The Folly of Genetic Ancestry Tests

Elizabeth Warren and the Folly of Genetic Ancestry Tests
Alondra Nelson, October 17, 2018, The New York Times



This week, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts announced that geneticists had analyzed her DNA and proved her longstanding claim that she has Native American ancestry. Senator Warren had caved in to months of ridicule by President Trump, who mocked her using a racist term and ultimately refused to believe her “useless” DNA test.

The question is not whether her DNA analysis is accurate. It’s whether it can tell us anything meaningful about identity. The truth is that sets of DNA markers cannot tell us who we really are because genetic data is technical and identity is social. The science in question is a form of chromosome mapping similar to that used in the billion-dollar genetic ancestry testing industry in the United States. That testing draws on incomplete data about human genetic diversity.

In this case, the “reference set” included samples drawn from 37 people “from across the Americas with Native American ancestry.” Nevertheless, this genetic analysis did locate five chromosome segments that strongly suggest indigenous ancestry. In his report, the geneticist Carlos Bustamante of Stanford University cautioned that it did not “provide complete coverage of all Native American groups.” This is a limitation of the technology, but it also has political implications.

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“Politicians, Priests, and psychiatrists often face the same problem: how to find the most rapid and permanent means of changing a man’s belief…The problem of the doctor and his nervously ill patient, and that of the religious leader who sets out to gain and hold new converts, has now become the problem of whole groups of nations, who wish not only to confirm certain political beliefs within their boundaries, but to proselytize the outside world.” – William Sargant “Battle of the Mind”

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