This time of year, purchasing a DNA ancestry kit seems like the thing to do. After all, nearly everyone you know is curious about their ancestry, and gifting your loved ones with a DNA kit is sure to get them excited about spitting in a tube or swabbing their cheek before they send the kit back to company headquarters.
Despite all the excitement, however, some think that DNA ancestry kits are nothing more than a scam, a waste of time, a way for third-party companies to get ahold of your genetic material and sell it for Lord knows how much money. And so, it’s not surprising that, in an exciting time where Christians are celebrating the birth of their Lord and asking questions about how Jesus’ biological paternity pertains to them, some critics continue to push their mass hysteria campaigns in order to prevent people from uncovering biological truth in their families that can change their lives forever.
Such is the case with local news stations. We see that the government is warning military soldiers not to do a third-party DNA ancestry kit because insurance companies can use the genetic tests results against them and deny them insurance policies. And, to add to the trouble, websites are also writing on what DNA ancestry kits and testing mean for everyday individuals who are not in the army — everyday folks who just want to know something about their family, siblings, birth parents, geographic beginnings, and so on.
One such site is Quartz, whose article titled “Why DNA testing kits shouldn’t be on your holiday shopping list” is an investigation into how exaggerated human mass hysteria can become, rather than an examination of sound logic against DNA ancestry kits altogether. Before giving my own conclusions, let’s examine the problems with the Quartz article and its claims.
DNA ancestry kits can’t tell you everything about your health or ancestry and what they can tell you is small compared to what can be known
The Quartz article says that DNA ancestry kits can’t tell you everything about your health, that the relationship between genes, genetic variations, and medical conditions “is still uncertain.” DNA ancestry kits provide “a handful of mutations on a handful of genes; they can’t give you a clear picture of your health risks overall.” In other words, since DNA ancestry kits and testing can’t tell you everything there is to know about your health risks, since genetic testing can’t provide a perfect assessment of your health risks, “it’s pointless to undergo genetic testing.”
What the article doesn’t tell you is that this mindset goes against the very nature of genetic testing in the first place. There is so much to genetic conditions and medical conditions that science doesn’t know (despite the faith so many have in it to tell us everything about the world, including whether or not it has a Creator), and science has only advanced to its current level through experimentation. But experimentation implies the unknown, for one doesn’t experiment if he or she already knows. The testing is done out of a lack of knowledge; one tests to discover the cause of something when he or she doesn’t know what causes it, or why certain mutations of cancer are faster-acting than others, for example. Genetic testing is done and research undertaken to find the answers that we don’t have, and there are many answers we don’t know. So, if, according to the article, consumers should stop purchasing DNA ancestry kits because they can’t tell us everything about our genetic conditions and the information isn’t 100% absolutely certain, then we should stop doing any tests at all because those tests aren’t absolutely certain either.
Most women get breast screenings, known as mammograms, when they reach the age of 40 or so (or something close to it). My mother went in November 2005 to get her regularly-scheduled mammogram. She was religious about getting breast cancer screenings and went to her doctor whenever a visit was scheduled. Mom didn’t miss a doctor’s appointment or mammogram, and yet, was terribly surprised when, just two months after the November 2005 mammogram, she went back to the doctor for pain in her breast. “It’s breast cancer,” she was told. And that was the beginning of a 3-year-battle with breast, lung, and brain cancer (what we know today as “metastatic breast cancer,” or MBC) that led to her death from brain cancer in 2009. Mammograms could never have told us how fast-acting mom’s cancer was, that she would contract it two months later, or that it was metastatic breast cancer instead of just regular breast cancer, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t useful in helping her live as long as she did. Had she not had her mammograms regularly, she may not have died at 52 but earlier instead.
So, DNA ancestry tests and their failure to give us “a clear picture” doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable; in fact, the current DNA ancestry kits will pave the way for greater research and health risk detection in the future. Every breakthrough has to start somewhere; if the Quartz article is right, there should be no future breakthroughs because we should all give up trying. No one has to the year 2075 to know if they’re at risk for breast cancer, but maybe a genetic health test can aid them in knowing how to proceed to fight for their life in the here and now in the long-term. What is so harmful about that?
Ancestry science is equally as uncertain as genetic testing, DNA ancestry critics say
Genetic testing is shaky, critics say, but ancestry science with DNA ancestry kits is equally as uncertain and questionable, critics also affirm. What this means is that DNA tests can only tell you so much based on databases of others and their family trees, and is also comparative based on the genetic information of others in the system. For example, one of the complaints against DNA ancestry tests these days is that they “tend to skew European,” the Quartz article says.
