It appears everyone is looking to live their most authentic life these days. One of the most highly debated issues of our times is ancestry DNA genetic testing, and there is an increase in growth and popularity for such tests worldwide, especially among African Americans.
Like many, I too have often wondered about my African ancestral past. I had always been skeptical of ancestry DNA testing, but for personal reasons, I decided to take the test. I know people who have done ancestral DNA testing and were pleased with their results while others experienced baffling and disappointing outcomes. My genealogical quest resulted in even more questions and increased cynicism. The particular test I took revealed that I was 48 percent Nigerian. I already had some suspicion that I was of Nigerian descent. What surprised me about the test results, however, was the unbelievably high African percentage and zero mention of my Native American Cherokee ancestry. The entire test made me question how a percentage of ethnicity can actually be calculated accurately.
I discovered that there are approximately 39 ancestry DNA testing companies throughout the world and that close to seven million people have already taken them. These companies offer you a look at how your genetic ancestry breaks down in terms of percentages of your lineage coming from different regions around the globe. They also provide the possibility of connecting with potential relatives based on matches in your DNA to other users in their database.
However, there are scientists from various backgrounds who strongly disagree with the claims these companies are making and say that such testing has not only “significant scientific limitations” but are totally “unreliable.”
There are three types of DNA tests:
Autosomal DNA Test (atDNA) – The test is made up of the 22 chromosomes that don’t impact your gender and is inherited from both your parents. It includes thousands of individual genes–the first chromosome alone contains 2,800 genes. Autosomal DNA testing can show where your ancient ancestors lived and help you with more modern genealogy through cousin matching within about 5 to 6 generations on both your mother and father’s sides of the family. The test is relatively inexpensive. It is typically the type of test you see advertised on television commercials and in magazines.
Y DNA Test – Can only be taken by a male. This test is used to track the Y chromosome passed from father to son over the generations. It reaches farther back than just 5 or 6 generations. The Y DNA test will provide you with your paternal haplogroup (a group of genes in an organism that is inherited together from a single parent), ethnicity, relative matches, and surname history. If a father is in question, this would be a good test for you. Women interested in learning more about their male lineage can ask a male relative to submit a DNA sample.
Mitochondrial Test (mtDNA) – Can be taken by males and females, but it is only looking at the genetic markers of your mother’s maternal line and reaches farther back than the autosomal test. The mtDNA test will provide you with your maternal haplogroup.
Can these genetic ancestry DNA tests really provide concrete information that would make mincemeat out of family lore? Sheldon Krimsky, Ph.D., adjunct professor in public health and community medicine at Tufts University, co-author of Genetic Justice and board chair of the Council for Responsible Genetics can undoubtedly provide some clarity on the ancestry testing craze. The first concern I discussed with Dr. Krimsky was the finding of my 48% Nigerian ancestry. “Those percentages should not be taken too literally,” Dr. Krimsky cautioned. “Markers on your DNA are compared with markers on a biogeographical data set. Companies have different comparison databases that are not shared with the scientific community. There is no standard comparison databases for Africans, Native Americans, Europeans, Asians. And the statistics used to generate percentages of your ancestry are also confidential for each company and not validated by the scientific community. No test can be definitive if it is not validated and tested by recognized criteria, which has not happened.”
Another area of concern for me with regards to these DNA ancestry testing products centers on confidentiality. Legitimate genetic testing companies promise not to sell or give this data away to third parties, but I discovered that sure, the data is stripped of names or other identifying information, but genuinely anonymizing DNA is a herculean task. There is no way for consumers to know who those third parties are or what their level of security might be. Similarly, if a company itself is sold, its privacy policies can be completely revamped. The consequences of genetic information getting into the wrong hands could be dire. The conditions consumers agree to when giving up their data should be guaranteed in perpetuity, even if the data or company changes hands.
For most of us, even if the entire lengthy agreement that accompanies these products is read, many of us may not understand what we’re giving the company permission to do. We are so accustomed to just clicking ‘agree’ when presented with lots of fine print. It really doesn’t matter if your sample is earmarked for use in tracing ancestors or just looking for rare disease genes. It doesn’t matter if the sample is destroyed. The bottom line is that the genetic code itself is digitized and can be shared countless times and in countless ways. A real scary thought is that potentially devastating information about your health is in someone else’s hands, so my confidentiality concerns are pretty legitimate. “For all the companies I investigated, selling or sharing the data with third parties is part of their business plan. Most claim that the data is not connected to a name. But there are circumstances where deanonymization can take place,” Dr. Krimsky contends.
Should professional genetic and anthropological associations issue policy statements about ancestry DNA testing that urge either caution on the part of consumers, or set limits on the claims companies can make? “The American Anthropological Association has issued warnings about ancestry databases,” Dr. Krimsky said, adding, “others have written about it.”
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I took the Ancestry DNA test in part in search of ancestral truth and liberation despite my skepticism. My test-taking journey was more than just a curiosity about my African roots. Deep in my spirit, I have always felt a connection to my African heritage. I have also befriended many Africans, and have learned that there is much we can learn from one another and even more to discover about ourselves without ancestry DNA testing.
Bottom line, there needs to be more consumer education and government regulation to ensure that our info is protected when taking these types of ancestry DNA tests. So how can you find out more information about your ancestral background?
- Combing through historical documents, reading books, conversing with older relatives, and documenting the oral family gems that have been passed down to you will provide more information about your ancestry than commercial tests.
- If you still want to use an ancestry DNA testing company look for genealogy research based on what you know about your family background. For example, if one of your relatives served in the military, you might want to use Fold3.com because it centers around military records. It’s also among one of the free genealogy website options, though you may have to pay to access all the records included in their database.
- If you are looking to answer questions about your family’s past, look for an ancestry website that offers both genealogy records and DNA testing, like Ancestry.com. If you find your family through one of these ancestry websites, they may be willing to share their genealogy research with you and expand your knowledge of your ancestors. Do remember, however, ancestry DNA testing to find relatives can sometimes expose information that can be hurtful so proceed with caution.