On the Limits of Curiosity: Rodrigo’s Story II

Back in March, I started a DNA experiment with five friends. I invited each of them to take a genetic ‘ancestry’ test – something that most of them had barely heard of, let alone thought about doing. After sending off their swab or spit sample, I asked each person to describe their expectations regarding their results: What did they expect or hope to find out? What would their ideal result be, based on their own family history, physical appearance and cultural background?

Over the course of the next three months, each of them received their results, provided by different US-based testing companies. After having some time to reflect upon those results, they have each agreed for me to post their reactions to their genomic data, and their thoughts on how they might (or might not) influence their lives and notions of identity. This mini-experiment is inspired by my own PhD research on the way genetic data interact with local conceptions of identity, ethnicity, kinship and nation in the US and Brazil.

 Rodrigo, born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico

When I received my 23andMe results, my main reaction was curiosity. First of all, what does it mean to be 20.5% genetically “unassigned”? And what am I supposed to understand by the category “broadly East Asian”? What I did like about the results was the opportunity to discover ‘genetic’ relatives and connect to people online. Although, having said that, so far only one person has got in touch with me through the online community. Rather than asking personal questions about me (e.g. where do you live; where are your family from?), he sent me a standard message asking if I would like to share my genomic information, to compare my data with his. That seemed both strangely intimate and absurd, and the idea of exchanging codes, rather than details about family or hometown, made no sense to me. I didn’t reply.

I did however share my results with my own family, and particularly with my parents. They were really interested, and particularly wanted to know if the test gave you any information about your propensity to genetic illnesses, or advice on prevention of disease, because in my family we have a history of diabetes and cancer. Unfortunately, though, I wasn’t given any health information with my 23andMe test, because of a warning the company received last year from the FDA.

With regards to the ancestry results, their reactions were fairly light-hearted; they made jokes and fairly stereotypical comments. They didn’t seem very surprised with the results, because they had always imagined they were basically mestizo – a mixture of indigenous and European – which is normal in Mexico. They were somewhat intrigued by the Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan African segments, but those percentages weren’t significant enough to arouse much curiosity, or to awaken any forgotten stories. They are more like a residue of mixture.

The part I found most interesting was the Neanderthal result, because I always tended to think that Neanderthals predated humans; that we were homo sapiens sapiens, and Neanderthals were on another evolutionary branch. I was surprised to find that normal people can carry that. Also because to call someone a Neanderthal is kind of offensive, isn’t it? Like saying you’re underevolved, a brute.

I think receiving my genetic results did affect my sense of identity. It helped lead me to more complex queries about where I come from: What is my biological mix? What is the story behind my lineage? And it also helped me see that this is all linked to the great migrations, and to the specific national history of my country and my region – but also to the story of my ancestors. Who did they mix with; where did they travel? That’s a story that needs an explanation, which I don’t have, and which is probably unknowable, for the most part. We can’t know everything that happened. On the other hand, although the genetics shown on these graphs and diagrams have determined my physical existence, they have little to say about who I am. Looking at those numbers, they have nothing to do with the world I identify with, or with my sense of belonging.

I believe this experience will have a lasting impact on my life, in the sense that it has roused in me an intellectual curiosity, one that is attractive, seductive, and hard to ignore, because it has to do with great questions, important questions, about genetics, ancestry, and to a lesser extent, genealogy. It’s very unlikely that I will have the time to do archive research, or trace the origins of my grandparents, because I don’t have a personal or family enigma to untangle. It is a purely intellectual curiosity.

It would be great if this service was available not only in the US but elsewhere, with a more local or national focus. Personally, I would like to know which indigenous groups my ancestors were from three or four generations ago, but I know that there aren’t good enough reference databases to provide that sort of information. In any case, how would you categorize those samples? How could you distinguish genetically between a Raramuri and a Tzeltal, or even between a Mixe and a Zapoteco?

There may be an effect on society if more people were to take tests, but who is to say whether it would be positive or negative? As is the case with all data, there can be no a priori interpretation of the results; it all depends on the responsibility of the person that interprets them. They could be used to reaffirm prejudices, to reactivate conflicts, but they could also be used to deepen our current understandings of human genetics.

You can read Rodrigo’s original post here.

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