Using DNA Tests to Confirm Ancestry and Receive Financial Benefits.--

The New York Times has an odd, but fascinating story about DNA services that purport to determine whether one's ancestors were of such heritages as Native American, North African, British Isles, or (apparently) European Jewish:

Alan Moldawer's adopted twins, Matt and Andrew, had always thought of themselves as white. But when it came time for them to apply to college last year, Mr. Moldawer thought it might be worth investigating the origins of their slightly tan-tinted skin, with a new DNA kit that he had heard could determine an individual's genetic ancestry.

The results, designating the boys 9 percent Native American and 11 percent northern African, arrived too late for the admissions process. But Mr. Moldawer, a business executive in Silver Spring, Md., says they could be useful in obtaining financial aid. . . .

Genetic tests, once obscure tools for scientists, have begun to influence everyday lives in many ways. The tests are reshaping people's sense of themselves — where they came from, why they behave as they do, what disease might be coming their way.

It may be only natural then that ethnic ancestry tests, one of the first commercial products to emerge from the genetic revolution, are spurring a thorough exploration of the question, What is in it for me?

Many scientists criticize the ethnic ancestry tests as promising more than they can deliver. The legacy of an ancestor several generations back may be too diluted to show up. And the tests have a margin of error, so results showing a small amount of ancestry from one continent may not actually mean someone has any. . . .

One Christian is using the test to claim Jewish genetic ancestry and to demand Israeli citizenship, and Americans of every shade are staking a DNA claim to Indian scholarships, health services and casino money.

"This is not just somebody's desire to go find out whether their grandfather is Polish," said Troy Duster, a sociologist at New York University who has studied the social impact of the tests. "It's about access to money and power."

Driving the pursuit of genetic bounty are start-up testing companies with names like DNA Tribes and Ethnoancestry. For $99 to $250, they promise to satisfy the human hunger to learn about one's origins — and sometimes much more. On its Web site, a leader in this cottage industry, DNA Print Genomics, once urged people to use it "whether your goal is to validate your eligibility for race-based college admissions or government entitlements." . . .

DNAPrint calls the ethnic ancestry tests "recreational genomics" to distinguish them from the more serious medical and forensic applications of genetics. But as they ignite a debate over a variety of genetic birthrights, their impact may be further-reaching than anyone anticipated. . . .

Ashley Klett's younger sister marked the "Asian" box on her college applications this year, after the elder Ms. Klett, 20, took a DNA test that said she was 2 percent East Asian and 98 percent European.

Whether it mattered they do not know, but she did get into the college of her choice.

"And they gave her a scholarship," Ashley said.

Pearl Duncan has grander ambitions: she wants a castle.

The article has many interesting stories of people using these new tests to determine ancestry.

But the New York Times story is very weak on the science behind the tests. The last time I reviewed the genetics literature behind racial classifications was about a decade ago, so I am not up to speed on recent developments, though I recall discussing with a genetics scholar the possibility of such testing for the general public. Here (in my lay opinion) is where things stood a decade ago.

First, the consensus is that race is a social construct that maps very crudely onto real genetic (and thus physical) differences, of which skin color is only one example.

Second, whether there are genetically three races or five races or twenty races depends more on whether the racial classifier is a "lumper" or a "splitter." It's a bit like determining how many major fields there are in law. Are there just two: private law and public law? Or are there twenty fields, or fifty fields, or more? (Though for law, while there are real differences between fields, there is little physical or genetic reality lying beneath the classifications.) At the margin, any classifications are going to be (or appear to be) arbitrary.

Third, there are few (if any) genetic markers that everyone in one traditional racial category has and everyone in other traditional racial categories lack. (I take it that there may be a few markers that are found only in some racial or ethnic groups, but not all people in those groups have the markers.)

If one looks for genetic markers, one could draw something like the isobars one sees in weather maps. In one area (even without recent migration), 90% of those living there have a particular marker, in another area 80% have the characteristic, and so on. This is obviously true for physical characteristics, such as hair color, eye color, and skin color. For example, there is a real difference in skin color between those whose families lived for the last 600 years in southern Sweden and those whose families lived over the same period in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet there is no one line that could be drawn between light skin and dark skin. If one drew a map of mean skin color between southern Sweden and central Africa, there would be the equivalent of isobars marking the gradual differences, with the isobars closer together in some regions and farther apart in others. Wikipedia has a fairly crude version of such a skin color map and another from the dust jacket of Cavalli-Sforza's The History and Geography of Human Genes (1994), a population genetics text that I consulted in my research a decade ago. Further, the maps would be somewhat different for skin color, hair color, or one genetic marker or another.

