Interesting recent article in the Guardian about DNA testing for ethnicity

+10 votes

Everyone interested in DNA and DNA ethnicity testing might find this an interesting article at

in The Tree House by Doug McCallum G2G6 Pilot (477k points)
retagged by Ellen Smith

Well most realize that info is mostly a guess. I had my DNA tested through Myheritage. I would also think that people accidentally set themselves up by believing folklore and stories passed down through the family. Although the family stories may hold some fact it's a'lot like whisper down the lane

In the end it turns out to be some mythology.


Chewed my way through that discussion -- when you separate out the politics  of sex, religion, and what used to be considered "race" -- which has been undergoing Social Reconstruction over the last 50 years at least -- the remains of the discussion are still primal (in my opinion) -- the DNA testing merely confirms or denies one's personal existential value.

Yes, you can justify having the test(s) and justify posting the results, on several grounds -- erasure of divisive social problems, assisting science to enable cures for whatever afflicts humankind, to enable a more accurate family descent and to collect relatives ... to make sure your own individual footprints are archived? That is a form of Immortality, eh?

4 Answers

+12 votes
Best answer

Thank you, Doug and Art

Paula Hawkins...sorry; you lost me at road repair versus DNA testing.  wink

Some of my personal opinions are in this blog post from last May.

Race. Anyone who knows even an inkling of biology should want to scream at the heavens about any and every mention of human "race" in the news.

Guess what? We are all homo sapiens sapiens. There is no "race" among modern humans. Google it.

We 7.6 billion are one. :-)

by Edison Williams G2G6 Pilot (366k points)
selected by P Małysz
Three hair types, three races, google it

I don't want to start a flame war, so I should just say you're both right (sort of), and leave it at that. But I won't, and admins can correct me if I made the wrong choice.

When looking at the taxonomy of living things, there is no race. It goes down to species and you're pretty much done. We are all H. sapiens.

When looking at anthropology, the divisions of race were basically grouped by hereditary characteristics. Here's where the "sort of" comes in: The division of humans by race is no longer considered good anthropological science. From Dictionary,com, one definition of race is "(no longer in technical use) any of the traditional divisions of humankind, the commonest being the Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negro, characterized by supposedly distinctive and universal physical characteristics." (emphasis mine)

This is not the forum for discussing how and why the race divisions came about, and whether or not they were developed to classify "us" vs. "them". But three human races and three hair types have joined the "comb test"--that is to say, they are only of historical interest, not modern human taxonomy.

I will posit that in the science of genealogy, ethnicity and national origin are of interest. Race is an artificial concept and has no place in my genealogy work, except perhaps for when it is part of a historical setting or story.

It's funny to hear you make this assertion, because in that very post you correctly identify a particularly inciteful quote from somebody else's blog, that includes in part:

"Generally it is possible to distinguish between populations at the continental level (eg Asian, African and European) provided you're from a population that is not close to a continental border."

Hate to tell you - she's talking about race, dude!

No; sorry Frank. Debbie is talking about human population groupings, not race. Her very next sentence, which you chose to omit, is: "Admixture from endogamous populations such as Ashkenazi Jews and Finns can also be detected with reasonable confidence." Would you then assert that she means Finns and the Ashkenazi are distinct races?

Debbie Kennett is a geneticist. In addition to her valuable work on genealogy and ISOGG, she's a research associate at University College London in the Molecular and Cultural Evolution Lab. No one in the biological sciences uses the term "race" as applicable to, or distinguishing of, modern humans by skin color or hair type.

And it seems that perhaps those 17 million consumer DNA test kits may be helping. New survey results from the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, Northwestern University, were published just this week. Wednesday's announcement reads, in part:

The recent availability of at-home DNA testing has helped millions of Americans learn the traits, heritage and history they share with each other. While there is a long history of polling to look at attitudes regarding race relations, this new survey is the first to look at people's perceptions and attitudes regarding race and genetics, said Alvin B. Tillery, Jr., director of CSDD [Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy].

Tillery, who led the study with Joanna Mountain, senior director of research at 23andMe, said he was surprised by some of the results.

"What I expected is that about two-thirds of Americans would believe that race and genetics are tightly bound together. We found the opposite," he said. "Only about a third of Americans nationally see a strong connection."

