23 and not me

Have you done a DNA test to determine your ancestry?  Were you surprised at the results?  The most surprising thing, to me, is not whether someone finds out they’re part African or Native American, but that  so many have come to accept the results as right and born out of a natural order of geographic distribution - that the test can literally tell you what percentage you are of a particular cultural group.  

The most popular testing site, 23 and Me, claims on their site that “[y]our DNA tells the story of who you are and how you’re connected to populations around the world.”  With their test, you can,”[t]race your heritage through the centuries and uncover clues about where your ancestors lived and when.”  Never mind that one person’s results can vary widely between different ancestry testing companies, it is incapable of determining ethnicity precisely since many markers are shared by many ethnic groups, and that emerging science shows one’s genetics are influeced by lifestyle and environmental factors such that your genetics don’t determine who you are as much as we used to think they do.   23 and Me’s description carefully alludes to, yet skirts around, telling you that you’ll uncover a previously secret connection to a particular culture.  Which will explain so much about who you really are!  Yet, these test are often taken as gospel to the recipient - a definitive placement of genetic markers for their geographic origins.  White nationalists are shocked that they may not be entirely white, while Black Americans have had their historically-informed suspicions confirmed that their ancestors were injected with Euro DNA, very likely against their will. 

There are also concerns about how taking a DNA ancestry test results in the leasing of your genetic imprint to the testing company, unless you read the fine print and opt out.  Careful, or they may sell your information to the makers of Preparation H if they know you are genetically predisposed to hemorrhoids   

23andMe Test Results (not Zach’s)

I won’t pretend to know a lot about the science behind DNA, that’s not my field…by a long shot (though I found this paper to be an excellent resource on the topic).  Rather, as a social scientist I want to weigh in on the larger implications of the rise in popularity of this strand of science.  In many ways, these tests and their popularity are prefigured around the significance of race and ethnicity as they permeate the global culture, and especially Western ideology.  We are obsessed with individuals’ self-identification and disidentification with the groups they’ve been assigned to by colonialist powers or conventions of historical knowledge and practice, to the extent that our epistemology of genetics has come to reflect those groups as a natural order against which to run tests of origin.  Race, ethnicicty, and nationality are constructions of humans, and ones constructed by mainly white, European men at that.  

The only aspect that isn’t a construction is geographic origin - where people’s ancestors were clustered on the globe - and the variation in environmental influences that came with their location.  From what I do know about genetics, these are pretty important.  As people age, we all experience some genetic mutations of some form or another, and environmental factors can determine the pace and type of those mutations.  Likewise, the emerging field of epigenetics tells us that certain genes’ expressions can be altered throughout the life course based, at least in part, on environmental influences.  DNA testing has also been supportive of the “out of Africa” theory of human origins and migration pattern, where the original humans in the form we know today emerged from the Horn of Africa and migrated across the rest of the globe from that origin. Testers can track geographic origin to some degree of confidence, and that is a significant part of my argument here.

We should be wary, though, of assigning too much significance to even geographic clustering in examining social outcomes.  Social evolutionary hypotheses, when tied to biological evolutionary philosophy, have historically bred disastrous outcomes by the more powerful clusters of their historical moment.  Early Geographers Friedriech Ratzel and Ellen Semple, for example, supposed that humans were at base a product of their environment. And logically, therefore, the groups of people with the most advanced technology, literature, or erstwhile measures of importance should end up on the top of the global social order.  For them to make this hypothesis as Germany was in a period of dramatic industrial expansion and the British empire spanned the world should alone be proof of how their science was prefigured by their situation.

"Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections — and it matters which ones get made and unmade.” - Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto

It is important, then, that we see today’s ancestry tests as prefigured in their own right.  The questions genetic ancestry tests ask us to ponder about our past groupings rest upon how humans have constructed social barriers and those groupings, and not some natural order of humanity.  Anything they tell us beyond a statement of *where* should be treated with suspicion.  

Donna Haraway, a feminist scholar of science and technology, has been particularly important in showing how science has relied on existing narratives and tropes to generate knowledge.  She, like many before and after, is critical of any science described as “objective” by the practitioner.  The very questions we ask are molded from our own view and knowledge, and even to take a relativist view or methodology that ackmowledges its bias is still situationally limited and bound by the power dynamics it is entwined in.  And so, as the quote above shows, the standpoint for how the story told in the narrative of genetic identity is just as important, if not transcendentally important, to the results themselves.   Genetic ancestry tests are bound up in a narrative of whiteness, imperialism, and masculinity - a story told over and over and over, from which finding anything truly profound about one’s genetic ancestry might simply be impossible.  The results will simply confirm or disprove a preconceived notion of personhood in a prefigured set of categories along a well-tread ideological path.

White supremacists whose tests show a slice of African ancestry aren’t actually African, as most of them have lived their whole lives surrounded by a bubble of whiteness they are seeking to defend and expand.  Why, then, would the rest of us place such hefty consequence on a surprising genetic test - especially when those surprises will vary based on which company is providing the results?  If I take the test and find that I’m more Iberian than Eastern European, that will have little material impact on my upbringing or my children's, except that I might get interested and seek to learn more about a culture I hadn’t previously thought I belonged to.  Even then, as an American, being one form of white or another has little bearing on my social life unless I am a first generation immigrant, and it is much more impactful that people see my outward characteristics, they form judgements of me based on those than hidden DNA.  

Of note, there is a now-classic critical saying that Barack Obama’s mother was a white woman from Kansas, yet because of the US’s “one drop” cultural hisory, being any part Black made him our first Black president instead of our 44th white president.  Perhaps Bill Clinton should take a DNA ancestry test to try and reclaim his former mantle as the first Black president.  Materially, though, his test could show something wildly unexpected and would have no effect on his life or legacy.

If I seem to be conflating race and ethnicity in this argument, it is only because they are somewhat analogous in their impact. Certainly, there is a lot more nuance to how one is treated in the US than just their skin color - accent, dress, scent, and other easily detectible appearance criteria play a role in a person’s interactions and material conditions.  For a white person to find out that they’re part Native American or Black, though, makes as little difference as if they found out they were more Irish than German.  Or, for a person of African descent to find out that thier ancestors were at some point injected with Euro DNA doesn’t change the nature of their being Black in America.  Yet they are presupposed to carry weight to our identities, because they are presuppsed to be different groups in a significant way.

This is a sociologists take on the impact and significance of DNA ancestry testing, and one informed by a rather shallow level of understanding about genetics.  DNA testing for health conditions and other reasons are, perhaps, topics for other posts.  I invite debate, corrections, and competing interpretations of what I have put forth here.  Let there be fruitful discussion between the physical and social sciences, for if we compete, we narrow our epistemological possibilities in a way that hinders advancement and understanding.  I haven’t had my DNA tested, have you?

Zach Rubin, 2018