Genetic Variation (Cavalli-Sforza)

At the genographic project, they trace genetic markers that identify groups that migrated around the world tens of thousands of years ago, thus creating genetic diversity in regions long before the age of exploration.

Coming back to these new genetic services described in the New York Times, I would have liked more of an explanation in the article about what markers allow them to determine that someone is "10% British Isles" or "3% Native American" or "2% East Asian." Because I wasn't aware that the genetic signature of British Isles ancestry was so specific that it permitted such a conclusion, I would have appreciated an identification of the scientific basis for such a claim. As for 3% Native American or 2% East Asian, I would have liked a confirmation that they found a marker present only in those groups, rather than one simply unlikely to be found in other ethnic groups.

Despite the frustrating absence of information about the scientific bases for the determinations, I recommend reading this Times account of the operation of what Justice Brennan called "benign racial sorting."

Jewish "ancestry" isn't going to do it for Israeli citizenship. He should save himself the cost of testing and read the Law of Return.
4.12.2006 3:07pm
Wild Pegasus (mail) (www):
Considering that the British Isles consist of a mix of Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, Jutes), Scandinavian tribes (Danes, Normans) and Celtic tribes (Welsh, Irish, Scots, Picts), I would find it odd that you could trace ancestry to the British Isles so specifically.

If these markers are ethnically distinct, you could probably trace ancestry to Germanic, Scandinavian, and Celtic, but hardly to the British Isles.

- Josh
4.12.2006 3:16pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):

(Though for law, while there are real differences between fields, there is little physical or genetic reality lying beneath the classifications.) At the margin, any classifications are going to be (or appear to be) arbitrary.

These statements about race/ethnicity really annoy me. Yes there is a real truth underlying this notiont that race is only socially constructed, and that is the fact that different races appear to lack major adaptive differences, e.g., some races being significantly smarter or other races being way stronger (although it seems likely there are small differences explaining things like kenyan runners).

However, differing races really do have differing risks of dieseases, differing incidence of congenital conditions (sickle cell anemia) and most obviously differences in skin color. So while there is an underlying correct and positive idea behind these platitudes there are real genetic variations underlying some ethnic differences.

Of course this is slightly differnt than the question of whether or current conception of race, i.e., the vague way we clasify people as black, white, indian etc.., is socially constructed. It is entierly possible this doesn't map nicely onto real genetic differences but that doesn't mean they don't exist.
4.12.2006 3:25pm
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
I'm pretty sure that it's precisely over the last decade that science has debunked the notion that race is a social construct:

The Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin originated the idea of race as a social construct in 1972, arguing that the genetic differences across races were so trivial that no scientist working exclusively with genetic data would sort people into blacks, whites, or Asians. In his words, "racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance."25

Lewontin's position, which quickly became a tenet of political correctness, carried with it a potential means of being falsified. If he was correct, then a statistical analysis of genetic markers would not produce clusters corresponding to common racial labels.

In the last few years, that test has become feasible, and now we know that Lewontin was wrong.26 Several analyses have confirmed the genetic reality of group identities going under the label of race or ethnicity.27 In the most recent, published this year, all but five of the 3,636 subjects fell into the cluster of genetic markers corresponding to their self-identified ethnic group.28 When a statistical procedure, blind to physical characteristics and working exclusively with genetic information, classifies 99.9 percent of the individuals in a large sample in the same way they classify themselves, it is hard to argue that race is imaginary.

Charles Murray, (Yeah, that Charles Murray), "The Inequality Taboo."
4.12.2006 3:33pm
Taeyoung (mail):
I see you've got the Cavalli-Sforza map there -- I don't see how one can look at that map (or his results) and not come away with the impression that while yes, it's all clines and whatnot, not the little boxes the 19th century racial philosophers liked to use, folk intuitions about race actually map very well onto the underlying patterns of genetic variation. I mean, Europe there is mostly green, except for those Asiatic Russians and Finns and Hungarians and whatnot, who are in between, just like you would expect if you were a race-theorist 100 years ago. The Asians are mostly blue. The Aborigines are purply. Africa, despite its range of genetic variation, is pretty much orange.

Cavalli-Sforza has also recognised, if I recall correctly, how clearly his genetic marker tests correspond to folk race-theory, and has repeatedly had to stress, as a result, that it is all clines of genetic variation.

