After what feels like a decade of hype and underwhelming sales, direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing seems to be taking off, for better or worse. In the hope of discovering more about themselves, millions of people have sent DNA-filled tubes of spit to commercial testing companies.
The promise of nebulous health benefits is a core part of the DTC genetic testing industry, and it has occupied much of the academic, media and policy debates about the industry. But it is the interest in uncovering genetic ancestry that seems to be driving recent growth. Indeed, it has been reported that AncestryDNA, the biggest player in ancestry testing, has collected somewhere between 6 and 7 million samples.
What do people hope to get from this testing? If you believe the marketing campaigns, you will, as AncestryDNA declares on its website, “discover what makes you uniquely you.” You will, as another DTC company suggests, discover more about your “DNA tribe.” And you will, as virtually every ancestry company promises in one way or another, learn about your “ethnic origins.”
While I understand the interest in exploring one’s family history, the marketing associated with these studies goes well beyond finding long-lost relatives. A consistent, underlying theme is that biological difference matters. These companies are selling a history that is rooted in biological variation, not culture or emotional connection. The clear message is that your genes are closely tied, at some intrinsic level, to who you are as a person.
Think I’m being too harsh? TV advertisements for these companies invite us to believe that uncovering your genetic heritage will bring you closer to neighbours with whom you share “ethnic” genes. (Because who wants to be friends with someone with completely foreign genes?) Similarly, finding out that you have more genes from Scotland than from, say, Germany, apparently means you should ditch your lederhosen and start wearing kilts — a sartorially and scientifically absurd idea.
This “biology matters” perspective, which sales figures suggest people are embracing, is a significant step backward, both scientifically and socially.
From a genetic point of view, all humans are remarkably similar. Indeed, when the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, it was confirmed that the “3 billion base pairs of genetic letters in humans [are] 99.9 percent identical in every person.” There are, of course, genetic differences that occur more frequently in certain populations — lactose intolerance, for example, is more common in people from East Asia. But there is simply no reason to think that your genes tell you something significant about your cultural heritage. There isn’t a lederhosen gene.
More important, we shouldn’t forget that the concept of “race” is a biological fiction. The crude racial categories that we use today — black, white, Asian, etc. — were first formulated in 1735 by the Swedish scientist and master classifier, Carl Linnaeus. While his categories have remained remarkable resilient to scientific debunking, there is almost universal agreement within the science community that they are biologically meaningless. They are, as is often stated, social constructs.
To be fair, DTC ancestry companies do not use racial terminology, though phrases like “DNA tribe” feel close. But as research I did with Christen Rachul and Colin Ouellette demonstrates, whenever biology is attached to a rough human classification system (ancestry, ethnicity, etc.), the public, researchers and the media almost always gravitate back to the concept of race. In other words, the more we suggest that biological differences between groups matter — and that is exactly what these companies are suggesting — the more the archaic concept of race is perceived, at least by some, as being legitimate. A 2014 study supports this concern. The researchers found that the messaging surrounding DTC ancestry testing reifies race as a biological reality and may, for example, “increase beliefs that whites and blacks are essentially different.” The authors go on to conclude that: “The results suggest that an unintended consequence of the genomic revolution may be to reinvigorate age-old beliefs in essential racial differences.”
Other research has found that an emphasis on genetic difference has the potential to (no surprise here) increase the likelihood of racist perspectives and decrease the perceived acceptability of policies aimed at addressing prejudice.
Some less-than-progressively-minded groups have already turned to ancestry testing as a way to prove their racial purity. White supremacists in the United States, for example, have embraced these services — often with ironic and pretty hilarious results (surprise, you’re not of pure “Aryan stock”!).
But I am sure most of the people who use ancestry companies are not thinking about racial purity, the reification of race or antiracism policies when they order their tests. And I understand that these tests are, for the vast majority of customers, providing what is essentially a bit of recreational science. In fact, I’ve had my ancestry mapped by 23andMe (I am, if you believe the results, almost 100 percent Irish — hence my love of Guinness). It was a fun process. Still, as the research suggests, the messaging surrounding this industry has the potential to facilitate the spread and perpetuation of scientifically inaccurate and socially harmful ideas about difference. In this era of heightened nationalism and populist exceptionalism, this seems the last thing we need right now.
So, don’t believe the marketing. Your genes are only part of the infinitely complex puzzle that makes “you uniquely you.” If you feel a special connection to lederhosen, rock the lederhosen. No genes required.
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This article first appeared on Policy Options in March 2018, and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.