Written by Danae Dodge

We are all obsessed with our past, and our roots.

Because of this, genetic genealogy testing has been on the rise, and was the most popular Christmas gift in 2018. While our DNA can reveal so much about ourselves, including our propensity for disease, Dr Anne-Marie Kramer (University of Nottingham) and Dr Achim Rosemann (University of Exeter) focus on ancestry and what it means for identity.

Ancestry testing is a powerful tool, but it isn’t just about the science, as Anne-Marie says. The data gleaned from it has significance in the meaning it creates for us; it instils a sense of belonging and community. But our genetic data only has importance when compared to others’ data. Anne-Marie emphasises that ancestry testing is not case of whether we are related to others, but instead is about relationships in degree.

Often ancestry testing is used to either complement paper records or fill in the gaps. It can be used to recover lost histories, such as slavery which created a void in black history. Achim Rosemann took over the last half of the talk starting off with the promises that genetic testing offers. It reveals ancestry of a time-range between 100-600 years and it identifies living genetic relationships. This growing market is estimated to be at £2 billion in 2020 and has led to an increase in heritage travel.

23&Me partnered with AirBnB to encourage tourists to visit their ancestor’s lands

 However, ancestry testing also has its limitations: The results can frequently be ambiguous and contradictory. Achim Rosemann told us about identical twins who took five different DNA tests. But when their results came back, different companies yielded different results. Results can also change as the science develops and as the genetic data increases as more people get tested. In cases where adoption is mentioned, genetic bombshells can create familial rifts, and of course, there are also the emotional and mental consequences that can affect family members.

One of the most important things that people are well-aware of (including the audience) is the issue of privacy. Genetic data can be used for research, health, governance, policing and commercial purposes. It thus becomes pertinent to ask the following questions: What if health insurers and employers use it for discrimination? What if you find out you have a tendency towards a disease, but your sibling or parent does not want to know?

What if you and your partner find out you both have a gene for a disease that your children could likely develop? Would you have children?

The dark side of genetic testing does not end there. It has a gender and ethnic dimension to it. Feminists have rightly claimed in the past that more studies have been conducted on men instead of women largely because men keep their surnames.

Further, the idea that we can find our sense of belonging and community can be taken to the extreme. Adverts directed at specific ethnic groups, such as testing your Jewish or Native American ancestry is misleading. This is extremely problematic as Anne-Marie Kramer says, as genes do not dictate cultural or social heritage (as they cannot be mapped in the body). We need to bear this mind if we want to take DNA test.

Lastly (and importantly) it is worth mentioning that when we take these tests, we are all so focused on the results that make us different. When in fact, the proportion of difference between us is actually quite small.

Perhaps this means we need to concentrate on what brings us together and finding our community with each other.