Something where the folk theory didn't map at all well would have the Japanese turning out closely related to the Maasai and the Chinese next-kin to the Picts.
4.12.2006 3:37pm
Quarterican (mail):
If this becomes increasingly common I wonder if it'll cause colleges, whomever is in charge of casinos, scholarship funds, etc., to alter their criteria or their language; I'm not sure it's possible, if this sort of thing becomes common, to preserve the intent of asking about racial background. At the least it would require some very creative thinking.

The science in the article also seems very weird to me. The %s are strange, and at odds with the claim that an ancestor several generations back is unlikely to be represented. I mean, how do you even get a figure like 9% or 11%? They imply being able to state, in the simplest configuration, that one great-great-grandparent was full-blood X and some other much more distant ancestor (don't feel like doing the math) was also full-blood X (right?). OTOH, I'm a big fan of science like this working to simultaneously demonstrate that racial heritage is more complicated and less important as a thing-in-itself than we're inclined to think. Some people (like Andrew Sullivan) get all giddy whenever someone does a study on genetic differences between populations because he thinks the science of the 21st century is going to give liberals some sort of heart attack; I've never gotten the impression that Sullivan actually understands the implications of the science in the articles he links to.
4.12.2006 3:37pm
Justin Northrup:
This reminds me of when I was taking an anthropology class in college. The professor was somewhat stereotypical in pushing views that are far more political then scientific (gener is a social construct but homosexuality is genetic, etc.) After the lecture where she was talking about race being just a social construct and there is no difference between groups of people one of our teaching assistance got in a bit of trouble. See, the TAs covered the recitations after the lecture and this one was a physical anthropologist (as opposed to cultural, like the professor) and she gave us some papers showing how they can tell from skeletal remains where someone was from, and not just what continent but within a few hundred miles for some groups.
4.12.2006 3:48pm
Jim Lindgren (mail):
Lewontin did not invent the idea that race is JUST a social construct, though that particular terminology is fairly recent. That was the main idea behind "Man's most dangerous myth: The fallacy of race," by Ashley Montagu (ca. 1940 [the 2d ed. was 1946]).
4.12.2006 3:49pm
celto-boy (mail):

According to the National Geographic's recent studies, about 80% of the genetic heritage of Britons is pre-Anglo-Saxon. In other words, it's 80% the same stuff as the Celts of the British Isles. That's not too surprising. The Angles, Danes, Normans, etc., left behind elite cultural structures, but didn't much change the basic DNA of the existing population. The red hair characteristic of the Scots, Irish, and Brits, for example, was noted by the Romans in pre-Anglo-Saxon times.
4.12.2006 3:54pm
Jim Lindgren (mail):

OK, good comment, but would you think that Northern Sweden and Saudi Arabia would be similar, or that Southeast Asia and north central Russia would be similar?

Of course, this map is an average of many different genetic variations.
4.12.2006 3:56pm
"First, the consensus is that race is a social construct that maps very crudely onto real genetic (and thus physical) differences, of which skin color is only one example."

I don't think it maps crudely at all. It's my understanding that genetic tests can determine one's race (determined by social convention) with surprising accuracy. Moreover, there are many real, substantive differences. Responses to drugs, prevalence of genetic disease, organ transplant acceptance, etc, etc.
4.12.2006 4:06pm
Syd (mail):
I was startled once to read that just about everyone on earth is descended from Confucius (assuming he has any descendents at all). This is true of anyone who lived 2000-3000 years ago and has left descendents. It's a consequence of migration and intermarriage.

When you realize that some Confucius's descendents would have married into the Chinese upper class, and that emperors tended to marry off princesses to leaders of barbarians, including the Huns, it's not that surprising after all.

This does not mean that I have any genes at all descending from Confucius', since there are only 30000-100000 genes in the human body, and I would a few hundred million ancestors living back then.

It also means that just about every person on earth has some Jewish, black, Chinese, etc. ancestry.
4.12.2006 4:32pm
cfw (mail):
Colleges should get wise about the misidentification of ethicity, in particular as to adoptees. Probably should say if the person puts down "Hispanic," for example, that means x% at least in any genetic testing and raised as Hispanic (not in a WASP family as WASP). Might also call for photos, interviews or application questions to ferret out (or help expose) fudging as to ethnicity.

Better yet, might be a good time to stop focusing on race and start focusing on economic status (need blind and race-blind admissions, with good finacial support to make college affordable).
4.12.2006 4:49pm
That would be true if there was a random mix of ancestry. But people until recently didn't travel that much and a random someone living in Denmark in 1500 probably had close to zero chance of having any Chinese genes.

