Ancestry.com, Lederhosen, and Genetics

ancestry-dot-com

One Thing after Another was working out at the YMCA, as is this blog’s wont, when the following commercial for Ancestry.com appeared on the TV:

Kyle (who apparently is a real person) had long thought his family was German. He danced in a German dance group, and he wore lederhosen. When he joined Ancestry.com in 2011, he was surprised to find that there weren’t any Germans in his family tree. He had a DNA test done through Ancestry.com and found that he wasn’t German at all: 52% of his DNA came from Scotland and Ireland. So he traded in his lederhosen for a kilt. Ha!

One Thing after Another was initially struck by the fatuousness of this ad, but further reflection led to a feeling of some discomfiture. The commercial sends out mixed messages about ethnicity. That Kyle can play the part of the enthusiastic German-American, even though, “genetically speaking,” he is much more Scots and Irish, suggests that ethnicity is a matter of culture not biology. But having found out he was mistaken and that genetic testing proves he is just over half Scots and Irish, he conforms to type and wears a kilt—a move that implies that genes influence our cultural destiny. The whole story is ridiculous on its face. Think of the following thought experiment: a Scot is stolen at birth from a Glasgow hospital and spirited away to Leipzig to be raised by a German family. At fifty, if the story of his origins were revealed to him, would he really feel more affinity for Glasgow than Leipzig? The answer seems straightforward.

In its own silly way, Ancestry.com touches upon some important questions about ethnicity and genetics. First, is there really such a thing as being “genetically” one nationality or another? Second, do these genes really influence our culture? To answer the first question, a brief discourse on genetics seems in order. There are genetic differences between groups of humans, but largely because we are a recent species, these difference are very small. These variations don’t seem to matter much except for the prevalence of certain diseases among particular populations, such as, say, sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis (or these populations’ responses to certain treatments). For sure, the distribution of certain genes among the population varies with geography. However, as an article in Nature Genetics points out, the extensive migration and mixture of populations throughout the past have militated against the perpetuation of genetically “pure” groups of people:

Genetic variation is geographically structured, as expected from the partial isolation of human populations during much of their history. Because traditional concepts of race are in turn correlated with geography, it is inaccurate to state that race is “biologically meaningless.” On the other hand, because they have been only partially isolated, human populations are seldom demarcated by precise genetic boundaries. Substantial overlap can therefore occur between populations, invalidating the concept that populations (or races) are discrete types.

Daniel Defoe captured this point quite well in his famous poem, “The True-Born Englishman” (1701):

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes, and furious lust begot,
Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.
Whose gend’ring off-spring quickly learn’d to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus’d betwixt a Saxon and a Dane.
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv’d all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen. . . .

The Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane, submit,
And with the English-Saxon all unite:
And these the mixture have so close pursu’d,
The very name and memory’s subdu’d:
No Roman now, no Britain does remain;
Wales strove to separate, but strove in vain:
The silent nations undistinguish’d fall,
And Englishman’s the common name for all.
Fate jumbled them together, God knows how;
What e’er they were they’re true-born English now. . . .

’Tis well that virtue gives nobility,
How shall we else the want of birth and blood supply?
Since scarce one family is left alive,
Which does not from some foreigner derive.

Defoe’s immediate target was those who attacked the Dutch-born William III of England because the monarch was not a “true” Englishman. Yet Defoe clearly showed why it was so problematic to claim that somebody was “English” (or anything else) by blood. And had he been able to go farther back in time, he could have shown even more examples of admixture. Statements, then, about our national descent are somewhat arbitrary and depend on how far back we go (if we travel far enough in time, we are all African). For example, adjectives like “German” as applied to descent are slippery. Romans invented the word “Germani” to describe the great multitude of folks who lived east of the Rhine and north of the Danube (many of whom had come from farther east); the Romans did not mean to suggest a unity of any sort. “Germany” eventually became a geographic term, and “German” was a cultural expression that emerged in the medieval period. But Germany did not become a unified state until 1871. So what does “German” descent really mean unless applied almost exclusively to the modern period of history?

Aside from the difficulty of claiming that this or that national group is genetically united and fundamentally distinct from others (what does it mean to be 52% Irish and Scots?), there is the question of what role genetics play in the formation of ethnicity or identity. Neo-Darwinists believe that a number of our behaviors have evolved due to natural selection (think of behaviors as diverse as humans’ sociability or the “flight or fight response”). A number of scholars also argue that these biological inheritances were intertwined with cultural natural selection (a “cultural Darwinism”) in which certain practices and behaviors persisted because they gave the social groups that employed them an advantage over others during the Upper Paleolithic period. This theory of cultural natural selection is contested, and the mainstream version of this theory, as it stands now, has to be stretched a great length to claim that biology determines contemporary national culture. Only racists would stretch the argument to that degree.

For example, Adolf Hitler argued in Mein Kampf that Aryans (which he asserted were a distinct and pure biological group) were distinguished by the fact that they were the world’s sole “culture creators” or “founders of culture.” This was a part of their biological inheritance. Should the Aryan race disappear, he claimed, all advances in culture would come to an end. What made the Aryans so uniquely capable of “creating and building culture”? It was not the Aryans’ “intellectual gifts” but rather their idealism that led them to work and sacrifice on behalf of the community—in other words, they had inherited a capacity for “Pflichterfüllung” or devotion to one’s duty.

Is One Thing after Another making much too big a deal about a commercial? Undoubtedly, but to paraphrase The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, TV and especially commercials are the “director” and the “reflector” of popular ideas. Does One Thing after Another wish to pin nefarious motives on Kyle or Ancestry.com? No, but claiming that one’s genes predispose one to a particular culture (Ancestry.com’s intimation) and arguing that one’s biological inheritance determines one’s behavior (Hitler’s argument) are points on the same slope. Ancestry.com ought to be extra mindful about claims it makes about ancestry, DNA testing, and nationality. There’s a reason that Germans have generally been allergic to genealogy since 1945.

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One comment

  1. Excellent discussion of the problems inherent in “genealogy.” I am a genealogy buff in that I am the keeper of family photographs and documents and have researched more about these people. I am not interested in just names and dates, but in stories about people who lived before me. My husband makes fun of me because of the obvious problem: why is my family so special? Well, it is special because it is my way into the history of the “regular people.” My brother and kids are adopted, so I understand that family is not just who you are “blood-related to.” I would love to be able to research the people who came before them through their birth parents, but recognize that they also have gained from the people who came before my husband and me. The more I research my ancestors, the more tolerant I become of the culture they come from and the way I was raised. I am also so interested in their neighbors and have done the same sort of research on their neighbors. With the information I am slowly compiling I hope to put together a virtual “dollhouse” neighborhood of the area where my relatives settled in Michigan. Thanks for listening.

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