So what is ethnicity anyway?

+8 votes

Arising out of

Two full sisters do ethnicity tests at the same lab.

Genealogically, they have identical ancestry obviously.

Genetically, they're different.  They each get half their DNA from each parent.  But they don't get a quarter from each grandparent.  They get their grandparents in unequal fractions. 

One sister's test shows a percentage of Native American, the other doesn't.  (Assume this is real, not just an artefact of poor testing, algorithms and interpretations)

Do we now say one sister has inherited more native blood than the other?

Or do we just say that's meaningless, since they both have the same ancestry?

What sort of blood are we talking about here?


asked in The Tree House by RJ Horace G2G6 Pilot (354k points)
Interesting Horace,

I think the DNA we actually receive is random, broken up into bits and pieces through the gens, and it takes very complex computations to determine where the DNA came from. But I absolutely adore this process! And, I think it is doable given a significant database especially with au results.

In your case I would say the fact that one sister shows NA heritage indicates the other sister is also, even tho her results may not predict that. This would be a time to cross match the sisters, (obviously), and to perhaps sample the "poison M&Ms" and reduce values on comparison.

I think they are quite tasty!

7 Answers

+11 votes
Best answer

"Ethnicity testing" is a contrivance of advertising by testing labs to get more clients.   This is not the same as ethnicity as it is used on government forms or as defined by social sciences.  "Ethnicity refers to shared cultural practices, perspectives, and distinctions that set apart one group of people from another. That is, ethnicity is a shared cultural heritage. The most common characteristics distinguishing various ethnic groups are ancestry, a sense of history, language, religion, and forms of dress. Ethnic differences are not inherited; they are learned."

"Race is defined as a category or group of people having hereditary traits that set them apart. While race revolves around the idea of biological traits, ethnicity is based on a shared cultural heritage." from:  

Part 1 | Sociology 101: Introduction to Sociology

So, using the word ethnicity with a dna test makes no sense to begin with.  It is not inherited it is learned...  

Marketing has made it a hot trend.  But scientifically it is pretty groundless.  

Generations of recombant DNA can create very different readings for siblings.  So this is not unusual.  

answered by Laura Bozzay G2G6 Pilot (395k points)
selected by Carolyn Martin

Merriam Webster:

"of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background"  

contains both nature and nurture by my reading

There is a big difference between scientifically proven and scientifically groundless. There is something there. It is not as solid as people want but it is something traceable.
Government forms is a whole different issue. They are for the most part categories that you must chose from. Rarely do they allow the multiple answers that would be closer to the truth. I would take DNA testing from any of the labs over government forms any day. When do we stop putting race on government forms?

Sue I purposely did not use the dictionary definition because it is not the scientific one.  I purposely used the sociological definition because it is what actually defines for scientists what the difference is between race and ethnicity.  Many non-scientists use the terms interchangeably but that is not correct.  

Government forms are not scientific either.  They are political and are tracking race not ethnicity.  They are two different things if you read the scientific definition. Merriam Webster in this case is wrong.  Ethnicity is not about race.  The dictionary has "fad" words and is not scientific.  It should be corrected because conflating race and ethnicity is not a good idea. Race is inherited ethnicity is not as stated very clearly in those texts that I included.  

Unfortunately the word ethnicity has been turned into a fad word from a scientific one and that is distorting its meaning as reflected now in the dictionary definition.  Yet from those who study it, it is very clearly something different.  

If you are working in a scientific context you use the scientific definition, same as in any discipline. If you are working in a discipline you use their definition. If a word is used in a general context by non-scientific people you use the general non-scientific definition. One is not right or wrong. The definition is used by context. There are many cases where a discipline has changed or narrowed a definition. This does not make everyone else wrong. This does not erase the general understanding.

It seems to me that an absolutist interpretation of the sociological definition seems to be self contradictory. It clearly states that "The most common characteristics distinguishing various ethnic groups are ancestry... " and then goes on to claim that "ethnicity is based on a shared cultural heritage" . So which is it? It appears to me that even the sociological definition includes inherited traits as a component of ethnicity, along with cultural traits. Had the author of this definition wanted to exclude inherited traits they would have had to leave out the mention of "ancestry" in the first part and preferably included a limiting word such as "only" or "exclusively" in the second part.

