The business of roots: Why DNA testing companies are not cracking the code of mobility and belonging
Magda Rodríguez Dehli | 15 February 2019
'Belonging is much more than a percentage of your genes.'
Commercial DNA testing kits seem to be everywhere these days. If you are in the United States (or, soon, in the United Kingdom), you may have come across them when visiting your local pharmacy or supermarket. DNA testing companies also appear on your TV, sponsoring programmes that help celebrities retrace their ancestry or follow ordinary people as they find out about family secrets. It made the headlines of American newspapers when DNA data from testing finally allowed to solve the case of the Golden State Killer. Last month, an Aeroméxico commercial that advertised ‘DNA discounts’ – offering American citizens price reductions proportional to their percentage of Mexican DNA – went viral. According to some estimates, more than 10 million people have taken these tests in the last 5 years and the industry's revenue could reach almost 8 billion pounds by 2022.
DNA testing companies like 23andMe, Ancestry.com, or MyHeritage offer to unlock different aspects of your identity with a sample of your spit for less than eighty pounds. The customer sends a tube of saliva back to the company, which in turn analyses the DNA in it and elaborates a report on that genetic information. Depending on the company and the service customers choose, the report can include their propensity to develop certain medical conditions, or a chance to reconnect with long-lost family members. One of the main products is the ‘ancestry report’: a world map listing the geographic origins of their families, each with a precise percentage. At a time when cross-border mobility is increasingly demonised in political discourse, finding people’s roots has become a booming business. However, the zeal to produce a numeric answer to the quest for identity and belonging raises many questions of its own.
It would seem like Silicon Valley has scored another win in the market. These companies, which proudly praise their CEOs as ‘tech veterans’ who build online empires ‘from a garage startup’ (both quotes come from the MyHeritage website), are democratising a futuristic technology. They allow consumers to learn more about their future and their past, connect with others, and lead a healthier life. Their financial success is huge; but it is not all sunshine and rainbows in the consumer genomics market. A major issue is genetic privacy (and mostly, the lack thereof), which has raised severe concerns about the ways in which information is stored, accessed, and shared. Furthermore, some experts argue that most results the companies offer as solid facts are actually much less robust, because genetics – and, in general, statistics – are based on probability and the realm of the may and might.
In the case of genealogy, DNA testing companies experience even more trouble to crack the code. In fact, the most problematic aspect is one with a long history in the West. The assumption behind a test score indicating, for example, 35% Sardinian (or, more accurately, 35% like Sardinians), is that there is such a thing as a genuine Sardinian genetic code. The problem is even more visible in the Aeroméxico commercial, based on measuring Mexican-ness as a DNA percentage – as if genes could turn green, white and red to compose a sort of genetic citizenship. Assigning a collective label to a certain biometric parameter, however, has been done before with different words, as anthropologists have pointed out. While a term like race is too charged nowadays to make it far in the high-tech market, the use of ethnicity and ancestry in genetic analysis does not fall far away from the tenets of scientific racism in the early twentieth century. It is rather uncanny that we have so easily accepted this business model without noticing the ringing bells.
Moreover, the idea that people have ‘roots’ is a social fiction, as we argue in this issue. While the premise of an origin ‘where it all began’ may seem tempting to frame a family trajectory, it obviates that there are a prior history and geography to those great-great-grandparents on the upper level of the family tree. The paradox of painting a personal history of mobility against a fixed ancestral beginning stumbles on the fact that mobility has also been constant throughout human history, with occasional fluctuations. The tests only yield a linear vision of movement: the allegedly Sardinian 35% of your ancestry may have come to you directly from the island, or after a couple of generational layovers in Marseille and New York. The most recent generations – the ones which are reflected more prominently in your genes – have an intense and changing history of mobility, which also has had an impact on the genetic composition of the homelands.
A closer look at the elements of genetic comparison suggests that historical rigour was never a primary business concern. The DNA submitted by a customer is measured against available genetic information of current populations in contemporary regions. At best, this is just poor science, combining the assumption that places of origin have remained ‘untouched’ over the generations with a total disregard for the political history of boundaries. A case on point is 23andMe’s breakdown of Spanish ancestry, which corresponds to the regional map drawn after the 1978 Constitution.
At the same time, when faced with complaints about the scarcity of genetic information from regions of the global south or indigenous groups that made the results even more inaccurate for minority customers in Western markets, DNA testing companies embarked in ‘vampire projects’ which extract spit and genetic data from these populations without further compensation than the test results. Belonging claims based on fractions and percentages are not necessarily respectful toward the alleged communities of origin either. Some customers, as corporate promotional stories show, approach these populations with a paternalistic attitude, reenacting the myth of the civilised man visiting the primitive world. Others overrun their genealogy structures altogether, as has been the case for white Americans claiming Native ancestry against tribal enrolment systems. In other words, the Silicon Valley market of roots does not ask ‘where do I belong to?’ but ‘which heritage belongs to me?’.
The principle of the high-tech quest for roots also differs from other forms of genealogy. DNA testing companies do not set off with the same idea in mind as grandmothers traditionally did while visiting parish registries and gathering memories from the old times to put together a family tree. They do not work as a state registry or tribal enrolment system, recognising and listing members with rights and obligations and weaving together the subjects of a common history. What this industry sells is a personal product, a delivery service of belonging for customers. In this case, genealogy is not centred on the family, lineage or wider community, but the individual, who becomes the source of meaning for stories, journeys, and world maps that accompany the test results. Official advertising addresses the customer in unequivocal terms: ‘Discover what makes you, you’, ‘100% you’, ‘Get more of your inside story’. Spitting into a tube brands itself as the selfie stick of genetics: it is devoted to the uniqueness of the individual, their global pedigree as a citizen of the world, and their connection to others through startup technology. The ‘journey of discovery’ is not just metaphorical; some companies entice their customers with hypothetical travel plans for a ‘customised DNA journey’.
There is nothing more human than asking ourselves where we come from. We all romanticise about our origins – especially children of immigrants – and we try to figure how we fit in the journeys and stories of those who came before us. Backing these narratives up with genetic evidence may seem tempting at first sight, but it will tell you little about your family’s actual history of mobility. The DNA testing industry, while perfectly adjusted to the data markets of self-centred services, misses the point that the social sciences have been making over the years. Belonging is much more than a percentage of your genes.
Magda Rodríguez Dehli
Magda was born and raised in Spain and obtained a B.A. in International Relations from the Complutense University of Madrid, studying abroad at UCLA and at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Lyon, and an MSc in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford. She interned at the Spanish Foreign Ministry and at the European Commission and she is currently preparing the admission exams for the Spanish foreign service. Her two passions are singing in the shower and keeping a close eye on all things political.