Only 34% of the respondents indicated they believed genetics determines "racial identity." Mind you, this was a U.S.-only survey, which I would believe to be more conservative than, for example, a survey of France or the UK.

"The science also supports this nuanced understanding of racial categories. In fact, what we think of as race is largely a 'social construct,' not a biological one, Tillery said."

For those still living in that 34%, some reading material...and it isn't as if it's a brand new concept:

Race and Ethnicity as Biological Constructs, Ethn Dis. 1992 Spring; 2(2):120-5; "For some time, biologists and anthropologists have overwhelmingly rejected the partitioning of modern humans into biological 'races.' An examination of recent human evolutionary history suggests that the zoological definition of race, based on significant genetic differences, cannot be legitimately applied to contemporary humans."

American Association of Physical Anthropologists Statement on Biological Aspects of Race, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, vol. 101, pp 569-570, 1996; "Races, in the sense of genetically homogenous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past."

Taking Race Out of Human Genetics; "In the wake of the sequencing of the human genome in the early 2000s, genome pioneers and social scientists alike called for an end to the use of race as a variable in genetic research."

Race is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue; "Today, the mainstream belief among scientists is that race is a social construct without biological meaning."

Biological Races in Humans; "Races are highly genetically differentiated populations with sharp geographical boundaries; alternatively, races can be distinct evolutionary lineages within a species; by either definition, races do not exist in humans."

Human Races; "With a population size exceeding seven billion, humans would be expected to display a large amount of genetic variation. This is not the case, however..."

Race in Biological and Biomedical Research; "Because race is fundamentally a political and not a scientific idea, it is possible that only a political intervention will relieve us of the burden of race."

OK, so there's no such thing as black people, white people etc. Scientists say so, so it must be true. Because we're calling it "human population groupings" instead. It's all been a big hoax dreamed up by politicians. Got it.

We should all feel so embarrassed at being duped for so long.

Wow, dude...
Okey doke...let's keep it friendly and respectful, everyone.  Thanks.
+8 votes

Hi Doug,

Interesting article, but I personally have reservations on the publisher and author.  If you scroll down to the very end, it's already been edited (Golden State), as shown below...

This article was amended on 11 August 2018 to correct Golden Gate Killer to Golden State Killer; and to include a missing “not” in the sentence: Why did my features not resemble a typical west African?

Back to Paula Ann's answer:  But those reading don't know that during the read.  Don't get me wrong, the article is an EYE OPENER.  DNA testing has become one of the most sought out experiences in modern history.  It's not cheap.  I encourage those who have money to throw around on something that's more positive in your community, for example, make arrangements for road repair on your street, contract with landscaping for those who live in mobile home parks (install artificial grass instead of rocks) etc.  I believe your DNA will get noticed.  Who knows, you may make history on a Google Wiki page someday. wink 

by Paula Reinke G2G6 Mach 9 (91.7k points)
Not cheap? You can get a DNA test for like $39 on sale and there's sales every holiday. Or do a free one from Genes for Good like I did.
To help people connect with one another and find commonality is "something positive for the community" - although I tend to agree with what you meant. ;)
+11 votes
Thanks for the link to the article Doug, very interesting.  I've read other articles over the years covering similar topics, largely the basic misunderstanding of the DNA "ethnicity" results and what it really means.  One point that they make in the article that I wish more people would pay attention to is the idea that by the time one gets 10 generations back, a person may not retain any distinguishing  genetics from a specific ancestor at that level.  I first read of the concept as that at 10 generations back, a person could substitue almost any person in the world for an ancestor and still be gentically the same descendant.

The other idea I particularly found interesting was the position that the current view of genetic "ethnicity" actually reinforces on some level popular concepts of race.  Perhaps we need some kind of DNA primer on these kind of topics here on Wikitree for newbies (including me, only been on about a year and a half).  Or maybe there is, still discovering new thing here every day.
Anyway, thanks again for the link.
by Art Black G2G6 Mach 5 (50.0k points)
+2 votes
Sorry, but if anybody's looking for MY recommendation, I'd say that this article is basically a waste of time, with a side order of Leftist ideology. The author is clearly completely clueless about what is going on, regarding DNA testing, and hasn't bothered to do the research to find out. Also, she seems to be climbing on the "privacy" bandwagon, as people of her political bent are doing these days - so she is NOT OUR FRIEND.

