Still Holding Out for a Second Opinion: Carlos’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.

Carlos, born and raised in Salvador, Bahia

Receiving my African Ancestry results was surprising and frustrating at the same time. Surprising because I didn’t imagine I would have such a high European percentage, despite knowing about the whole miscegenation process in Brazil. Obviously, because of some of my physical characteristics (my hair texture, my lightish brown skin colour), I thought I would have some kind of European percentage – but not as high as that. My frustration was to do with the indigenous percentage, which, according to this test, doesn’t exist. I found it really surprising that the test found no trace of that.

I spoke to my parents and some of my friends about my results after I received them. Like me, my mum was surprised that there was no indigenous component to my results, because, according to oral history in her side of the family, my maternal great-grandmother was Indian. As for my dad, though, he seemed pretty on board with the test results. My paternal grandfather, while far from being white, had lighter skin and straighter hair, so apparently on that basis my dad wasn’t too surprised about me having a relatively high European result.

My friends, on the other hand, found my high European percentage strange; they, like me, had imagined I would have a higher indigenous result, which would explain my hair and skin characteristics. It was this lack of indigenous percentage that impacted me most overall about my test. To be honest, I still want a second opinion, perhaps from a different company. I think the percentages should be revised.

Overall, though, the testing experience didn’t change the way I think about myself. Identity, as we know, is relative; it is based on how individuals see themselves and how they are seen by others, and constructed through our day to day contacts and confrontations. In the case of the Afro-descendant population in Brazil, identity is formed through daily clashes with the white population; with the police (who tend to target the black population, and treat them violently), etc. In this sense, the test revealed nothing that I didn’t already know, or that could change my sense of identity and belonging, which has been constructed over many years of struggle.

In terms of the potential social effects of ‘ancestry’ testing, I think it is important for the Brazilian population to have access to their identity. I believe this interest in origins is much greater among the black bourgeoisie and intelligentsia than in the population at large. These people know that they are descendants of Africans who were enslaved in Brazil. I think it’s obvious that if a mass genetic programme of this type were to be set up, it would greatly improve this particular public’s self-esteem, which is fundamentally related to slavery.

The latest manifestations of racism in Brazil are mere proof that we still live in a state of ignorance, and that a large proportion of the Brazilian population still believe that skin colour is a valid criterium to support theories of racial superiority. Perhaps, in light of this, and given that Brazil’s black population have enormous difficulties in tracing their ancestry, a quicker test that could tell people which region their ancestors came from would have a positive effect on the black population – but it would in no way resolve the problem of race relations in Brazil.

You can read Carlos’s original post here.

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Nature, Nurture, and Mexicanidad: Tatiana’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.

Tatiana, born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico

When I received my Family Tree DNA results I was pretty surprised about my genetic origin percentages. Although I had imagined beforehand that I would have European genes, I never thought they would make up such a high percentage of my result, nor that they would be spread out across those particular regions. I was tickled to find that I had British and Eastern European origins, which allowed me joke to my friends that my affinity with English and Russian culture might have a biological basis – and that there’s more Russian to me than just my name…

When I shared my results with my Mexican friends, a lot of them teased me, saying I was trying to disown my Mexican identity by making out that I’m European. I think this reflects one of the potential negative effects that DNA ancestry testing could have in my country: to reaffirm classist attitudes linked to racial identity.

Personally, I don’t believe the test had any effect whatsoever on my identity, or on my feeling of ‘Mexicanness’, because when I think about my own family history, and about European history in general, it makes sense that my German, Italian and Spanish ancestry might have roots further back in Britain, Eastern Europe and the Maghreb. What really did surprise me, though, and what I couldn’t understand initially was the Central Asian percentage. But, talking it through with Sarah, we thought it could be linked to indigenous American populations, and that seems a reasonable explanation to me.

Preparing this text, and looking back over my results, I’ve been mulling over the question of who is the real parent: the person that bears you, or the person that raises you? I think, for identity, we can ask a similar question: does ‘blood’ make you who you are, or is it your context that moulds you?

