The social and cultural benefits of genetic ancestry testing

I received my 23andme results a few weeks back and it has reminded me of a few things about genetic testing. Depending on how it’s used, it can definitely have some drawbacks. But it can also have many personal and social / cultural benefits.

Here are some of the possible social and cultural benefits that come to mind.

We are reminded that we are all overwhelmingly alike. Only about 0.5% of our genetic material has to do with our particular geographic or ethnic history. We are overwhelmingly alike as human beings, and as Earthlings we are also overwhelmingly alike. As human beings, we share almost all our history and ancestors, and as Earthlings we share a great deal of our history and ancestors.

Many of us, and especially in North America, have a far more mixed ancestry than we may expect. For instance, some who identify as “white” may have Asian, North-American, or African ancestry mixed in.

Same or similar genetic sequence-patterns are found in most or all human populations. So when the different companies assign an ethnic group based on particular patterns, they do it based on statistics and probably. Any particular pattern may be more prevalent in some groups but are found in other groups as well. So the analysis is not always accurate. Again, it’s a reminder of how similar we are.

Our official family history isn’t always the same as the genetic one. We have an official set of ancestors. We have a genetic set of ancestors. And the two are not always the same. This may help us hold our identity more lightly. We can (learn to) embrace and appreciate both.

This all makes it more difficult to justify or hold onto racism. (Although I am sure some will be able to if they really want to.) We are all Africans. We share almost all of our DNA. Many of us are more mixed than we think. Any differences are, in the big picture, very superficial.

As genetic testing becomes more common and our understanding improves, it may well have an impact on culture. And, if we want, it may help us see how closely we all are related. It may widen and deepen our sense of “us” as human beings and even as part of the Earth community.

As mentioned, there are also possible drawbacks. For instance, it’s easy to misinterpret or hold certain interpretations as more solid than they are. And some may get stressed out by certain interpretations of their health or ancestry data. They may realize one or both of their parents (or grandparents) are not the ones they thought they were. Or they may mistakenly think that’s the case based on misguided interpretation of the data. Or they may think that a slight statistical increase in likelihood of a certain illness means they are actually likely to get it (which may not be the case at all). With all of this, it’s important to be informed before jumping to conclusions, and in any case take it with a big grain of salt.

I guess there is also some risk that employees or governments can use certain data in unfortunate ways. (I don’t think it’s happening much or at all now, but there is always the risk.)


Initial notes….

  • genetic ancestry testing / cultural impact of genetic ancestry testing
    • learning aspect
      • 0.5% of genetic material has to do with geography / ethnic group
      • typically more mixed than expected
      • same / similar genetic patterns found in many / all populations, and look at prevalence / statistics to make an educated guess of where ancestors were from (nothing black or white about it) – isn’t always accurate for that reason
      • official family history may not be the actual one
        • so need to differentiate name / official history (which is valid) from the genetic one (also valid)
      • pathways out of Africa, we are all from Africa
      • (also, most genetic material shared with all Earth life)
    • all this, very good, especially as seeps into society and culture more
      • changes how we look at ethnicity, ancestry etc.
      • more inclusive view, open – at least generally (will always be someone who wants to be more closed minded about it)
    • hard to hold onto racism
      • most of us very mixed
      • all of us out of africa
      • Africans are, in some ways, the most “pure” humans, especially compared to Europeans who are often mixed in with Neanderthals (!)
    • of course, also possible drawbacks
      • misunderstandings, take preliminary results / educated guesses as something more
      • can break up families, will often find surprises (official family tree may not be the same as the actual / biological one)
      • can lead to anxiety about health issues, or new forms of eugenics
    • ..
    • ……

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