Saturday, March 11, 2017

DNA tests, Horoscopes or Science? And, Do We Consumers Care?

This ethnicity pattern from Gedmatch is the one I like the best. It's like an ethnicity Mandala to meditate upon.

This winter, in order to keep me from going stir-crazy in the house, I took the plunge and paid for one of those DNA tests on Ancestry, even though I sense it's all a bit of scam, or if not a scam, at least a fad like spiritualism in the Victorian Age.

Or maybe these trendy ethnicity tests are more like 'electromagnetism' magic shows in the 1910's with real important burgeoning science behind it, but where  the public fascination with it is mostly emotional, driven by curiosity and other basic drives.

Genealogists love these tests, that's for sure. I can understand the appeal: all you have to do is spit into a tube.No plodding through church cemeteries or deciphering scrawled handwriting in written records.

Of course, my results brought up more questions than they answered, and that is what is supposed to happen. It's all very addictive. In my case, I had to wonder, Why am I 11-20% Caucasus ethnicity. My mother is French Canadian and my alleged father is from the northern UK.

I combed the message boards and websites and even read scientific articles from Nature that I didn't understand at all. Is there something rotten in my family tree?

And, then, after a few days, I found that even Ancestry, in a White Paper on Ethnicity Estimation from 2013 posted on their website, admits that the ethnicity component of their service is more about 'ancient history'. Then  the paper goes on for pages describing the scientific methodology behind their results.

Grandmaman Maria Roy from Montreal. I look just like her, except for the heroic bosom.

Another post on the Ancestry website reveals that the results can vary hugely from sibling to sibling.

Put into Gedmatch, these results will confirm if a sibling is a sibling, but according to Ancestry, we're all a wonderful and unique mixture of genes - so go and get your second cousins to sign up for a kit, too.

See, it's a game! A harmless marketing game, if you have the money to plunk down on it. (And, I do, because I haven't left the house all winter.)

I know good marketing when I see it. That's what I used to do, write ads, sometimes for pharmaceuticals. I played with words to avoid telling an unappealing truth, while not lying, outright, while playing up a selling point.

I didn't care, because in those days, only doctors read these ads and they should know better, right?

Today, the Ancestry TV ads seem to play up Native ancestry. Everyone seems to want Native genes, these days, as if assimilating a people is akin to reconciliation.

 Another company is playing up Neanderthal genes.  So, far, no one has been found to have space-alien genes, but I'm sure that would become a badge of honor, too.

But, I have to wonder, am I truly contributing to science by adding my DNA to the big fat alphabet soup of X and Y chromosomes already out there.  The more people who do the test, the more scientists will be able to refine it, so fans say. We are being pioneers.

One day, the estimations might even be exact. (Never mind that the history of  Europe is so complicated that all Europeans basically have the same genes. The Vikings, Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, who, I'm told, cut off the head of 4,500 or more mostly male 'pagan' Saxons, to make sure his own Frankish line carried on, and it did, according to geneticists.

Dorothy Forster, my supposed Grandmother from County Durham. I have her crooked elbow, wrists and hands and chin, but she sure doesn't look Bulgarian.

Knowledge in the fields of genetics and ethnology is growing day by day, thanks to people doing these tests, and that's a good thing, right?

Yes, I want to contribut to science and I especially want to contribute to a specific area of science that will reveal, ultimately, that we are all family from What's-Her-Face in Africa. So let's get along.

But, I have to wonder, will the law of unintended consequences kick in, as per usual? Will insurance companies and employers exploit this info. (No, doubt.)

Even worse, 100 years down the road, give or take 90, will this info be used in a very ugly way, to  malign or even purge an arbitrary subset of people on a vastly over-populated planet?

And these are just two consequences I can think of, thanks to all those free online courses about European History, the History of Human Rights, Comparative Religion, the Psychology of Morality, and the History of Law I audited in winters past. Thank you Berkeley and Yale.

Pondering this hasn't stopped me, though. Should it?  I am hooked.  I want to do more tests, especially to figure out about that bizarre Caucasus heritage. Can I get my twin brother to spit into a tube for a paternal line test?

Yes, I know Ancestry doesn't know what to do with French people, and my mother is all French Canadian, a people who are overwhelmingly from France.  And I know early tribes from the Caucasus migrated from the Steppes to Europe a long time ago.

(My son did an ethnicity test from another company 3 years ago and came out mostly Iberian and some Celtic and I saw him come out of my body.)

But, I'm only human. The urge is strong to figure out who I really am.

Here's a blog I found that seems really good. Kitty Cooper

Here's another. Wheaton Genealogy