A Cultural Analysis of DNA Testing

DNA testing is a big thing these days. Websites such as Ancestry sell kits for about $100 that are advertised as being able to tell family heritage, where a person came from, and her ethnicity. The implication with these tests is that they will also tell a person his true “race.”

As an experiment and to see what would happen, I ordered one of these kits. A few days after ordering the kit, I received a tube that I had to spit in for about 20 minutes and then send it back. About two weeks later, I received my results.

Ancestry’s map of my DNA/Ethnicity

According to their analysis, my DNA is:  

0% African 

0% Native American

0% Asian 

0% Pacific Islander 

3% West Asian 
–3% Caucasus

97% European
–32% Ireland 
–29% Western Europe
–21% Great Britain 
–14% Scandinavia
–1% Italy/Greece
–1% Iberian Peninsula 

Ancestry compares the DNA they receive with the DNA of 3,000 volunteers “native to” 26 regions around the globe that made the initial database, but a number of regions have not been sampled as indicated by this map from my profile.

Ancestry has DNA samples from the highlighted  regions that are used to measure ancestry
Ancestry has DNA samples from the highlighted regions that are used to measure ancestry

That’s a significant portion of the people who are left out. 

Going back to my results, according to their tests and from the best I can understand, 32% of my DNA matches that of their sample of “native” people living in Ireland today. Put another way, based on their database again, 32% of my DNA matches 95% of the DNA from 154 people “native” to Ireland. Additionally, 3% of my DNA matches 83% of “native” Caucasus DNA based on 58 samples. Results are far from simple and straight forward.  

I do know based on (very) recent family history that I do have many recent ancestors from western and northern Europe. But, and the big but, is that these test only measure recent family history and they are only estimates and only selective as samples are compared to a bank. Additionally, what does “native” to a region mean? I wonder, how volunteers were selected to make this bank of 3,000? For instance, I know of recent Native American and Eastern European/Western Asia ancestry not shown of this test. 

Also, the tests are misleading per se because they don’t recognize that we all have African (biological) ancestry. We all come from Africa. 

Human Migration

As a result, these tests seem to tell people more of what they think people will want to hear.

These DNA tests also neglect cultural DNA and cultural ancestry. Beyond pure biology (and geography does indeed influence biology and DNA), we all have cultural DNA/cultural ancestry from every country, religion, culture, etc., etc. 

By privileging the recent and parts of the biological, these tests unintentionally (and intentionally?) encourage ethnocentrism, historical illiteracy, and perpetuate dated-views of how and why humans live and behave as they do. 

These tests do potentially have strengths in terms of helping people find recent relatives who have also been tested from around the nation and world. Also, as science continues to advance and as more people provide samples, such tests should be more encompassing.

People need to remember (and DNA testing companies need to discuss) that these test do not and cannot show what “race” someone is. All notions of race used throughout the world, across time and place, are mere social constructions.

Have you had your DNA tested? How was your experience? What do you think about your results?

(Added 9-7-18, for more information see: “DNA Tests Quietly Reinforce Terrible and Scientifically Inaccurate Concepts of “Ethnicity“)