At some places, she doesn't even make sense. Despite knowing that she has a white mother and an unknown black father, she is "surprised by what was nearly a 50:50 split" between her European and African percentages. Really she ought to be saying that she was surprised that the African part came up as West African, when she believes that she looks more like an East African. She isn't even paying attention to what she's saying, herself, on the supposed subject.

That gets even more ridiculous, as she later quotes people who equate ethnicity with race, and also basically deny that there's any such thing as ethnicity or race. This is obviously a woman whose racial identity (and the associated railing against racial injustice) is huge part of her life, and she hasn't given that up. One of the best examples of irony in politically-charged discourse these days is that the same people patting themselves on the back for their embrace of the "scientific" notion that there is no such thing as race (or ethnicity) are the ones shouting the loudest about discrimination on the basis of those very things they say do not exist.

If we push all the politically-motivated nonsense aside, I would think that this sort of testing is really the ONLY option for at least Americans of African descent, so it's sad to see it bad-mouthed. I would think that the Western African populations would be fairly isolated from the Eastern African ones, and so they ought to be able to tell the difference, just as they can generally tell a European from an African. It should still be hopeless to get accurate percentages, but it should at least point you in the right general area.

And she seems to have almost completely missed that it's the cousin-matching that can help her learn about her father. At least on AncestryDNA, you can see the list of major regions for each match (but not the percentages), so you can tell who's African. She could easily sort out who's on her dad's side, and learn a great deal about him.

In reality, I get the impression that she really isn't all that interested in her biological father. She mostly just want to use his "blackness" as a club in her social justice crusade. She's excited to meet this supposed 4th cousin just because she likes the idea of having a "black relative" (even though there's supposedly no such thing as race). It's sad, and it's not genealogy.
by Frank Stanley G2G6 Mach 7 (79.0k points)
Oops! I forgot something. Call it a "summary", for anybody who doesn't want to read all that (meaning my above answer).

This article literally has a sentence that says, "Thomas explains that we probably inherit very few genes from our ancestors."

Wow. That kind of tells you the intellectual level of the writing here. As in the "How does this person hold a job as a writer?" level.

Nowhere is isolated or pure in Africa.  For instance, the migrations of the Bantu peoples from West Africa to East and South Africa are quite recent in genetic terms

They look for people with 8 West African great-grandparents as a reference sample.  This is roughly like comparing a mixed bag of marbles with samples from 3 mixed barrels of marbles to guess which barrel it came from.

Obviously there are loads of relatively distinctive and useful mutations that have arisen in the last 1000 years.  But they aren't common yet.  The firms would need to identify a vast number of those mutations before they'd have much chance of them showing up in customers.

The bottom line is, the genetic features that are common enough to be any use to a commercial testing company are ipso facto too ancient to tell anybody anything with any certainty that they didn't know already.

Forget the kilt and stick with the lederhosen - you almost certainly know more than they do.

That's why I avoid "news" sites, puppet masters and liars!
RJ Horace,

I'm skeptical, and find your example of the Bantu migration to be informative but not very supportive of your point.

Mostly what I'm talking about are Africans from the west coast, mostly from, say, Nigeria to just shy of Morocco - which is where most of the "exports" to the Americas came from, vs the east cost (Kenya and the surrounding areas). There's the Sahara Desert and the Congo between the two, and I would think that would have done a pretty good job of keeping the two populations fairly isolated from each other.

The Bantus that you bring up are in the southern part of the continent, and while it seems more reasonable that hose populations would have intermingled more, and possibly hard to separate out, even THOSE immigrations - in the Wikipedia article - were over thousands of years. So the Bantus sound like possibly an "iffy" proposition, but I'm unconvinced at this notion that all of Africa is one homogeneous "gene pool" - it doesn't sound credible to me..
It's always cute to have some SJW flag you, BTW. Virtue signal much?

Consider it another signal that this is one of those posts that has little to say on the subject of genealogy, but has some inappropriate baggage that invariably becomes the main subject.

The only relevant content is the testimony of a few people unsatisfied customers upset about the inaccuracy of their ethnicity results, not having exercised a prudent amount of "buyer beware" wisdom. That's a legit subject, but not really anything especially new or different here.