Which Government?

Argentina, Brazil, US, and many others track in some forms (mainly census but sometimes other types of forms) racial identity.  Now, this is never consistent because most of these forms are self-identifying and it gets into how you see yourself.   With the burgeoning of DNA tests that give results touted to be ethnic origins we have seen that how we think of ourselves may not be consistent across testing labs let alone countries.  

Take the terms White and Black.  In some countries there are multiple ethnic cultures that fit into these.  Belgium which some may think of as mainly white will track Dutch and Walloon.  The US in more contemporary time has tracked Black, White, Latino (which is not a race), Asian, Indian or Native American depending on the time frame, Mixed and Other.  

In genealogy we create projects based on countries that may not have existed for some of the ancestors in them.  Take Alsace Lorraine or when they were German Elsass-:Lothringen ...are you French, German, Alsatian, or something else?  

The whole concept of race, ethnicity, and nationality is one that changes its perspective depending on where you are and how you think.  

Some people think race relates to skin colors of black, brown, red, white, and yellow.  Others say, those are not skin colors that olive, pink, tan, brown and dark brown are skin colors that no one is white or black or yellow or red.  

This is why I say there really is no strong science behind any of this.  It is all pretty subjective and science demands objectivity not subjectivity.  

Here are some other sources about this... and how this is thought about...

Ethnicity is often associated with cultures from specific areas of the world.  Sometimes these areas are countries and sometimes groups of countries.  Sometimes there are sub-groups within larger groups like Southern Germans being culturally different from Northern Germans as seen in Bavarian culture vs Prussian culture for example. Foods and styles of dress are different as are language dialects.  

Africa has so many different cultures it is often said to be one of the most culturally diverse areas of the world by those who study this kind of thing but I would venture to guess that view is not something that comes to most people's minds when they think of Africa.  

If I look at my paper trail ancestry I break down into 25% Scottish to Canada to the US, 12.5% French from the 1600s moved into German twice as it was from the Alsace Lorraine area and back to French.  Yet in the 1500s to 1600s these people likely came from some place in what is now called Germany, Austria, Switzerland, or Italy.  Depends on how far back you go.. then the line went to the US from France,  12.5% Swiss that went to Germany then the US, and Black Forest / Baden Southern Germany to the US and Northern German Minden Bolhost Prussian to the US.    DNA originally said 98% European (45% British Isles, 26% Scandinavia, 21% Southern Europe (Italy / Spain), 6% Finland and Northern Siberia. The 2% Middle Eastern / Asia Minor.   Then the lab redid its origin calculations and now it shows 99% European with 57% British Isles, 38% West and Central Europe, 6% Iberia and less than 1% trace elements from Finland.  

When I run the DNA through GedMarch Eurogenes it came back:

North Atlantic 49.37

Baltic               21.06
West Med        14.55
West Asian       10.32
East Med           1.55
These 4 trace as they are under 1
Oceanic               .93
South Asian         .88
NorthEast African  .67
AmerIndian            .66
+9 votes
As you say the two sisters will have inherited different segments of the DNA from their grandparents. You should also bear in mind that ethnicity estimates are just estimates based on comparison with reference populations. These estimates are gradually being refined and change quite frequently.
answered by Lynda Crackett G2G6 Pilot (490k points)
No matter how much the estimates improve, they won't converge completely, because the two sisters are actually different.

At present the test companies can hide behind the crudeness of it all to avoid explaining what exactly they're actually pretending to be measuring.

But the improvement process is supposed to converge.  So what happens when the product is perfected?  What will it tell you?
+9 votes
You are looking at DNA as if it follows the very simplistic model that most schools teach kids. Even with the simple model there is a lot of variation. For example, if ethnicity was on a single gene pair. It is 50-50 which one from the father and same for the mother. That would be 4 possibilities. Since ethnicity isn’t a single gene but a pattern of genes over multiple chromosomes, the number of possibilities goes up quickly. There are othe things that occur that increase the number of variations. They may also be using other parts of dna than genes to establish ethnicity. It is quite complex and really needs a very large pool of reliable genealogical data to work from to establish patterns.