The human gene pool is not a giant blender in which all the genes get mixed up.

No with mass migrations and common air travel that situation is changing.

4.12.2006 4:56pm
Cousin Dave (mail):
And to follow up on what cfw said: Does anyone other than me ever read these stories and get visions of Jim Crow racial classification boards?
4.12.2006 4:58pm
Quarterican (mail):
cfw -

I'm not sure if you were intentionally aware, but what on earth does it mean to be raised as "Hispanic"? And for that matter, I'm not a biologist and have no official expertise in these areas, but "Hispanic" is a genetically meaningless category. I agree that colleges could get a lot of what they currently intend to more effectively by focusing on cultural and economic diversity rather than racial diversity; the problem is that I'm not sure how simply one can reconcile the competing pressures of desiring economic diversity, desiring the admission of qualified students, and desiring need-blind admissions. (Incidentally, does anyone know how many American colleges claim to be need blind? Most of the ones to which I applied did, but at least one or two said that they were not. I get the impression that most private colleges aren't need-blind, excepting the top tier or two.)
4.12.2006 4:59pm
Quarterican (mail):
Ack; my previous comment starts out somewhat gibberishly. I meant to say something like: "cfw - I'm not sure if you think the things you say about raised as and % Hispanic are possible or not, and if you're using that to rhetorically reinforce your subsequent point, or if instead you were sincerely proposing one solution and then a superior one."
4.12.2006 5:05pm
Cornellian (mail):
Personally I support this sort of testing and encourage people who discover they're 7% "X" to claim whatever benefit membership in group "X" entails. Advocates of racial distinctions should not get away with being fuzzy on what constitutes membership in a race. Make them take a clear stand on the issue.
4.12.2006 5:42pm
pp (mail):
Imagine the chagrin of the person born in Central America who finds out that they are 80% Northern European. Or the blow it would strike ot the soverignty issue of Native American if it turns out they are only a few generation removed from North Asians. Cultural differences have always been a social or political issue rather than a scientific deliniation. Anthropology tells us that the "common ancestor" of all living people came from Africa in the past 100,000 years. So even drawing a distinction of the period that defines ethnicity is a political or social decision, right?
4.12.2006 5:49pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I envision various pressure groups campaigning to have particular genes identified to their group. The gene wars have just begun.
4.12.2006 5:52pm
Ken Arromdee (mail):
Not only does Jewish ancestry not give a Christian Israeli citizenship, but Asian ancestry isn't going to give you college admissions or a scholarship, either.
4.12.2006 6:01pm
It's more accurate to say that race is BOTH a social construct and a genetic one. For college admission, the "diversity" sought is based on the student's social identity (not that I think that's a good thing), not her DNA-state.

The medical profession is likely the only field with a need to consider the genetic implications of race.
4.12.2006 7:10pm
John Lederer (mail):
Social scientists really ought to visit their colleagues in veterinary school, animal science, or agronomy.
4.12.2006 10:53pm
Oh but I saw one of these social studies persons giving a speech at some UC campus where there is a group of ethic studies types saying physicians should NOT make notation of a person race in their History and Physicals anymore cause this is racist and must be stopped.. Please these people are ignorant and have way to much time on their hands. Reminds me back in Medical School in the late 1980's we were told we could not print FLK in our work up anymore bacause some mother had a lawyer sue the physician cause he was making fun of her child. FLK---Funny Looking Kid meaning one that just did not look quite right and might have some underlying genetic abnormality. It was an accepted way to say not quite right looking or dysmorphic features.
4.12.2006 10:57pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
As far as lumper vs. splitter--a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, who was a splitter, once said that in his view Norwegians and Italians were separate species since, while they can intermarry and produce fertile offspring, they do so rather rarely because of geographical location.

Under the Endangered Species Act, they did DNA testing in hopes of getting some objective standard (as opposed to "this plant's flowers are a little more orange than those of these other plants, must be two species"). Didn't work. At one end, most of the DNA for mammals is the same. At the other, you can split down to individuals. In between, no clear line.
4.12.2006 11:55pm
Syd (mail):

That would be true if there was a random mix of ancestry. But people until recently didn't travel that much and a random someone living in Denmark in 1500 probably had close to zero chance of having any Chinese genes.

The human gene pool is not a giant blender in which all the genes get mixed up.

No with mass migrations and common air travel that situation is changing.


