Who Am I? - Genetic Testing and Identity

By M.G. Martin

Have you seen this commercial for Ancestry.com, one of the genetic testing companies? Kyle’s self-identification, based upon how he was raised and his family’s perception, was German-American but after genetic testing in the service of researching family history, he discovered his ancestors were primarily Scottish.

Cognitive dissonance!

With his self-identify thrown into chaos, Kyle quickly adapted to this new information by tossing out his lederhosen in favor of a kilt.

Before we go on, Pet Peeve Alert!

There is a difference between heritage and ancestry and all too often, the words are being used interchangeably. Words have meaning, people! Heritage is something that is handed down from the past like traditions (ethnicity includes a geographic component). Kyle wearing lederhosen and doing a Bavarian dance at German-American festivals is part of his heritage. His lineage, his ancestral descent, his bloodline, in other words, his ancestry, is mostly Scottish. For many people ancestry and heritage converge but for others, like Kyle, they do not. Why? Who knows? Perhaps some of his Scottish ancestors migrated to Germany for some reason and adopted German traditions as the Scottish faded away. This is a question DNA testing can’t answer., it can only tell us genetic linage.

What can DNA testing tell us? What is the impact of all this DNA derived information having on how we view ourselves and those around us?

Before we even attempt to answer those questions, let’s look at how ancestry analysis is done.

Genetically, what you inherit from your parents is a crap shoot. Yes, you inherit 50% of your genetic make up from each parent but which 50%? Think of it this way, there are two blenders. In one blender put 100% of your dad’s DNA and other, 100% mom, frappe each for 30 seconds. Now, into a separate container, pour in 50% from the dad blender and 50% from the mom blender. There you are. Yes, you. Now, do the same thing for each sibling. You each get a different mix from each parent. It’s highly unlikely you and your siblings will have the exact same mix, excluding identical twins. In fact, as in the case with my friend, Carlos, the genetic mix you and your sibling inherit can be so different that, to the genetic testing companies, you and your sibling look like first cousins.

That’s an extremely simplified explanation and there are tons of tutorials available at the DNA testing companies and YouTube.

Logically, the father back you try to track your genes, the harder it is to be accurate. Since you get 50% of your genes from each parent, you only get 25% from each grandparent, 12.5% from your great grandparents, 6.25% from your gg-grandparents, 3.125% ggg-grandparents, and so on. This Wikipedia page provides a lengthy discussion of this topic and a handy chart of DNA distribution.

Even if you know for certain that there is a specific population in your ancestry, it may not appear in your DNA test results. Why? It may be too far back to be accurately identified OR you didn’t inherit any genes from that ancestor in the crap shoot that is DNA inheritance.

Autosomal DNA testing is used to trace ancestry. Unlike the Y-DNA test (tracing the Y chromosome passed fom father to son and so on, never to daughters) and MtDNA test (tracing the matrilineal DNA passed from Mother to children along the female line), Autosomal DNA looks at the 23 chromosomes inherited from both parents. Remember those percentages above about how much DNA you inherit from your parents, grandparents, gg-parents, etc…? That’s the reason Autosomal DNA tests are only useful for tracing five to eight generations past. Approximately 500 years or so. After a while, it’s really hard to sort it all out.

Okay, so the genetic testing companies can read 23 chromosome pairs in your genetic make up. How can they figure which parts of your DNA come from where?

That brings us to Reference Populations.

Basically, the genetic testing companies all have data sets representing populations from various parts of the world. Using that data, algorithms, and statistical analysis, your ancestral genetic make up is estimated.

23 and Me describes it this way for their ancestry analysis:

The Ancestry Composition report uses reference datasets representing 31 populations. When selecting the 31 reference populations, we attempted to make the population or geographic region represented by each dataset as small as possible. We experimented with different groupings of country-level populations to find combinations that we could distinguish between. There are some populations that are inherently difficult to tell apart, typically because the people in those regions mixed throughout history or have a shared history, or we might not have had enough data to tell them apart. As we obtain more data, populations will become easier to distinguish, and we will be able to report on more populations in the Ancestry Composition report.

The 31 Ancestry Composition populations are organized in a hierarchy, which reflects the genetic structure of global populations. For example, Britain and Ireland are part of Northwest Europe, which is part of Europe.” 

Each genetic testing company has their own set of reference populations defined in their own special ways and your results may not match exactly from testing service to testing service.

My friend, Marianne, is adopted and did her initial testing with 23 and Me. She’s uploaded her genome to FamilyTreeDNA and DNA.Land as well as GED Match. She’s currently awaiting her Ancestry.com test results. So far, the results are all different as the services define the “ancestral groups” differently.

She is 100% European. She was not surprised. At 23 and Me they typed her as 26% French and German, only 3% British & Irish, and 25% Broadly Northwestern European. Okay, so far, maybe. She knows her birth mother’s family tree is English/Scottish and German. That Broadly Northwestern European could house the rest of her English ancestry but it could also be Scandinavian according to 23 and Me, or yet more French and German. What really shocked her was the 20% Balkan. Balkan? WTF? 1% Italian 10% Eastern European. 10% Broadly European. Marianne never thought of herself as even remotely Eastern European or Balkan.