The results end up quite different from child to child.
answered by Doug McCallum G2G6 Pilot (134k points)
+7 votes
It's a question about what "ethnicity" means.  Given that 2 siblings will have different DNA, can they have different ethnicity?  If not, what defines ethnicity?

If we're going to comment on the accuracy of tests, we should at least know what ethnicity means and what would be accurate.
answered by RJ Horace G2G6 Pilot (354k points)
Ethnicity from dna is largely a marketing gimmick. The best you can di is pick out patterns that are common in a geographic area and assign ethnicity to them. Not really measuring ethnicity whic has a huge cultural component.
This is a question that I have pondered myself. Three out of four of my children have tested and they have come up with different percentages of British, Irish, and Danish, for example. And I can see that  somewhat in their coloring and bone structure. So how much of the deeper ancestral tendencies did they also inherit? I think the question is valid and interesting.
Would an adopted child who inherits the culture of their adopted parents have the ethnicity of their adopted parents?

It is an interesting question.

It is fun finding out what they can tell.
I think it is the same question as nurture versus nature. Culture is nurture -- what our parents or family, adopted or otherwise pass down or teach us. Ethnicity is nature-- what we inherit through DNA.  But! That means most of us have a bunch of mixed-up ethnicity. Anyone else want weigh in?
I would say yes. The adopted child has the ethnicity of their adopted families.

I evoked some anger last year from one member when I mentioned that their is biological DNA and cultural DNA.  

Cultural DNA is the attitude, values, traditions, perception of self and others that one inherits from the family  and environment in which they are raised.

I am thinking of a Ross family, rather large, that was raised with the self image and belief that they are Scottish, and have bought Ross kilts and tartans, however YDNA test has shown that their great great (and in some cases) 3rd or even 4th great grandfather, was not a Ross, but descended from an Yorkshire man who land in Virginia in 1618.

I see no reason for them to give up their kilts and tartans, since such is their cultural DNA.

My own cultural DNA is that of my mothers family, since that is the environment in which I was raised, and it is very different than my fathers culture.

I was raised in a non bigoted environment in Philadelphia, but  my fathers family are (unavoidably bigoted, because of their environment-southern Arkansas.  I have lived with, but not been raised by, them.

I love my fathers family, they are warmer than my mothers family, and closer, but I don't share their values, beliefs, attitudes, although I do like their food.

Point is that my cultural ( mtDNA as it were since I was raised in my mothers family, and the influence of the matriarch of that line is pervasive) is quite different than my biological (YDNA), and there is some undesirable cultural traits handed down by both sides of my parentage.

The matriarch of my mothers line was born of Prussian parents in 1866 (in Baltimore), but per FTDNA  I don't even have any East European DNA, but per 23andme I am 1.3% French/German.  Yet I am talking about a great grandmother, whom I knew personally.

Then again per FTDNA I am 4% Sephardic and per23andme .3 percent Ashkenazi.

Perhaps my great grandmother is the Jewish DNA,(there is a family tradition that her mother was Jewish) but her father was Catholic

FTDNA has me at 53% British Isles and 14% Scandinavian

At 23andme I am 69.5% British and 3.5% Scandinavian

But I am 100% American and as such that is my cultural identity (for good or worse)
+5 votes
My sister and I tested as siblings but she got Irish as a major component and I got British. She got a small amount of British and I got no Irish!
answered by Sue Hall G2G6 Mach 7 (74.4k points)
+2 votes


The fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.

An ethnic group; a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like: Representatives of several ethnicities were present. Ethnic traits, background, allegiance, or association: The graph shows class enrollment by gender and ethnicity.

An ethnic group, or an ethnicity, is a category of people who identify with each other based on similarities such as common ancestry, language, history, society, culture or nation. --Wikipedia

Ethnicity consists of cultural characteristics (such as language, history, values, and customs) that are shared by and distinctive of a group of people. --Chegg Study, Sociology (see associated YouTube video, 4:45; worth the watch) 

The distinguishing common denominator? "Ethnicity" is not biological, lives in no one's genes, and cannot be inherited via DNA.

Assumption only: was sold an advertising campaign that Americans want to know their origins. The ad exec said, "You can't use any of that DNA mumbo jumbo, and nobody wants to hear about 'anthropological regions of migration.' 'Ethnicity.' People will respond to the word 'ethnicity.'"