Well, that is true, but it makes sense for one reason: that is, “America” is known as “a land of immigrants.” Everyone in America isn’t a native by blood (that belongs to Native Americans, those we call “Indians”) but has ancestry from Europe. After all, it was citizens of Britain who came to America looking to escape religious persecution from British King Charles the First. So, many individuals in the world have some sort of European ancestry, including what many would deem as “African-Americans” or Black Americans today. I have some measure of African-American ancestry but it is small compared to my European ancestry. My green eyes are indicative of my European descent, as is the case with my pale skin. Some of my closest kin, bearing the last name “Coley,” hail from England, as one of my great-uncles was said to have British/English/European descent. All his relatives bear the same skin complexion that I have.
Most African-Americans hail from the Moors, a group of dark-skinned persons that lived in Italy during the Middle Ages. They later became known as Arabs, and from the Arabs, many African-Americans descend. Arabs are of Middle Eastern descent, but the point is that they don’t come from America. No one is a Native American except for Native American tribal members and their families. If you don’t possess any Native American ancestry, then you can’t claim to be from America; your ancestry is found somewhere else, in another country, continent, or territory.
Where some would say the DNA ancestry tests skew European is that they offer very little in the way of Native American ancestry detection. Much of that has to do with the fact that few Native Americans or American Indians (AI) are getting DNA tests done through companies such as Ancestry or 23&Me. Native American tribes have been given sovereignty over declaring who’s Native American and who’s not, and Native American tribes don’t use DNA ancestry tests to declare tribal members. The way tribal membership arrives is by a candidate proving through his or her family that he or she possesses some significant Native American descent: that is, if a great-grandmother is full-blooded Indian, for example, then a great-grandchild can declare his or her tribal membership once he or she fills out the necessary documentation and is granted membership by the federally-recognized tribe itself.
If you don’t have someone in your family tree that’s a registered Native American in a federally-recognized tribe, it’s likely that you will have small Native American heritage if any at all. DNA ancestry tests don’t hold all the answers, especially when it comes to Native American descent and how one is confirmed to be Native American, but the DNA test’s failure to show Native American descent in all its glory doesn’t mean the test is inaccurate; for, even without declaring you Native American, the test can still show that you have some sort of Native American ancestry. Genes don’t always showcase Native American ancestry, though, but they can’t deny familial connections, either. Since genes don’t always show Native American ancestry, tribes don’t use them to determine membership; rather, they rely on familial names, connections, and documentation to decide.
So DNA ancestry tests “skew European,” but the truth of the matter is that they are accurate in predicting African-American ancestry. For example, my brother has done his DNA testing at a few sites and has discovered that he is 60% African (Congo) and 38% European. He is brown-skinned and I’m fair-skinned, so, assuming all goes well with my DNA ancestry tests (my results should arrive in a matter of days), I should be above 40% European. If DNA ancestry kits skew European as much as critics say, why is it that the results match what I know about my brother from his appearance alone? There were few surprises in his results (if you don’t count the 38% European descent), and the majority of his results match what I’ve been told about my ancestry through family members who know their ancestry better than I do.
So DNA ancestry tests are a lot more accurate than critics claim they are. And yet, I’m not surprised to see them try to tear down the power and popularity of such tests. I would tear them down to if I wanted to charge lots of money for paternity and DNA testing and rob people of much, much more affordable options ranging from $49-$250.
The claims made about the genetics and ancestry being uncertain in DNA ancestry tests are designed to get consumers to live in fear, to be so afraid of these tests that the benefits are played down in an effort to discourage the tests’ popularity. And yet, the truth of the matter is that science itself doesn’t hold all the answers. Those who go into DNA ancestry testing looking for all the answers seek them in vain. But those who go into DNA ancestry tests expecting to find some answers will be surprised with what they find and glad they took the test. My last name is Richardson; Lord knows I have tons of relatives whose DNA is all filed at Ancestry.com, and none of them I’ve spoken with have ever told me they regretted their DNA ancestry test. In fact, I’ve been reluctant to have my test done and after my own research am finally doing what I should’ve done a year ago. I’d be further along in my ancestry research if I had listened earlier.
There’s one more obstacle to DNA ancestry tests, according to the critics. We’ll get into that next time. Stay tuned.