Just as she was getting used to that ancestral breakdown, she uploaded her genome to DNA.Land and they say she’s 31% North Baltic plus 5% Finnish, 23% Northwest European (Scottish Argyll_Bute_GBR and British in England; Icelandic in Iceland; Norwegian in Norway and Orcadian in Orkney Islands ), 19% South Central European (Italian/Bergamo, Italian/Tuscan and Toscani in (Bergamo, Italy), 10% Southwestern European (Basque/French and French in France and Basque/Spanish and Iberian Population in Spain), 4% Central Indoeuropean (Abkhasian in Abkhazia/Georgia; Armenian in Armenia; Georgian/Megrels in Georgia; Iranian in Iran; Druze in (Carmel) Israel; Balkar, Chechen, Kumyk, Lezgin, North Ossetian and Adygei in (Caucasus) Russia and Turkish in (Adana, Aydin, Balikesir, Istanbul, Kayseri, Trabzon ) Turkey, and finally, Ashkenazi Jew (Poland and Ashkenazi Jew from East Europe especially Lithuania.)

To confuse things even further, FamilyTreeDNA had typed her one way but then updated their chip set. She didn’t save the initial findings but the new findings were very different. They now have her at 38% British Isles, 32% Southeast Europe, and 28% East Europe.

I won’t even get into the GED Match results which indicate a mix of various ethnic minorities in North and South Eastern Europe in her mix and depending which test she used, her genetics are spread throughout Europe.

Her husband has begun to call her “Gypsy.”

She’s hoping to find close genetic relatives to learn who her father and his people really are. We’ll delve into genetic testing and adoptees in another article.

Since Marianne had no preconceptions about her ancestry, she wasn’t shocked at the results but a tad frustrated as she struggles to bring it all into alignment. She found her birth mother’s family as an adult and since she knows their history, she’s leaning toward the British Isles, French and German from her mother’s side and the Eastern European, Balkan, Italian, and any other points east to be from her birth father. To know what you have inherited from each parent, they also must be tested on the same service. Without their genome in the database, there is no way to know which genes you’ve inherited from whom.

Carlos, on the other hand, knows who his parents are and though he was unable to get his father tested before he passed away, he did get his mother to test her DNA. They also used 23 and Me.

Carlos was born on a Caribbean island that had once been a Spanish colony. He came to the US very young and though from an Hispanic culture, he’s a New Yorker. He, however, expected his genes to show a large percentage of native American and African given family stories and the family’s economic-social position back on the island. He was shocked to learn that he’s 60% Iberian with 5% Italian and 15% Broadly Southwestern European and a smattering on British/Irish. He is only 4% West African and 4% Native American.

He was set back on his heels. I was surprised at his reaction. Carlos went through the process of re-evaluating his self-perception now that he tested out as 88% European.

Looking at me, he said, “Well, I guess now I have to mark “Caucasian” on all those government forms and not mark “Latino/Hispanic” anymore.”

This then launched a discussion that ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’ are heritages and not ancestry and that he had the ancestry of someone descended from Spain. Hello! Iberian!

This did not seem to bring my friend any comfort.

I don’t mean to paint Carlos of being distraught. He was shocked because his self-perception about his ancestry was different than his actual, genetic ancestry.

That got me thinking……what is the impact on self-perception and identity of genetic testing? Could Carlos claim to be African-American because he is more than 1% African? Does he have more of a claim to being Native American than Faux-cahontas (i.e. Elizabeth Warren)? Can he claim to be Native American?

We are currently living in an age where the facts don’t seem to matter. There are marches for science that ignore science. People are “self-identifying” as members of races, ethnicities, heritages, and ancestries of which they have never been a part of either physically or socially. There are boys that think they are girls and girls who claim to be boys even though their genetics disagree with their feelings/psychological perception.

Feelings currently trump facts and yet, with the digital age we (society) are attempting to categorize people more and more. The current social pressure is to glom onto some sort of preferred group identity. There seems to be a pressure for purity in whatever preferred group and punishment if you are a member of the “wrong” tribe. I’m talking to you old, white, cis-gendered men. Gone is the Melting Pot. Now you must declare your identity. Human is not a choice in the race categories (unless you check Other and write in Human as I have been known to do from time to time.) Applying for a job? You are asked to self-identify. If you don’t then at some time your manager is going to be asked by HR to guess, as the government wants to know and if you won’t tell them, then they will find another way even if it’s just forcing someone else to make a half-assed guess.

Once we get over all our current emotionalism, will people have to prove they are what they claim via genetic testing? Will the government, through regulation or law, eventually require DNA testing across the board for identity and “health” purposes? Will this lead us down the path to more segregation a la the “One Percent Rule” or the total destruction of societal or governmental imposed race categories?

It’s said that Knowledge is Power and that Knowledge mis-applied is Oppression.

How can we ensure that this knowledge about us is left to us to enjoy and use on our personal self-discovery quests and not appropriated by those in power (or who want to be in power) to extend control over us and further chip away at our freedoms?

Let’s bring back our cultural melting pot and celebrate the uniqueness of each individual.

What about you? Have you paid for ancestral genetic testing? Did the results surprise you? Did you find yourself re-evaluating yourself in light of the results? What is your opinion? Post your thoughts in the comments.

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