The ad exec ignored biology, anthropology, and sociology and went to the Urban Dictionary rather than a scientific one. Veracity and accuracy doesn't count, only sales. And when the sales started piling in at an unheard-of pace, the competition--whether they liked it or not--was forced to begin marketing the very same thing or see their market shares plummet. The ad exec looked like a superstar.

Many of the rest of us are ambivalent about the ad exec. Part of us wants to shake his or her hand for drawing millions of people to DNA testing who likely never would have been interested. The other part of us wants to smack the ad exec upside the head with a live, 49-pound Mahi Mahi.

A mystery to me, but there seems to be some deeply pervasive, unsettled need among Americans who are, oh, say fourth generation or so to find their roots...and they don't mean genealogy. They don't mean where their ancestors were when the Magna Carta was sealed in 1215; they don't even mean where their peeps were when the Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC. They means their origins. And that has nothing to do with ethnicity, and very little to do with autosomal DNA.

Kyle and his lederhosen-to-kilt transition is just plain silly (YouTube video here). The one that makes me want to cry, though, is the testimonial by Lyn, whose results showed the biggest slice to be 26% Nigerian (YouTube video here). Based on that 26% number from Ancestry, she buys a gele and wants to learn as much about her culture as possible.

To me, the truly insidious peril in all of this is that the Urban Dictionary directly equates ethnicity and the completely false concept of "race" in human beings that has carried over as a social construct for hundreds of years. There are no biological races in modern homo sapiens sapiens. Race is an informal rank in the taxonomic hierarchy below the level of subspecies. Guess what? There are no subspecies of homo sapiens sapiens alive today. Haven't been for many thousands of years.

From "Biological Races in Humans," by Dr. Alan R. Templeton, in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health:

"...Humans are not [subdivided into races]. Adaptive traits, such as skin color, have frequently been used to define races in humans, but such adaptive traits reflect the underlying environmental factor to which they are adaptive and not overall genetic differentiation, and different adaptive traits define discordant groups. There are no objective criteria for choosing one adaptive trait over another to define race. As a consequence, adaptive traits do not define races in humans. Much of the recent scientific literature on human evolution portrays human populations as separate branches on an evolutionary tree. A tree-like structure among humans has been falsified whenever tested, so this practice is scientifically indefensible. It is also socially irresponsible as these pictorial representations of human evolution have more impact on the general public than nuanced phrases in the text of a scientific paper. Humans have much genetic diversity, but the vast majority of this diversity reflects individual uniqueness and not race."

Some recent thoughts of mine about the marketing of ethnicity in DNA testing. Posted about a week later are some great thoughts on the matter from Ryan Anderson, a cultural and environmental anthropologist.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being curious about where your ancestors came from. We can't fault the people ordering the tests...even if they never do reply to us on if we reach out to talk about genealogy.  ;-)  We can, however, fault the marketing message from that unnamed ad exec, and the testing companies who do far too little to properly, contextually frame the relevance of the reports they issue to testers.

And we hear enough about "race" every single day on every single newscast. In that regard, every side, every faction, every political inclination is racist...because none of them are working hard enough to remove the concept from society. We don't have race; we don't have subspecies; we are all human and we all share over 99.9% of the same DNA.

answered by Edison Williams G2G6 Pilot (147k points)
edited by Edison Williams
When I say I want to know my ethnic origins, I am talking about the social, cultural norms they lived with before they arrived in America. As far as I am concerned, the "race" we have to designate on all those governmental documents can be removed. I understand that I have multiple ethnic origins because my ancestors landed in North America at different times from different places. Will some of those ethnic origins, for lack of a better term, resonate with me more than others? Yes. Why is that? Choice? Emotional attachment? Genetics? Choosing to be Scottish rather than German may seem silly, but I sort of understand it. I grew up with a name which is Germanic in origin. I don't "feel" German. I look at German customs and foods and they seem quite foreign to me. Actually I enjoy the Czech culture here in Texas. It seems much more like the pioneer, country culture I did grow up with added to a lot more fun with the music and dancing. As far as I know I don't have any ancestors with Czech names or historical origins. But what I have learned since I started this genealogical journey is that Germany as we know it didn't even exist at the time my ancestors came across the ocean.  They came from various places, like Alsace-Lorraine, the Palatinate, possibly Sweden. So that might explain why I feel no kinship with the culture of Berliners.

