DNA analysis as self-exploration
I’m fascinated by the many ways in which we use technology to see ourselves, and while I’ve mostly explored personal biometrics like FitBit, self-portraits with digital cameras and of course, blogs, I also wonder about the trend in personal DNA analysis as a form of self-exploration through technology. Eirik Newth’s post about his experience with 23andme.com spurred me to try some of this out myself. Lone Frank’s TEDxCopenhagen talk is interesting too.
I thought I’d try a kind of DNA analysis that wasn’t primarily medical, so I ordered a kit from the National Geographic Genographic Project, rubbed a swab against my cheek and sent it in. A couple of months later, my results are in and I have a portrait of my “deep family history”. As you can see, I’m descended from “Mitochondrial Eve”, like everybody else, and my ancestors moved through East Asia to Europe. No big surprise there – I knew my ancestors moved to Australia from Ireland and England about six generations ago. Of course it would have been more interesting if one of my great-great-great-great-great-grandmothers had turned out to have made a detour to China and migrated back to Europe before hitting Ireland. But I do share my boringness with about 60% of Western Europe’s population, so at least I have company.
Unlike a commercial project like 23andme.com (which I might have to try out too), the Genographic Project aims to uncover humanity’s “deep ancestry”. Really, participation is more about donating a tiny big of knowledge (and money: you pay $99) to a research project, but you also get your personalized results: “Where do you really come from? And how did you get to where you live today?”
Although I realized that this was about general migration, I was really quite disappointed when I finally saw the results. I mean, I already knew this. Which, I suppose, goes to show that quantifying something and running it through technological analysis won’t necessarily tell you anything you didn’t already know. Why, I wonder, did I even find the idea of having my identity as a run-of-the-mill Western European confirmed by DNA analysis?
Googling “Genographic Project” and “disappointed” I found plenty of other people who had had my reaction to their results. However, for me, seeing the fairly different maps these individuals had made my map seem more interesting to me. Or at least a trifle more unique – more “me”. Kash Farooq noted that while his results were dull, his wife’s were more interesting (a connection to the Sami people?), and also that his migration map had become more detailed when he checked it again a few years after first sending in his DNA sample. The research project is ongoing, so as more DNA is collected, the analysis can become more fine-grained. Bernice L. McFadden’s map had very few details on it, but her reading of it was rich: she found that her ancestors had stayed in Eastern Africa, and so is left wondering how they got to America, as most of the slave trade was from Western Africa. In the comments to her post, someone offers a more detailed analysis of her HVR1 sequence and suggests that she is in fact from a group that moved to West Africa. I’d better show you my HVR1 sequence in case you’re able to understand it. It’s goobeldygook to me, unfortunately. Oh, and btw, I don’t think this is enough information for insurance companies to deny me coverage. It’s only my mitochondrial DNA, and I think not even completely analyzed.
Apparently I can somehow feed this into Mitosearch.org to find matches with other people who have my exact mutations, but I don’t really understand how this data fits in to their forms. And do I really want to meet these distant relatives anyway?
People can certainly read more into their ancestral migration than I have. Look how this participant used his analysis to confirm his own sense of identity:
It would seem my love of art, craft, colour, music, dancing, freedom and God, together with my wanderlust are within the genes! It is no surprise that I have more in common with the Berbers of Tunisia, the Basques and Pasiegos of Spain and the Saami of Northern Scandinavia than with others.
As far as I could tell, everyone who survived the ice age in Europe basically moved south. I suppose we’re all art-loving wanderers. Many people have found more colorful or perhaps simply unexpected results, as in the comments on this post.
People are certainly using tests like this to find out more about themselves, or about an idea of themselves. It’s often expressed directly, as in this Discover Magazine article where a journalist “tries out a trio of genetic tests to find out what they can tell her about her identity and her ancestry”.
DNA is also used for genealogy, on sites like Family Tree DNA. The Genographic Project lets you transfer your results to them, but it looks as though you really need to “upgrade” to more complex tests and fill in regular family history to really get a lot out of it. I was able to see that over 1% of Family Tree DNA members in Spain share my exact haplotype, as opposed to only 0,2% of members in England and Ireland. Given that that Spanish 1% only consists of 15 people this might be chance rather than proof of some exciting Spanish heritage. (Sadly I forgot to store my password and can’t find the email to login, so I can’t show you a screenshot). An interesting point about this use of DNA is that it very firmly situates our personal identity as part of a greater whole. We need to find our “matches” in order to understand ourselves.
Finally, I have discovered DNA art. Did you know you can send in your DNA and receive “personalized DNA portraits” in return, beautifully bland and perfect for decorating your living room? DNA11 offers to “frame your inner beauty”, while DNA2art argues that “We are all genetic artists, so to speak, as nature creates unique genetic patterns for each of us.”
The aesthetics chosen for the representation of our “inner beauty” says volumes, doesn’t it? DNA is so, so personal.