The paradox of ancestry testing


Genetic ethnicity testing is in vogue. Just pop a swab of saliva in the mail and an affordable test will reveal the components of your ethnicity. It’s the new form of heritage reconstruction, a ‘scientific’ confirmation of the family tree. After all, who doesn’t want to know what they’re made of? Like many, I was fairly awed at first – until I wondered what ethnicity tests actually tell us, and why the results should matter. 

Ethnicity testing is probabilistic. DNA from regionally distinct populations is used to create reference panels. When one gets an ethnicity test, their DNA is compared and matched to these panels. Test results, therefore, are easily misinterpretable. You might be shocked to find you have an estimated 20% Tibetan ethnicity, even though no one in your family was from Tibet. Testing companies provide an explanatory caveat: ‘ethnicities’ are primarily found in certain regions. They may be found elsewhere, perhaps decreasing in probability with distance. Ultimately, this precludes any certainty of ethnicity estimates. 

The biggest issue with ancestry tracing is the definition of an ‘ethnicity’. What does being 100% ‘Italian’ mean? Essentially, not much. Ethnicity is merely an arbitrary delineation of a population’s spatial and temporal existence. The biological anthropological theory holds that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa before expanding outwards. Humans have always travelled and intermingled, gene flow inherent to our dispersing nature. To their credit, DNA testing companies concede it is more difficult to distinguish between ethnic groups in places with a greater history of migration and intermarriage. Nowadays, people are the most interconnected and able to travel as they have ever been. Ethnicities cease to be of importance . . . Or, at least, they should. 

This leads to the paradox of genetic ethnicity testing. Of course, ethnicity estimates can be valuable for people wanting to better understand their heritage. I believe everyone should be entitled to the information if they desire it. On the other hand, ethnicity is arguably arbitrary and increasingly meaningless. Every population has migrated from somewhere else; humans intermingle and exchange genetic histories. Aside from this, we live in a society which strives to treat all people equally, regardless of heritage or ethnic composition. While we should have the right to explore our ancestry, we should also consider if it is significant. Pride or shame in a genetic history one cannot control would be misplaced. What matters is not what our ancestors were, but who we are today. 

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