Wednesday, 18 January 2017

A Short Rant on DNA "Tests"

Still confined to bed, I've been spending too much time on Facebook. Today I clicked on a high school pal's posting of this video:



My high school pal thought this had world-changing possibilities. I was disturbed by the sight of two strangers breaking down the volunteers ' identities so that they could replace them with new ones. These new identities are no longer based on family, communities, shared places, shared values or belief in God. They are based quite literally on spit and dodgy science.

It would be nice to believe that  DNA tests provide a road map to all the countries your ancestors have hailed from. But this is not how they work. They can only guess and give probabilities, not certainties like "Genetically you are 50% French and 20% Icelandic, Miss Saoirsa O'Reilly."

Even DNA tests looking for health problems---never mind a Cherokee great-grandma--may be wrong.  Ancestral search DNA tests are next to useless. Actually, they may be worse than useless, if they cost you a lot of money or an authentic identity based on faith, family, near ancestors, neighbourhood and other aspects of lived experience. 

Everybody on earth has been scientifically proven (for now) to have descended from one woman. The current scientific belief is that she was from East Africa. That did not make us all part Zulu. However, it is a nice bolstering of the Christian belief that all human beings have the same "first parents". And perhaps it is a nice reminder that all human beings are human beings, if we needed one. 

Occasionally I have been tempted to get a DNA test--and to pay for one of my brothers to get one, too--so as to find out if my mother's mother's mother (etc.) was either a Pict or a Gael, and to discover if my father's father's father (etc.) was a Gael or a Norseman of some sort (Viking or Norman).  But unfortunately, that's not how it works and, besides, there are better uses for money. 

As a matter of fact, my mother's mother's mother's mother's house is still standing in Edinburgh, and my father's father's father's father took out an ad in the Boston Pilot on August 19, 1854 to look for the brother who followed him from Ireland. Various of my female relations on my father's side have been keen genealogists, so I already know a lot about my ancestry. I also know rather a lot about migration patterns in Scotland, so if I discovered a genetic "cousin" in Poland, for example, I would put the phenomenon down to the 30,000 Scots who settled in Poland between 1400 and 1706 instead of joining the local Polish dance troupe.

The film features a rather offensive Icelandic supremacist, who seems to think he is more valuable than the British scientists, which no doubt he is to Iceland. It also features a proud working-class Englishman who, like the newspapers written for him, doesn't like Germans--presumably because of his ancestors' experience of the First and Second World Wars. (Germans of a certain generation in north-western Germany are not necessarily super-keen on Canadians, I discovered.)  The beliefs of the Icelander and Englishman may be irrational, but they are not more irrational than the idea that they are world-citizens because people in other parts of the world may share their ancestral DNA. You mean, Vikings traveled a lot? You mean, Anglo-Saxons are genetically similar to .... wait for it.... Saxons? Holy moly! My worldview is shattered!

Bad science, bad science, bad science, and all with an eye to breaking down identity based on family bonds and lived experience. I have English given names, an Irish maiden name, a Scottish surname, an anglophone Canadian family, mixed ancestry including Revolutionary War Americans, an east-coast Scottish husband, an Eastern European sister-in-law, an Edinburgh-area address, much-loved relatives in the Estrie and a Toronto upbringing. Spitting into a test tube would not change any of that. The story of me would not be in that tube.

Update: I have just thought of unpleasant or at least embarrassing reasons why the DNA of ethnic English and Scots may be shared by a lot of otherwise ethnic French, Germans, Dutch and Italians. 

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