Ethnicity, Race and Pie Charts

Yes, it’s the new year … and how many DNA testing kits did you get as a gift? Yes, it’s a current fad and yes, it is also fun. But let me help to frame some of the issues with DNA, genealogy, testing, ethnicity vs. race and those pretty pie charts.

First, I’m a genealogist AND a scientist. I have two degrees that stress the importance of data, replication as a tool of quality and refinement, and control groups and more. And I value documentation, and proof – more than one document that provides information confirming or refuting what another document says, and a “reasonably exhaustive search” – a standard of utilizing everything that we can access to prove/disprove facts.

Second, let’s be clear – DNA testing is in its early stages. Yes, it has come a VERY long way from the 1980s when it was first used with genealogical information, and tools now available to us is far more extensive, detailed, scientifically-based that ever.

And third, there is NO biological basis for “race”. From a chemical, DNA, or cellular level, we are all 99% the same and we share chemistry, DNA and cellular structures with bananas, trees and other living things. We are carbon-based organisms that have evolved over millenium. To state, because of DNA data, that we are a particular race is just wrong – scientifically, genetically, socially and otherwise. There are plenty of research-based studies and writings that trace every human living on the planet back to Africa…..thousands and thousands of years ago. AND those pretty pie charts – with percentages and lovely colors – stating this or that percentage of DNA from Western Europe or the Iberian peninsula or wherever …. that information is based on a testing database of samples that place the same or similar DNA in a particular geography at a point in time (most of the DNA sites will offer that this ancestral DNA is from approximately a 500 to 800 year old time frame).

So, to keep it simple, if you decide to use the DNA test kits (please at least be sure to use the companies that work very hard to maintain scientific standards, privacy rights, testing protocols and ethics – these are Ancestry, 23 and Me, MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA, and FindMyPast), there are some things to consider: 1) Please know that virtually everyone will get a surprise from their results. It may be as simple as “I didn’t know we had Scandinavian ancestors!” to as emotional as “My dad isn’t my dad??!!!” Yours truly is working her way through what a really big revelation means, so don’t take this lightly. 2) The pie chart is the LEAST of it! The database that is used for the testing is always growing and changing, refining and developing. I’ve already seen as least two updates that have changed my results – in the first one, I was Ashkenazi Jewish, then from the Iberian peninsula, and now it’s Scandinavian. The Scandinavian one actually makes sense as I know that my ancestors (from the years of doing research in the paper trails my ancestors left) were from Normandy – a region of France heavily impacted by Norman or Viking invasions … hence “Scandinavian”. THE most important part of your results is the COUSIN matching!! You will find people related to you through the DNA that you didn’t know about (I found someone a half hour from my home!) and you will have a really fun time getting to know them! Trust me – the COUSIN CONNECTION is the BEST part of DNA testing. 3) Follow the instructions. It’s easy, and perhaps a bit yucky, but it’s important. The science is built on a clean sample and your results will make sense. 4) AND know that there is a paper trail that will help you to sort it all out, with lots of helpful people to show you how to look at what you find in your results.

And don’t let anyone tell you what RACE you are – because they can’t! The results can tell you a bit about where geographically your ancestors traveled through on their way to where you are today. It will tell you a bit about ethnicity – the culture of our families, such as customs, favorite foods, holidays, dances and music, clothing styles, and possibly eye and hair colors. The testing information is based in finding clusters, clumps of DNA that reappear over and over again in a particular region, geography, locality in people in that area. I know, for instance, that on my mom’s side, our people were Native, French-Canadian, and Scottish because – and this is important – others with our similar DNA were from these identified groups because of records, documentation, and more. But it doesn’t tell me WHICH tribe, or WHERE in France or Scotland, or that level of detail. At least yet …. as more and more people are tested and can document specifics about these ancestors, we can begin to narrow down migratory trails, immigration routes and track back into time.

So please look beyond the pretty pie charts. Take time to look for the paper trail that your ancestors left to find out about their lives …. their religion, foods, homes, jobs and what made their lives worth living. You are the product of pairs of people who had a relationship that created a child …. I was going to say “pairs of people who loved” but I know that many children were born of affairs, rape and incest. In the context of their lives, the child lived and had children ….. down to you. Think about the blessing of two parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents, and more going back into time. Learn about that and don’t worry about whether they wore kilts or lederhosen, a sari or animal skins … find a cousin and learn about your common ancestors’ lives and the courage, stamina, and strength that helped them to thrive. Let me know if I can help ….