But the article ALSO has a fair amount of ideological baggage that not only doesn't belong here, but pushes some of the paranoia and poisonous ideas that threaten what we're trying to do here, too. Obviously, that's the part that's going to get all the attention, and it's not a good thing.
What's a SJW?
"Social Justice Warrior"

Basically, those people who are always finding some excuse to call you a racist, someone destroying the world, etc, over some perfectly normal thing you do, and staging some protest somewhere. Some of them are getting quite violent, these days.

We had one person in here, not too long ago, for example, with a thinly-veiled suggestion that doing a bunch of work to uncover your own ethnicity is racist. Their latest news-making crusade is their war on plastic soda straws.

But, again, it's a non-genealogical distraction - this forum is NOT supposed to be a platform for them to preach to us!!
The point about the Bantus being in different parts of Africa at different points in history is this: When your DNA test tells you you have West African heritage, is that the peoples that were in West Africa 100 years ago? 1000 years ago? 4000 years ago? Knowing the geographic location without the point in time is useless.

Similarly, I consider "my ancestors" from my Dad's side to be German, because that's the country from which they emigrated to the US, but I also know that my yDNA haplotype/subclade migrated from Greek Empire-era Turkey through the Balkans. So, when FTDNA tells me I have some Western European/German ancestry, and DNA.Land tells me I have a significant amount of North Slavic blood, it's quite possible they're discussing the exact same genetic material (SNPs).

Overall, I didn't think the article was particularly informative (to me) or well-written. She did gloss over the cousin-finding bit, and the article was mostly focused on the "give us your money and we can tell you your heritage" part. Yes, she likely considers herself a liberal, but I didn't feel like I was being assaulted by ideology. But social issues are definitely part of what makes these tests so popular and to some, so disappointing. So, speaking of baggage, please drop any presupposition that "people like her" (a young, possibly liberal, black woman concerned about her heritage?) are really just liberal SJW snowflakes looking for a way to accuse "people like you" of racism.

You missed the point on her surprise at her 50/50 white/black ancestry. She'd never met her father, so had no way of knowing if he was 10% or 100% African. She saw her own facial features as being hard to pin down ethnically. I won't get into history and nasty old terms, but yeah, 7/8ths "white" and 1/8th "black" is still "black" or African to most people.

And yes, privacy and fear of strangers knowing your heritage is definitely a thing for minorities. Studies have shown that women and non-whites have much better odds of getting a job interview when their name isn't on their resume.

Perhaps you weren't aware of these last two issues (ethnic admixture and privacy), and that's okay, but it is pertinent.

Apologies for the long post.

You got me looking up the history of West Africa, and the remarkable thing about it was that it didn't even mention other parts of Africa - you have to get back to pre-history for that sort of thing. The only outside interaction mentioned is with Europeans. So it sound to me like my impression of the situation in West Africa was correct. To answer your question, the people in West Africa 100, 1000, and 4000 years ago are pretty much the same people, although under different names as different dynasties rose and fell.

The Bantus were in the southern part of the continent, and it seems more like the pattern you see in Europe, where there are migrations within the area over the centuries.

So the history seems to support what I was saying about various major regions of Africa. Within those regions, you'd naturally have the same problems as Europeans.

As to the rest of what you're saying, I reject it all as invalid. I specifically called it a "side order of Leftist ideology", for a start, so your counter that you "didn't feel like I was being assaulted by ideology" is an intellectually-dishonest strawman. What your saying on the "50/50" issue doesn't reflect anything I remember her actually writing, and therefore is something you invented out of thin air to defend her for no apparent reason. Your commentary on racial sensitivities is self-contradictory. And none of what I'm responding to in this paragraph even belongs on this forum.

The background behind this young woman's test.

 This isn't a scientific article , its not even an opinion article. Its from that bit of the paper given over to lighter 'features' (in print a completely separate section)  She knows that scientifically race is a social construct but her story explains her confusion about her origins. Her realisation that her father wasn't her bioligical father 

 The 'we' of wikitree membership will surely cover people with a wide range of political views and cultural heritages .My view Frank, is that you are the one introducing perjorative language and political opinion into this discussion ( disclosure: long term Guardian reader, active wiki-tree member  who enjoys researching family histories I hadnt considered  these activities to be in conflict with each other.) 

