| Eva Sturt | Mars 2020 |

 

 

Not that long ago, our understanding of where we came from, our knowledge about family history and ancestry was based on the fortune of efficient written documentation or perhaps an inquisitive pre-disposition.

Once, ancestry had a different purpose and meaning while identity was determined by social structures. How has the modern world shifted our view and position and contributed to our self-reflective curiosity? Are home DNA tests valuable and are they really an appropriate new “consumer fashion”?

 

Weltbürgertum: identity shifts in a Cosmo political world

Historically, tradition, social and religious dogma used to determine career and lifestyle options. Amongst the aristocracy written documentation would have been essential to evidence the strategic intermarriage- system within feudalistic structures of land and royalties attached to blood-lines and hereditary. Artisan craftsmanship and labour would naturally pass from generation to generation.

Was this a more intrinsic and closed view of the world and its inhabitants? An old world possibly more concerned with management and survival of immediate actualities? New possibilities and fresh mind-set  emerged through colonisation and discoveries, changing cultural identity, yet the concept of being a “Weltbürger” or citizen of the world is rather recent.

Many of us live in a much safer and comfortable place than ever before, moving without borders, especially in communication. We seem to thrive as active components in a Cosmo Political World.

We have moved away from the model of social compartmentation and with it, I believe we have also changed the way we identify within society and as products of our past. We are writing our own scripts, rather than stepping into existing moulds. We have introduced choices and human rights, we have invented capitalism, which has the power to level beyond classes. Power, success, fortune and equality are not privileges of a superior family history.

Yet, identity, despite a seemingly freedom of movement, choice, equality and individuality, has probably become an even deeper and more complex question, to which ancestry searching and DNA testing appear to add a popular and interesting new dimension.

 

The science revolution

Science and the emergence of technology has taken a significant role in changing the way we see the world and ourselves in it. This allowed questioning of established beliefs and might be regarded as one of the most liberating transformations in modern history.

DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid, passed from generation to generation, and present in every living cell carries the building blocks and instructions to form the genes that orchestrate and inform all physiological function in our body. Since Watson and Crick finalised the discovery of the unique coding of individuals in Cambridge in the early 1950’s, a lot has changed:

Genetic research has transformed how we look at reproduction, health and sickness, allowing us to predict and modulate. Until relatively recent this happened behind closed and dominantly medical or forensic doors only sharing significant outcomes with the general public, however, with the uprising of online databases and global networks,  marketing of DIY genealogy and DNA home-testing kits have joined the modern society’s kaleidoscope of self-discovery, individual competency and control.

 

Not just about ancestry

I never really had a particular interest in my rather complicated European ancestry. I feel reassured knowing that there were enough quirky, interesting and reasonably clever people around me in my childhood.  More extensive knowledge of my heritage would not help to resolve or anticipate my future.

At a recent close family-friends get-together, I raised the subject: how important and interesting is the analysis of our DNA and why; the responses and thoughts, especially from the under 18’s were engaging:

Future predictions of what might go wrong, how unwell one might get, or not, was considered as a true burden to life. Knowing too much seemed stressful, especially when answers and solutions might be un-attainable or un-feasible. However, digging in the ancestral past, unravelling the “who-is-who” amongst your own lines was seen as a brilliantly exciting opportunity to satisfy visceral curiosity.

Older family members upheld a little more scepticism: Interesting, yes, but how about data protection and disclosure of sensitive information and its regulation? how about unwanted details? Also, how to use this information and how can it be possible to know that I had a great-great-great aunty from Peru? Global migration “percentages” were considered very interesting, but how do we know that this is reliable information?

 

Providers and results

With the growing popularity and choice of DNA home-test kits, or DCTs and considering the highly sensitive information extractable, it is advisable to ask some questions regarding ownership, use and legislation of data before embarking on the experiment or ticking consent boxes.

Providers, as discussed in an article published by Harvard University, fund their relatively low fees by sharing results with pharmaceutical companies, which does require individual consent, yet one may be unaware that data protection only relates to the immediate participant of a DCT and not their relatives. Also, individual DNA has been evidenced to be identifiable regardless of anonymity. A critical viewpoint and selective choice of provider is advisable. [Read: Understanding ownership and privacy of genetic data, by Julian Segert, Available at: http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/understanding-ownership-privacy-genetic-data/ ]

 

An insider’s view

A good friend, Elisabeth Howard, who was conceived through sperm donation, turned inadvertent genealogist when she embarked on a year-long pain-staking journey following  home-DNA testing in order to find her true father. I turned to her, with some of my questions:

How and why did you select the DNA-ancestry search service you used, what made it a reputable choice?

On the recommendation of donor-conceived groups, I selected Ancestry.co.uk as the database that has the largest number of registrants and is the most used by serious genealogists. I also tested with Family Tree DNA (ftdna.com) and 23andme.com to increase my chances of a match. These were also recommended by donor-conceived groups but are less attractive because their databases are smaller and they are less likely to be used by people who have their family tree loaded.

So where would you recommend someone interested in DNA testing to start with their investigation?

I think ancestry.co.uk is a well-established company and its database is getting bigger all the time. It started off in the US so the majority of its users are there, but this is gradually changing.

Are there any ethical difficulties you encountered using your chosen service provider?

I have been matched with a half-sibling on Ancestry and it is clear that he does not realise that he is donor-conceived. I haven’t contacted him to let him know but I do feel bad that he is deceived about his origins.

You utilised ancestry search for a very specific purpose, however discoveries may be emotional and/or disturbing, what might be your advice or thoughts in this regard?

I went in with my eyes open and with a very specific aim in mind, but very frequently there are stories on my donor conceived groups about people who have been gifted a DNA test and discover by accident that they are donor conceived, or the product of an affair, or adopted. So I think there needs to be a very clear warning on the DNA testing websites so that people realise the risks of taking a test. Even if they are not donor conceived themselves, they may discover for example that they have donor conceived siblings. This happened to a half-sister of mine who I was matched to on 23andme. I assumed that she was donor conceived but in fact she was conceived normally and was surprised and not very happy to be linked with me.

What are your views about DNA ancestry search turning into a quirky fashion?

I think secrets are bad and openness is good, so although some discoveries may be surprising or painful, it is good for the truth to come out.

 

Eva Sturt

 

A few keynotes to take away:

  • Ancestry search providers can’t offer results with definitive precision.
  • Higher accuracy tends to be found on regional/continental demographics.
  • Results depend solely on the database of available participants and research investment.
  • A critical analysis of a provider’s data protection policy and DNA ownership is advisable.
  • Ask yourself why you are doing it and what you are hoping to find, maybe identifying and setting your very personal, ethical and psychological boundaries.
  • If you are looking to build a true family tree, genealogists recommend DNA testing only as supporting tool to more traditional methods.

 

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