I personally believe that you are more the child of the person that raised you, and that your identity depends on your personal experiences. On the other hand, when those experiences hinge on racial preconceptions, the relevance of these tests goes beyond mere curiosity. For me, though, the only thing the test inspired was a greater interest in knowing my family’s history.

You can read Tatiana’s original post here

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Five DNA Tests, 100% Me, and Back to Square One

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?

I also participated in the experiment, although in the interests of scientific curiosity, I took a test with five different US-based companies specializing in ‘genealogical’ or ‘anthropological’ DNA tests: 23andMe, AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, the Genographic Project, and African Ancestry. This mini-experiment is inspired by my PhD research on the way genetic data interact with local notions of identity, ethnicity, kinship and nation in the US and Brazil.

Sarah, born and raised in the East Midlands, England

The first test results I received were from 23andMe, a California-based company whose tests are tailored to a mainly American customer base. Being English, fair skinned and with no family stories of anyone living outside of Britain for the past few generations, I was hardly expecting any African or East Asian ancestry to show up on the test – although when I told this to an African American colleague she raised her eyebrows and told me, wryly, that black Americans have long known that fair skin is no guarantee of anything. Nevertheless, my expectations were confirmed by my results, and the only spot of colour on my blue-grey ancestryscape was a green dot indicating 0.6% Ashkenazi Jewish genetic heritage – possibly statistical ‘noise’, or possibly a relic of our lost Polish family connection. There’s no way of knowing.

The most striking thing about my 23andMe results was that my ‘British & Irish’ genetic ancestry estimate was only 6.1%; the rest of my result was made up of ‘Broadly Northern European’ and ‘Broadly European’ heritage. Rather than bringing on an identity crisis about my British identity, however, this merely indicated to me that there has been so much migration within Europe (not to mention with the rest of the world) that it is near impossible to identify genetic markers that are limited to specific regional or national populations.

The second set of results came from the Genographic Project. Linked to National Geographic, the Geno 2.0 test has an ‘anthropological’ focus and a humanitarian feel. The product has its roots in an international scientific endeavour, which aims to to collect genetic samples from contemporary indigenous groups all over the world, in order to trace the ancient migrations of humankind out of Africa, starting some 60,000 years ago. To spare you a long-winded explanation, I’ll just recommend you this documentary (followed by this excellent paper by Kim TallBear as complementary reading). Noticing the general public enthusiasm for all things genetics-related, National Geographic savvily set up an online company, making their tests available to anyone with $160 to spare.

Unlike 23andMe (and most other companies), which attempt to split an individual’s genome into something that looks more or less like a blood quantum chart composed of two or three founder populations (e.g. Europeans, Africans and indigenous Americans for New World customers), the Genographic Project assumes that all national ‘ethnic’ identities are based on older genetic mixes of substrate populations. So although I don’t recognize anything Mediterranean or Southwest Asian in my own family (and nor would most Brits, I think), this turns out to be a very common mixture for the UK, according to how the Genographic scientists visualize the islands’ ancient genetic makeup. Substitute ‘Mediterranean’ for ‘Roman’; ‘Southwest Asian’ for ‘Celtic’; and ‘Northern European’ for ‘Saxons’, ‘Vikings’ and ‘Normans’, and with a stretch of the imagination you get something vaguely representing the country’s history.

I admire the Genographic Project’s universalist approach (in spite of their conspicuously Euro-American-centric outlook), although I’ll confess that I found these results the most difficult to connect with on a personal level, for the very reason that they don’t reproduce my own sense of identity or ancestry in the way I would expect them to. This is one conundrum of genetic testing: on the one hand, if the company gives us a chart that looks recognisably like a blood quantum graph, we accuse the scientists of reinscribing race in genetic technologies. Yet, when the scientists try to introduce a new paradigm (even when it is only slightly removed from the blood quantum model), customers remain unsatisfied because don’t see anything that relates to our notions of ‘racial’ or ethnic identity in the results.