Frank, you are of course free to reject what I said. Just because the author didn't actually say those things doesn't mean I was inventing them out of whole cloth. I was trying my best to supply some context that I don't think you had.

I tried to give you that context, and you took the time to read it. That's all I can ask.

This author is pretty well-behaved until about halfway in, so maybe she lulled you to sleep before then. t starts a little slow, with the socialist's typical outrage that somebody would actually make money for themselves - even in the pursuit of treating horrible diseases that cause millions endless suffering:

"But questions have been raised about the ethics of European and American scientists harvesting genetic information from Africans and African scientists for economic gain. 23andMe has announced plans to share the test results of five million customers with GlaxoSmithKline, the drugs giant, in order to facilitate the design of new drugs. (Users are asked if they want to participate in scientific research when they sign up.)"

Notice how this is even portrayed as, basically, white people "harvesting" black people - raising images of some sort of sick Nazi experiment - for no good reason, whatsoever. Plus, how - since this exactly what the customers explicitly volunteered for - there are no ethical questions to be asked, whatsoever. If fact, it's a wonderful example of people offering to sacrifice a tiny bit of their privacy to help their fellow man. Even further, it's an example of presumably mostly-white people working to help treat illnesses specific to black people.

Then she doesn't waste any time jumping right into the demonization of law enforcement - a popular theme with modern Leftists which blames the high crime rate of minorities (especially blacks) on the cops who arrest them, and pushes the urban legends about cops hunting down black people for sport that are getting so many cops assassinated these days:

"Privacy is a major concern for everyone using these sites, but perhaps more so for those from minority backgrounds. For those who are already discriminated against, having their genome used against them - for example from the criminal justice system - could have serious implications. …"

But that's not racially-charged, ideologically-motivated, and outright paranoid, or anything.

Before long, we wander even further off course, as providing the ethnicities is literally called "shifty", and it is strongly implied that the motivation is  just to be racist. "Let's be honest", they say.

Then we head into the Lennon-esque world where "science", by their interpretation, has decided that race does not actually exist (even though it's otherwise brought up all over the article!) Just a "social construct", they say, suggesting we poor ignorant non-scientists errantly made it up, just so we could discriminate against people (based on something that doesn't even exist, according to them). It's a concept that's "arguing semantics" at best, and outright denial of reality at worst. They could say that race is too imprecisely-defined a notion to be used in technical work, so other, more precise way of essentially talking about the same thing, when needed, are used, but that's not the way they portray it, and that tells you where they're coming from.

So, Helen, if you think I'M the one injecting political opinion into this, I invite you to either (1) "Go back and read it again", or (2) "gimme a break".
Well of course your stereotypical Guardian reader will take all that as mere factual backdrop.

You'd have the same problems with everything in the Guardian.  You wouldn't like the news coverage, let alone the opinion pieces.

I should say that if you're trying to say that you can make more sense of what she says, because you have some sort of backstory, because you've read other things, than I happily accept that you're not "making things up." I wouldn't even require real proof, since that's just a side-issue to a minor point I was making. Like anything else on WikiTree, it's expected that people back things up when they say stuff.

Unless you're saying I missed something in the article itself (in which case you should provide the quote that shows otherwise), the backstory is completely irrelevant to the point. The point was that this is professional writer employed by one of the most prominent newspapers in the Western world, so if she's being incoherent in the presentation of the basic premise for the whole story, that tells me that either she really didn't care about that part, or is too self-centered to notice the problem. Obviously, she would have an editor, and apparently they weren't very interested in that part either, or the errors would have been caught.

Hence my thesis that this story isn't really even about what it says it's about - it's just another vehicle for the social programming thrown in at the end.

I confess that I didn't originally even look at Helen's link as to the author's backstory, because that could only be some sort of soap opera, and not really relevant to the discussion.

But then I did anyway, and wow - I hardly even know what to say. It had me laughing out loud, as I'm old enough to remember Steve Martin's movie, "The Jerk". It seems to be a sort of cross between a subplot of that movie, plus something I imagine you might read in the National Enquirer. Honestly, it's an unbelievable story - literally, as in I'm not sure we should really believe it, it's so ridiculous.

And so we are all made to be ridiculous, trying to have a serious discussion about what turns out to be part of some sort of circus sideshow. Oy, vey! ...

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