To say that there is no such thing as ethnic DNA is simply quibbling about language. I do not give a flying leap what my deep DNA origins show because basically we all came from the same place, from the same peoples. We are one race. What I DO want to know is because my mother is a Frazier, is her paternal line descended from Scottish peoples? If so, were they Higlanders or Lowlanders? Did they go from there to Northern Ireland and then here to this continent?  To tell me that because my ancestors have been here in Texas for almost 200 years, I am simply Texan, is not a sufficient answer to my question about my ancestors. Being Texan means nothing in this melting pot. I do have a cowboy hat, come from ranching/ farming people, but I still want to know about the culture of my ancestors that came before. I want to know about the culture of my more recent ancestors, and for that, DNA helps.
But does it?  What if your brother's DNA told a different story?
I EXPECT my brother's DNA to tell a different story.  As we all know, siblings inherit little bits and pieces of DNA from their ancestors, with some of the ancestors' bits missing.  The reason we have many relatives have their DNA tested is so we can paint the bigger picture of what people groups our ancestors came from.  We cannot get that from just our own.  To try to figure out where our ancestors came from we have to find as many pieces of the puzzle as we can.  In order to fill in the puzzle, we also have to study the migration of people groups:  for example, the Vikings and their forays into Ireland, Britain and the new world.  We also compare the DNA of the Celts versus the Gaelic people or other early original people and then how they intermixed with the waves of people into the island.  We study the movement of the Scottish into Ulster Ireland causing the great civil conflict in Ireland.  We try to understand where the Italian/Greek bits came from.  (Probably Romans spreading throughout the world.)  It is not a matter of ethnicity as race, but ethnicity as how did all these people groups move around and combine and recombine and end up over here in America.  What bits and pieces do I have?  Then I think we can enjoy learning the history and culture of our bits and pieces:  the Palatinate, the Viking, the Irish, the Scottish, the British, that little bit of Nigerian.  (Where did that bit come from?)  Recognizing the history of how different people groups migrated, combined, recombined helps in recognizing how we are all more similar than different.  We all have a lot of the same bits and pieces in different percentages, but we all share some history.  I think it makes us realize how we are more the same than different.

Perhaps if your people have not migrated much, or you know where your distant ancestors lived, you don't have the same intense curiosity as  those of us who feel we don't know who our ancestors were or where they come from.
But you can learn the history without the DNA test.

Your DNA is just a random sample from the same pool as everybody else's.

Yours is different from the next guy's not because you have a different history but because you have a different random sample.

This has meaning, but not the meaning that people give it.  The meaning is personal, not historical.  It means the random accidents that make up your life didn't start at birth.  The coin had been tossed thousands of times already, and every toss disconnected you from a chunk of your history.
I agree with you to some extent. I can learn about history through traditional genealogy. But I have a number of brick walls that DNA is helping me break down.  And it has answered some questions about my ancestors and raised questions about others. People who start in genealogy with DNA looking for simplistic answers to their family's history and "ethnicity" will be surprised and often disappointed with the answer.  I think that is the point you are trying to make-- that we use wrong language.  But I think that denigrating people's search for their ancestor's history, their cultural identity, their ethnicity by saying that it is a search for "race identity" is just wrong-headed. I would say that for the vast majority of people, it is not about race. It is about lost identity and the eventual discovery, hopefully, of some truth about who came before us. If you have watched, "Finding Our Roots" on PBS, although Henry Louis Gates, Jr. does somewhat simplify the search and the results, you see people who have often been brought to tears by finding out the stories of their ancestors, often through the use of DNA. They also have to come to terms with surprising results. They have to come to terms with acknowleging their self-told story is sometimes flat wrong.  DNA is just one tool in this journey. So what that makes it simplistic in order to sell their product? Some people care enough to go on in the journey and others don't.

I guess, I would ask @RJ Horace, have you had your DNA tested? If so, why? Were you disappointed?
No I haven't.

But the point I was making was much more minor.

People often break themselves down into fractions according to their tree - 1/32th this and 1/64th that.  Americans are rarely 100% anything.

Or they break themselves down into percentages by DNA.