Next came my results from AncestryDNA and Family Tree DNA – the newest and oldest competitors in the DNA ancestry testing market, respectively. Both boldly proclaim me to be ‘100% European’, with genetic heritage from four broadly defined regions within the continent. I find it striking that both companies choose the word ‘ethnicity’ to describe the concept they are selling: a statistical means of breaking down a broad ‘racial’ or geopolitical category like ‘white’/European into distinct biogeographical regions. None of the areas highlighted on either map could be considered to correspond to ethnicities or ethnic groups by any currently recognised social or political boundaries, although there is some congruence with familiar European ‘types’: the Scandinavian; the Mediterranean; the Eastern European, and the Brit.

These ancestral identities would be recognisable for many Americans who may not have concrete knowledge of the exact national origin of their European great-great-grandparents, beyond a vague sense of these broad regional categories. For European customers, on the other hand, my sense is that these ‘ethnic’ regions do not hold much water. For instance, if I know myself to be British (with Polish and French ancestors going further back in time), then what can it mean to be told that I am also genetically Scandinavian and Mediterranean, against all common sense and family tradition? Being British is not something that I feel in a genetic or hereditary sense – but rather an identity that revolves around a shared language, regional accents, a niche sense of humour, a mutual fascination with Marmite, and so on… In comparison, this genetic information is something I know to be true on an abstract level – but I don’t feel it, and it’s definitely not news to me.

The final test was by African Ancestry. As you might guess from the name, the company was set up in 2003, offering DNA tests to African Americans as a way to recover the tribal identities of their ancestors who were forcibly displaced by the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. African Ancestry’s main products are DNA tests that analyse only one maternal or paternal genetic lineage (rather than your autosomes, which contain genetic material inherited from all of your direct ancestors); these are then associated with one or more ethnic groups or tribes in Africa, and customers are presented with a certificate showing their ancestral tribal identity. Since I already knew my maternal lineage was mainly found in Europe (and therefore suspected I wouldn’t be eligible for a certificate), I opted for the slightly cheaper, less popular myDNAmix test.

Of all the different companies I tested with, these results are the most rudimentary in appearance. The only overtly Afrocentric company out of the five, African Ancestry expresses its results using five broad ‘genetic’ regions: ‘Indigenous Americas’, ‘East Asia’, ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’, ‘Europe’ and ‘India Subcontinent’. In the form I filled in to return with my DNA sample, I was asked to estimate my expected genomic ancestry percentages – a standard practice that nonetheless makes me slightly suspicious of whether this might influence the results given out to customers, although there is no reason to think that this should be the case.

As it turned out, these were the most surprising results of all: 73% ‘Europe’ and 27% ‘India Subcontinent’ (give or take an error margin of 7%). There is no mention in my family of anyone ever even going to India, let alone living there or having Indian ancestors. Given the stark difference between these results and those of the other companies I am forced to conclude, on the basis of sheer good sense, that there has been an error somewhere down the line – although whether in terms of a sample mix-up or a category mistake, it is hard to know.

Yet this brings up the problem of the unknowability of genetic ‘truths’. Say, for the sake of argument, that there is no error, and 27% of markers analysed in my DNA sample really did match most closely to samples in the African Ancestry database originating in the Indian Subcontinent. That may be perfectly true, according to the criteria of this genetic test, and these sampling, labelling and statistical standards. But it is so untrue in terms of what I know about myself and my family (admittedly, not much past three generations), that I am forced to reject it, and to seek solace in one of the other tests that reinforced my preexisting sense of who I am. And, ironically, this brings me right back to where I was before I even took my first DNA test.

You can read my original post here.

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A Mainer’s Portrait of a Melting Pot: Kate’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.

Kate, born and raised in Shapleigh, Maine

My initial reaction upon receiving the results of my 23andMe test was mostly confirming what I already knew, with a few surprises. Having spent some time in the past doing a genealogy of my family tree, I knew most of my family history already. I was surprised to see African ancestry within my tree. While we had suspicions, this was the only confirmation that I’ve gotten that showed a small amount of African ancestry. The rest of my results were basically what I expected: more heavily weighted toward English/Irish and Italian/Spanish, which follows what my genealogy had already told me.

When I spoke to my parents about my results, they were really intrigued by it – especially my dad, who will probably be taking his own ancestry test. My best friend thought it was amusing that there was East Asian ancestry in my results, since she is Filipino-American and we have routinely throughout our lives been mistaken for sisters. My mom thought the 0.1% Ashkenazi Jewish heritage that showed up to be very interesting, since we had no inkling that there would be Jewish heritage within our family. We have been largely unaware of my mother’s mother’s genealogy prior to my great grandparents, who immigrated from Italy. Prior to their immigration, very little is known, so the ancestry test helped fill in some blanks for her.

