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Who do you think you are? Genetics and identity

Ethnicity and ethnic identity have been recently brought to the fore in the Western world. One important reason is that immigration and globalization have resulted in a variety of clashes among different groups in very different contexts. However, there is another reason: DNA ancestry testing. Margo Georgiadis, president & chief executive officer of the major company in the field, Ancestry.com, has estimated that in early 2020, 30 million people had taken a DNA test, of which over 16 million was with her company. These companies tell you that by simply spitting into a tube or swabbing the inside of your cheek, you can find out a lot about your origins and your ancestors through DNA. Indeed, the way these tests are sometimes marketed may make people think that ethnicity is something “written” in their DNA. In many cases, people have to deal with surprising revelations that make them reconsider their ethnic identity, and in some cases reveal that the person whom they called father is their biological one.

Identity matters a lot to people, because it affects both how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by others. There are two big issues with how people tend to think about ethnic identity. On the one hand, it is assumed that people of the same ethnicity are a lot more similar than they actually are. On the other hand, it is assumed that people of different ethnicities are much more different from one another than they actually are. Therefore, once considered as members of particular ethnic groups, each person is no longer considered as an individual, but as a representative of particular ethnic types. This has an important consequence: people are not considered on the basis of what they really are, but rather on the basis of what they are expected to be given the ethnic group to which they belong. And this is where false stereotypes can easily prevail. Here DNA ancestry companies enter the scene by arguing that their tests can indicate to which ethnic group one belongs. Thus, these tests privilege notions of ethnicity based on genetics, contributing to the myth of genetic ethnicities.

Research in psychology has supported the conclusion that people believe that they have internal, immutable essences that influence who they are. This kind of thinking is called psychological essentialism; when genes, and DNA more general, are considered as being these internal and immutable essences, the view is described as genetic essentialism. This is an intuitive view that makes people find natural that they belong in one or another group, as well as that these groups are internally homogeneous and entirely discrete from one another. Therefore, if people intuitively tend to think of ethnic groups in genetic essentialist terms, it might seem natural to them that there exist discrete ethnic groups that are both genetically homogeneous and genetically distinct from one another.

Ethnic groups are real, but are socially and culturally constructed. More often than not, these groups have not had continuity across time historically, linguistically, culturally, and of course biologically. However, people intuitively tend to essentialize these groups, and DNA often serves as the placeholders for this. Population genetics provides an objective means for distinguishing among human groups; however, even though there are many different ways to do this, people (and researchers themselves) often tend to privilege those groupings that align with previously perceived, extant categories, such as continental and racial groupings. People living in the same continent are indeed more likely to have recent common ancestors among themselves than with people living in other continents. But what really exists at the genetic level are gradients of genetic variation, not distinct groupings. Human genetic variation is continuous and the genetic differences among people are overall very minor. For this reason, ethnic groups, nations, or races are not biological entities.

As a result, any ethnically, nationally, or racially distinctive genetic markers exist only in a probabilistic sense, and what ancestry tests provide are just probabilistic estimations of similarities between the test-takers and particular reference populations, consisting of people living today. But being related genetically to people living today somewhere does not necessarily mean that their ancestors came from that place. Furthermore, as more people take such tests, these reference groups change and as a result the ethnicity estimates for the same person can change across time. DNA provides partial information about our ancestors, which is the outcome of a process of interpretation. Therefore, DNA cannot reveal our true ethnic identity and the genetic ethnicities to which test-takers are assigned are imagined. However, this does not devalue these tests as their results can indeed provide some valuable insights and information to people who may not know much about their ancestors. Indeed, the tests are very good for finding close relatives, and this is perhaps why the industry should be rebranded to DNA family testing.

Feature image by Shutter2U via iStock.

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