Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Genetic Ancestry: The Project Behind the Myths.

Rachel Tashjian's picture

    In 2005, geneticist Spencer Wells began collecting data for a mammoth genetic database called the Genographic Project, designed to fill anthropological and biological gaps in the history of human evolution. Using cheek swabs, Wells (along with about ten other partners) has been gathering information from “indigenous and traditional populations” to figure out how people got to where they are today (1). Like many modern science advances (such as cloning), the general public seems to have embraced Wells’s Genographic Project, particularly because anyone can send in a cheek swab and find out their own history, too. But although genetic ancestry does not have the sci-fi connotations that say, cloning does, finding out who you really are genetically can be as tenuous—if not more—as copying yourself.
    But before we ask any ethical questions about genetic ancestry, it may be helpful first to explore it.  A scientist can test genetic genealogy via two tests: one (Y-DNA) tests your father’s side of your DNA, and the other (mtDNA) tests your mother’s side (1). (A more comprehensive explanation of DNA and genetic sequence can be found at When a sample is collected, the Genographic Project studies it to find the mutations in the DNA. These mutations link people together, into what are called haplogroups, as scientists can then trace this mutation in others and back to a common ancestor (which is often associated with a specific geographic region) (1). By tracing each of these mutations, the Genographic Project can create a personal map showing from where one’s ancestors have migrated (and indeed, anyone who sends in a sample, which costs $99.95 on National Geographic’s website, will get such a map). The more samples collected, the better the Project can specifically fill in gaps concerning, for example, how and when Native Americans came to North America.
    In theory, this sounds exciting—for historians, for anthropologists, for whole populations, and for an evermore curious general public. And indeed, in many ways, genetic ancestry is an exciting prospect. At a time when diversity and multiculturalism is celebrated (though at times questionably glorified), particularly on college campuses, finding out that one has a more patchworked ancestry than originally thought “[is] a badge…it’s cool,” Professor Samuel Richards told the New York Times (Richards teaches a sociology class on race relations which involves a genetic testing project similar to the Genographic Project, but which emphasizes race rather than geography) (2). Richards also hopes that the testing segment of his class will “improve race relations” (2). While Wells’s project does not reveal race percentages (or any race at all), the geographical areas will give participants an idea. If people realize they have more genetic diversity than they previously believed, they will hopefully become more open to other races and cultures.
    On a broader scale, the Genographic Project inspires the general public to become more involved in science, and to become more informed about genetics. “As of June 2007, more than 210,000 people have participated” (this number does not include the indigenous peoples, who Wells generally seeks out himself). When people participate in the Genographic Project, their data can become part of a large database, and that participant is now part of what is at stake (the discovery of larger migratory patterns) in Wells’s overall goal. And as previously stated, this information will help fill a large gap in our anthropological record, revealing more about our ancestors.
    The Genographic Project also offers a special benefit to me. Due to a sort of genealogical comedy of errors, my family has never been completely sure whether or not we are in fact Armenian. While I do not look Armenian (I get my coloring from my mother) and my family does not participate heavily in Armenian culture, I have always identified with and enjoyed it. I would certainly say that, despite my non-Armenian appearance, my differing religious beliefs, and the fact that I have never visited the country, it gives me a sense of pride. We’ve been wondering about this for years, and now I have the opportunity to send in my cheek swab and $99.95 and find out the real answer.
    I have not done this, though, because although the Genographic Project has been widely embraced, it has certainly not gone unchallenged. Projects like Richards’s present an issue in that they often seem to suggest stories that do not seem to fit with our conception of society. For example, James Watson, who won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, recently suggested that Africans were not as intelligent as other races (3). Statements such as Watson’s can lead to the misappropriation of genetics by the general public, and indeed, some bloggers seemed willing to accept Watson’s statement: “‘Let’s say the genetic data says we’ll have to spend two times as much for every black child to close the achievement gap,” said one blogger. This story, however, is not only based on speculation, but seems to rely upon genetics to the exclusion of environmental factors like home life and one’s school system, as well as other genetic factors. It also suggests that each gene carries a one-to-one correlation: gene A means you will be 5’7’’, which is not the case.
    Perhaps even more worrisome is the effect of the testing on the “indigenous and traditional peoples” the Genographic Project targets. “Geographic origin stories told by DNA can clash with long-held beliefs, threatening a world view some indigenous leaders see as vital to preserving their culture,” a New York Times article explains (4). Some see scientists creating a genesis story for another culture (especially ones rich with their own genesis stories) as genetic colonialism (4). The Alaska Area Insitutional Review Board rallied for support from the United Nations, who then suggested the Project be suspended. It was not.
    If I choose to send in my sample and get the answer to my question, I might experience this genetic colonialism in a microcosm. Something I feel is part of who I am, the little bit of pride I feel when helping others to pronounce my last name and when responding to others who ask what ethnicity it is will no longer be, according strictly to genetics, relevant to who I really am.
    However, we should not believe strictly in genetics. Some of us may have stories that we personally want to be true. But even more importantly, in questions of genetics, it is vital to ask about the theory of scientific stories rather than conclusions or facts, and about one’s relation to another. The existence of one story does not mean that another cannot exist. In fact, when asking where we come from and who we are, two stories must exist. A story of DNA may tell us where a group moved from, and who they might have had contact with before. But a group’s own story tells us something similar but far richer: where did their culture come from? What does it tell them about themselves? What binds them to one another, and what connects them to others? These questions are richer because they engage the most natural of human tendencies: we notice (and immediately define) someone not by a strand of DNA, but what our eyes see and our ears hear. Though this tendency is often seen as negative, it does not correlate with just one thing (just as genes do not). Although genetic ancestry may seem more fathomable than an indigenous myth to many, it is the myth that can be seen and heard. No one group can win in the relationship between cultural stories and genetic ones, so they will have to balance each other out. Indigenous stories will likely not be as fervently believed if the knowledge of genetic ancestry becomes more widespread, but the existence of the latter does not make those stories any less valid.