I think the results that were the most exciting and interesting were the African ancestry and the Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, as both were unexpected and are currently unexplained. While the Ashkenazi Jewish heritage may be explained by immigration within Europe prior to coming to America, the African ancestry is mysterious, which makes it exciting. I am phenotypically white, and there is no oral or family history of anyone with African heritage within my family. It does open up a whole avenue of questions that may never be answered, which I think adds a level of interest and excitement to understanding where this ancestry came from.

I don’t think the ancestry results have led to too much change in my personal identity, but it has opened up a line of query about my maternal line prior to immigration to the USA. As that side of my family is fairly mysterious, it has led to questions about who they were and where they came from. The Spanish/Iberian ancestry as well as that of northern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa could lead to some answers. Perhaps they were mariners or travellers of some kind; I probably will never know, but the results of the test have begged for answers, and perhaps some future searching in Italy itself.

I’m not sure if taking a DNA test will change the way I live my life, but I think the experience has opened up questions about my family’s past and who they were. I got re-interested in looking at my genealogy after some time away from it. I’ve decided that perhaps the only way to figure out some of the questions I have would be to go to Italy for research, which is both an excuse to travel and eat delicious local cuisine as well as a desire to reconnect with my heritage.

I think if more people were to take DNA ancestry tests in the US this would certainly allow for a broader understanding of race among the general population. Most people do not understand what race actually is, and how it ties in to ethnicity. Perhaps it would lessen the distinction between the races in America, particularly since we are living in a time of increased racial tension. Maybe if more white Americans found that they had some non-white ancestry they would become more sensitive to issues of race. I can only speak to the way it may work in American society, however. In other countries, it may have a negative effect upon people of African descent.

You can read Kate’s original post here.

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Searching for Common Humanity in Dystopia: Evlondo’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.

Evlondo, born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana

I was very excited and anxious when I received my results. Although I understood that they would only paint a general picture of my ancestral background, I was happy the test affirmed basic assumptions I made about my family history.

I discussed my results with my immediate family and a few friends. Surprisingly, my family’s response was muted, with mostly “Good for you” platitudes. Although my friends were happy for me, only a few seemed willing to take the plunge as well or engage me in a larger discussion.

The Scandinavian markers immediately caught my attention. Believing that I was descended from the Cherokee Tribe (Native American/Indian), the European origins seemed odd. However, after remembering a few rudimentary facts from my Earth Science classes, and performing a quick Google search, I realized that many scholars assert that Native Americans are descended from Northern Europeans who traveled across the land bridge that connected Europe with North America. (Although there is still some scholarship that refutes this theory.)

In many ways, I think the experience of taking the test has made me think differently about my identity… I feel more closely connected to the human family. Because we all share common ancestry, it is our differences that makes us unique and should be cherished and heralded. These minor fluctuations should not drive us apart, but bring us closer together as a species. This process has allowed me to connect with my extended family and to paint a fuller picture of my background and ancestry, and I anticipate that I will continue working to fill in those gaps well into the future.

However, the test made me realize that the cultural and historical factors that inform the development of our societies may be too ingrained to transcend the part of humanity that almost instinctively classifies difference as “other.”

I often muse about the potential wider impacts of ancestry testing, if more Americans took DNA tests. The first black president of the United States has a white mother and shares an ancestor (and foreign policy goals) with the last vice president, Dick Cheney. But that has not prevented a significant portion of my society from demonizing him solely because of his skin color. (I don’t believe that even half of these feelings are driven by any foreign or domestic policy he has implemented.)

So, I’m not convinced that more DNA tests would lead to a more humane and equitable society. Many Evangelical Christians believe we all share a common ancestor (Adam). But that hasn’t prevented them from working towards a dystopian society.

Despite this, I would encourage more people to take the test, with the hope that learning about our past empowers us to make better choices about our future.

You can read Evlondo’s original post here.

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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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