Ah, but there were mass migrations. Remember we're talking about 2000 - 3000 years. You have Huns, Turks. Patzinaks, Cumans, Mongols and Avars all migrating into Europe, all of whom had relations and some interbreeding with Europeans, Arabs travelling all over the place, carrying genes into Subsaharan Africa, slaves taken from Africa all over the place, armies marching all over the place, breeding with camp followers (not to mention rape when sacking cities), nobility moving from country to country, merchants moving back and forth along the Silk Road, sailors and Crusaders, Jews and gypsies getting kicked out of one country and moving to another. 50 - 100 generations is enough for the entire old world to be mingled. 90-5% of your hypothetical Dane's 50-generations-past may have lived in Denmark, but not all of them.
4.13.2006 2:24am
Randy R. (mail):
According to Spencer Wells, a leading geneticist, all human came from Africa. There were three major migrations out of Africa. The first was 50,000 years ago, and that migration went along the coast of the Indian Ocean, and they finally settled in Australia, becoming the Aborigines.

The second migration was the important one, coming 5000 years later. This group, perhaps as small as 200 people, settled in central Asia, and stayed there for several thousand years. A branch went to south to India, another to China and SE Asia. Another branch went north and crossed the Bering Strait (There were actually about 3 migrations across the Being Strait). Finally, about 15,000 another branch populated Europe. And so by then, the entire had separated, but virtually all non-African humans today are descended from that second migration out of Africa.

The National Geographic Society is sponsoring this genographic project, and you can participate in it. They want your DNA!

The bottom line is that we are all Africans.
4.13.2006 2:51am
The college admissions aspect almost can't avoid absurdity. How can you claim a leg-up based upon past discrimination when, until you did a sophisticated test, even you weren't aware that you were a member of the disfavored group? On the other hand, perhaps this is an improvement on the current system of self-reporting -- even setting aside the natural tendency to lie or exaggerate, DNA testing or even simple genealogical research demonstrates that a lot of what people think they "know" about their racial/ethnic background is simply wrong.
4.13.2006 11:34am
Wild Pegasus (mail) (www):

Odd, but I've heard just the opposite. For example, this BBC article.

- Josh
4.13.2006 2:51pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
Jeeze, the Austrian corporal's fondest dreams of scientific racial classification have come true.

The question as always: what is to be done?
4.13.2006 2:57pm
msk (mail):
If you want a stampede of people taking these tests (maybe in the hope a larger sample will refine their scientific interpretations) just declare a limit on race or ancestry preferences for scholarships, like no more after year 2012.

It's not the stampede I want, it's the end of racism.

Didn't we settle this circa 1968 or 1970 -- so that most employment or school applications had to collect information about race separate from qualifications? On a card to be filed in a separate box and never looked at until after admission decisions were firm?

Those bragging about lying on their apps may not have realized that most universities strenuously avoid any step in screening that would allow forming an impression of race. That's why attaching a photograph to your application was disallowed 40 years ago -- not so it would be easier to lie. I dare say a few organizations have experimented with making it impossible to know gender until competition on qualifications identifies an unranked top tier of applicants.

Yes, I have seen job applications within the last dozen years that had race boxes right on the front, ahead of qualifications -- but I assumed personnel departments using those just had really bad lawyers.

Are we plunging headlong into the past? Do some of you think bloody fingerprints on college application forms should be demanded because a corporate press release claims someone is selling DNA tests?

A fool and his money, OK, just not my money.
4.13.2006 3:11pm
celto-boy (mail):

I'm speechless. I've re-read the National Geographic article and the article you linked, and just cannot reconcile them at all. Note that the NG article says the modern Englishman is only 80% pre-Anglo-Saxon, meaning that they concede some genetic impact. So the stark difference (presumably 100% pre-Anglo) of Welsh and Irish doesn't pose a problem. But the statement in your article that the Englishman is the exact same as the Netherlands-man can't be reconciled with the NG article, it seems to me. Thanks for that link. I will keep poking around.
4.13.2006 3:59pm
anonymouse2 (mail):
btw, Cavalli-Sforza's specific theories have been disproved by mitochondrial DNA evidence.

The best part of the NYT article is this line:
"... Mr. Moldawer, who knows that the twins' birth parents are white, but has little information about their extended family."

uh huh. Think that through.
4.13.2006 9:43pm
Jim Miller (mail) (www):
There's an interesting scientific mistake in the article. The writer, as I noted at the end of my own post says that DNA tests can not "pinpoint" an ancestor's tribe.

That's probably true for the commercial tests that the article is discussing, but it is not necessarily true for other tests. To see this, all you have to remember is that the DNA tests used in paternity cases are phenomenally accurate.
4.13.2006 9:50pm