The breakdowns don't match.  This isn't entirely down to the limitations of the testing and analysis. It's partly real, due to the randomness of crossover.

So which breakdown is the real you?  The one that reflects your ancestral history, or the one that reflects your biology?

There are two different definitions of ethnicity here (irrespective of all the other definitions).  The companies are selling one and pretending it's the other- a pretence that is exposed every time they deliver different results for full siblings.

But people note the difference and ascribe it to the wrong cause.  They assume it's an artefact of limited testing and algorithms.  They don't get that there's a more fundamental problem - your DNA isn't a true map of your whole ancestry, it's just a skewed sample of your ancestry.
I agree with that statement. When people test they have expectations of more definitiveness (if that's a word) in their inherited DNA. That expectation quickly fades when one gets his/her results. Some people lose interest and give up in confusion. Others persist and enjoy the search. I just believe the word "ethnicity" can certainly include the cultural, familial groups we can find through DNA.
"I feel complete. I know where I am from." These are Al Roker's words from his recent segment on his ancestral search trip to Senegal. After having his DNA tested by,  he made a trip to Senegal and learned about his roots and his people who were taken in chains to America. (And, no, I am not on the payroll of It was a very touching story where he described feeling a spiritual connection to the land and the people there. (As a matter of fact, I think you can see a bit of a resemblance between him and his host.) THAT is what we are seeking when we describe looking for a link to our ethnicity.  Although it is not a complete picture of our ancestors, it gives us a sense of from whom and where we came from ... our people.  Roker describes this in the story.  We are not looking for race, we are looking for roots. We just use the word "ethnicity" to describe the ephemeral thing we are searching for.
+2 votes

Leaving aside the question of the meaning of ethnicity itself, if you want a good view of how useless the testing is just compare two parents and a child.  Or else look at how wildly the result differ as the tests evolve.

My parents and I were tested by ftDNA and I have transferred the DNA to gedMatch and MyHeritage.

As far as I can tell (1700's to early 1800's), my ancestors are 1/8 from Aberdeenshire and 7/8 from central England, with most lines staying in the same place for many generations.

ftDNA, January 2017

My parents are both around 60% "British Isles" and I am 20%.

My parents are 0 and 25% "Western and Central European"; while I am 55%

We are all around 20% Scandanavian.

I can understand the arithmetic possibility of "losing ethnicity" from the half of my parent's DNA that I did not inherit, but how on earth did I gain so much western European ethnicity? My guess is that  they take whatever small numbers of markers they can find and normalise it back to 100%. Or their reference database is full of errors.

ftDNA, April 2017

Following their version 2.0 revision, the numbers changed completely.

For "British Isles" ancestry, both my mother's and my rates went above 80%, while my fathers went down to 40%.

For "Western & Central European", my mother stayed zero, my father doubled to 50%, while I went from 55% to zero!

My mother and I acquired 10% East European ethnicity.

All our Scandanavian counts went down, to zero and 13% for my parents and 4% for me.


As "English", my mother is 44%, father is zero and I am a mere 2%.

As "Irish, Scottish and Welsh" my mother is zero, father 39% and I am 15%.

Our main heritage is "North and West Europe", where my 73% exceeds either of my parents 35% and 60%.

As for that favourite, Scandanavian, now it is my mother who has 20%, while my father has zero and I have 10%


All the sets I looked at were based on ancient DNA. For example, the Eurogenes and Dodecad sets gave very consistent results between me and my parents. Of course, these results don't carry the "meaning" that testing companies would like you to assign to their results, however I find it interesting that the GEDMatch ancient comparisons can give such sensible results between parent and child, while the recent ones can be so erratic.


My parents have not tested there so I cannot offer the same comparison. My result of 60% GB, 30%West Europe and 5% Scandanavia.  Not much different from the other companies, but at least, if you look deeply enough, they put a +/- 30% range on the two major group estimates and 0 to 17% probability range on the Scandanavian.

So there is a bit of honesty buried in there.

answered by Cameron Davidson G2G2 (2.7k points)
Yes it just goes to show how much the categories are arbitrary and (American) market-driven.

It would be very interesting to see how they'd classifiy DNA of Europeans.  Especially if they did it blind wihout names and addresses.

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