’s what I do for fun), and I still have hope that one day, I will figure out where my nose came from.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at some of my friends’ look-alike photos…


Sometimes a daughter looks just like her mother.

Kiana and Colleen

Colleen (right) and daughter Kiana, age 6

Sometimes the resemblance is so strong, it’s hard to tell them apart.

Charlene (left) and daughter Brenda


Distinctive physical traits often reappear several generations later, to the delight of many great-grandparents.

great-grandfather/great-granddaughter


Even though every generation adds a new mix of DNA, sometimes certain features keep repeating.

"This photo is every other generation...me on the right, my grandmother in the middle and her grandmother on the left (1904)" - Christina"

“This photo is every other generation…me on the right, my grandmother in the middle and her grandmother on the left (1904)” – Christina”

These repeating familial traits are just as common in men as in women.

Elof and grandson Sean


A woman is just as likely to inherit her looks from a father or grandfather as she is to inherit them from a female ancestor. It’s just not always as obvious.

Linda and her grandfather


If you’re an adoptee, remember, you may not look anything like either of your biological parents. If DNA suggests you’ve found a match, don’t dismiss the results based on lack of resemblance. You could be your great-grandparent’s look-alike.

But what if you’re not an adoptee and you still don’t resemble anyone in the family albums? Blame DNA and the randomness of genetic recombination. Maybe you inherited your looks from someone born before the advent of photography. And maybe you’ll meet a half-cousin one day who looks like your long-lost twin.

 

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