Those Genetic Ancestry Tests

6 May

Lollipop (Image by Jackie used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Our neighbors recently told me that their adoptive daughter had been musing about her background. Little was known about her biological family because her birth mother had requested anonymity at the hospital. Her file contained almost no information other than a note from a nurse that the birth mother seemed to be Russian. I wondered aloud if the nurse could tell the difference between a Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian or Bulgarian accent. After all, I had met a boy who spent a good deal of time believing his birth father was Turkish, only to later find out that the social worker who wrote it down had made an error (as we all do in the course of a work day), and that his birth father was in fact Arab. Our neighbors said their daughter was interested in taking a genetic test.  

My father and his siblings recently took such a test. After long wondering whether their great-grandparents, who had anglicized their Slavic surname upon immigrating to the U.S., were Polish or Belarusian, the test had an answer: they were probably Eastern European. I had to laugh. Our family’s study of historical records and names has given us far more specific information about our ancestors’ origins and cultures than the DNA tests have. 

Indeed, the DNA of one of my father’s siblings was estimated to be 30% Western European, whereas another’s was estimated to be only 2% Western European. That’s because we all inherit half of our genes from one biological parent and half from the other, but not necessarily the same halves as our siblings. So are you not very British at all if you inherited a lower percentage of those genetic markers than your sister, even if your surname is British? Surnames of course can also come from step-parents. And DNA tests render invisible all the cultural heritage and influence of adoptive parents anywhere in a family tree.

And as Sarah Chodosh warns at Popular Science, “all of your ancestry data is mostly an estimate. That’s why companies attach a confidence interval to your results. They may say you’re 48 percent Eastern European, but that they’re anywhere from 30 to 80 percent sure of that result. Most people focus on the 48 percent and forget that the results aren’t for certain.”

The popularity of direct-to-consumer genetic tests has exploded over the past year in the U.S., where they are unregulated. The country’s identity as a nation of immigrants inspires many to be curious about their ancestors that left the Old World for the New. But why only claim them as your ancestors? If you consider yourself Irish because someone in your family tree emigrated from Dublin, why not consider yourself Scandinavian seeing as the Vikings founded Dublin? When does identity start and when does it stop?

As philosopher Alva Noë explained at NPR, DNA tests can currently explain some things about ancestry, but nowhere near the whole story:

Consider: Even if you are a descendant of Shakespeare, there is only a negligible chance of your having any of his DNA. This is because autosomal DNA gets passed on randomly. Shakespeare’s kid probably had 50 percent of his DNA; his kid in turn, on average, a quarter, and so on. Within 10 generations, Shakespeare’s DNA has spread out and recombined so many times that it doesn’t even really make sense to speak of a match. Putting the same point the other way, each of us has so many ancestors that we have no choice but to share them with each other. Moreover, we don’t share any DNA with the vast majority of them. True, you will share Y-chromosome DNA or mtDNA with very distant ancestors, but these make up a vanishingly small percentage of your total ancestry.

Indeed, if you go back far enough, we start to share ancestors, which is why everyone with any European ancestry is related to Charlemagne. Does that make our DNA more interesting or less? Rarely do I meet people here in Germany who are interested in any of their ancestry that reaches back farther than their great-grandparents, unless they have an unusual surname, a claim to nobility, or an interest in nationalist politics. 

This is important to bear in mind as a heated debate continues in the U.S. about genetic studies of different human populations and/or “races.” You can read about the arguments from those who fear more fodder for racism and those who believe any such fear is idiotic political correctness, but so far Ian Holmes has summed it up best in his article “What Happens When Geneticists Talk Sloppily About Race”:

It’s common for natural scientists to eschew questions of linguistic semantics, preferring to steer debate to technical issues. This relates to how we define ourselves professionally: Science as a discipline seeks objective truth via empirically testable hypotheses, not subjective questions of public perception. “Now we’re just talking semantics” is a line that often signals imminent consensus, in friendly arguments among members of my profession.

But when speaking publicly about race, language matters. Regularly in American history, slavery, discrimination, and other forms of racism have been justified using distortions of science and pseudoscientific ideas. The U.S. program of eugenics was second only to Nazi Germany’s, which it directly inspired and informed.

Indeed, clear and conscientious communication from scientists is key because most of us do not understand genetics very well. And the general public is quick to apply social values to scientific facts researchers may have assumed would be perceived as neutral. With reports like “You’re probably Eastern European” or “you’re probably French-German,” many people are making broad assumptions about their heritage, unaware that these tests tell them next to nothing as to what language their ancestors spoke or which holidays they celebrated because these regions were very culturally diverse in the age before nationalism and mass media, which are very new inventions. Robin Hood and Richard the Lion-Hearted didn’t speak the same language, despite what romantic Hollywood portrayals would have us think. As recently as 1880, three-quarters of the people living in France didn’t speak French.

Ethnic identity is more often a matter of a piece of paper than a gene. Because politics happen on paper. And it’s politics that define borders, decide which languages and dialects are taught in schools and which are not, which religions are allowed to practice freely and which should be made to not feel at home, which people we decide are Us and which people are Them.

The most famous moment on the PBS show Finding Your Roots was when Larry David, who has had a long career in comedy that often highlights his experiences as a New York Jew, discovered some of his ancestors were Southern slave-owners. Such a revelation came from studying legal documents, not genomes, because there is no such thing as slave-owner DNA.

An American-German couple I know are working to obtain a U.S. passport for their son who was born here in Berlin so that he will feel a connection to his American heritage. Will that do it? I know a Norwegian man with a U.S. passport who spent less than year in the States. He was born there and the family then returned home after his father’s job transferred him back to Oslo. His older sisters, however, spent five years there and remember them well because their memories were formed after infancy. They don’t have a right to citizenship because they weren’t born in the U.S., but culturally, they’re more American than their passport-holding brother.

Records on ancestry are few and far between for the descendants of colonialism’s victims. For most of Western history, their ethnic identity has often been dictated by laws intended to uphold racial hierarchies. The American One Drop Rule was invented to prevent the descendants of slaves and slave-owners from inheriting the latter’s wealth. Clearly it can be poignant to discover with a DNA test that your ancestors didn’t just come from “Africa” but a specific region in Africa – even if it is a big, diverse region with just as many conflicts between groups as there have been in Europe and the other continents over the centuries. The case of South African Sandra Laing famously revealed the resilience of racism based on appearance despite changes in the laws regarding ancestry. Or, in the words of Black-ish:

 

Maybe grouping humans ethnically based on ancestral DNA markers will destroy many prejudices, but maybe it will cement many others. The story of human history is the story of various groups embroiled in conflicts, many of which have ramifications well into today. This is why we cannot afford to be careless when we talk about genetics and heritage.

But perhaps we can also be careful without being too serious. My grandmother would frequently tease her son as he reported new genealogical findings, asking, “When are you going to finally tell me that I’m a Russian princess?”

Hopefully never, I joked to my partner. All families should be valued, but I for one would not be pleased to find out that mine was thoroughly inbred.

 

As in many of my articles, the identities of many of the unnamed people cited here have been altered to protect their privacy.

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2 Responses to “Those Genetic Ancestry Tests”

  1. Heide May 6, 2018 at 12:46 pm #

    What a fascinating, thought-provoking piece you’ve written here! I’m adopted and have been curious about genetic testing because I have only general information about my biological parents. But you’ve convinced me anew that these tests aren’t worth the still-unknown privacy risks. Your description of Shakespeare’s genetic legacy was especially helpful in illustrating just how squishy this lineage business can be — as was your story about Larry David. Thank you for taking this time to research and write this important post, Emily.

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