Reify my genes!

By Razib Khan | June 28, 2011 1:04 am


In the comments below Antonio pointed me to this working paper, What Do DNA Ancestry Tests Reveal About Americans’ Identity? Examining Public Opinion on Race and Genomics. I am perhaps being a bit dull but I can’t figure where its latest version is found online (I stumbled upon what looks like another working paper version on one of the authors’ websites). Here’s the abstract:

Genomics research will soon have a deep impact on many aspects of our lives, but its political implications and associations remain undeveloped. Our broad goal in this research project is to analyze what Americans are learning about genomic science, and how they are responding to this new and potentially fraught technology.

We pursue that goal here by focusing on one arena of the genomics revolution — its relationship to racial and ethnic identity. Genomic ancestry testing may either blur racial boundaries by showing them to be indistinct or mixed, or reify racial boundaries by revealing ancestral homogeneity or pointing toward a particular geographic area or group as likely forebears. Some tests, or some contexts, may permit both outcomes. In parallel fashion, genomic information about race can emphasize its malleability and social constructedness or its possible biological bases. We posit that what information individuals choose to obtain, and how they respond to genomic information about racial ancestry will depend in part on their own racial or ethnic identity.

We evaluate these hypotheses in three ways. The first is a public opinion survey including vignettes about hypothetical individuals who received contrasting DNA test results. Second is an automated content analysis of about 5,500 newspaper articles that focused on race-related genomics research. Finally, we perform a finer-grained, hand-coded, content analysis of about 700 articles profiling people who took DNA ancestry tests.

Three major findings parallel the three empirical analyses. First, most respondents find the results of DNA ancestry tests persuasive, but blacks and whites have very different emotional responses and effects on their racial identity. Asians and Hispanics range between those two poles, while multiracials show a distinct pattern of reaction. Second, newspaper articles do more to teach the American reading public that race has a genetic component than that race is a purely social construction. Third, African Americans are disproportionately likely to react with displeasure to tests that imply a blurring of racial classifications. The paper concludes with a discussion, outline of next steps, and observations about the significance of genomics for political science and politics.

As with the paper I pointed to yesterday it’s a little dated. We’ve come really far since mid-2010! At the top of this post are some ADMIXTURE plots I generated in ~2 hours yesterday. You have K = 10, with ~250,000 markers. On the left are the results for various populations, and on the right are results for individuals who I’m running for their own interest. The identification numbers are small, but you can make some of them out. The first two are ID001 and ID002, my father and mother respectively. I’m going to break the seal of privacy and tell you that regular reader Paul Conroy is ID010. He looks to be…Irish. There are plenty of other regular readers and friends, family, and Latin American significant others of regular readers on that bar plot. You can “out” yourself if you want on this thread. I will tell you that ID042 is an anonymous Tamil Brahmin, while ID043 is Paul G., an ethnic Assyrian from Iran. ID034 is the anonymous Ashkenazi Jew whose genotype I posted earlier.

Survey results are fine and good, but the public reception and interpretation of genomics is being created anew right now. I spend some time on the best way to gain some insights from ADMIXTURE and PCA because I don’t want to confuse people myself. Most of the reactions have been pretty banal. It turns out that Latin Americans under the presumption that they are “pure Spanish” are not always “pure Spanish.” White Americans yearning for Native American ancestry often have their hopes dashed. White Americans who dismissed the family history of a part-Native American grandparent due to the romanticism about aboriginal blood which they perceived around them, turn out to be part-Native American.

People do have confusions that need to be cleared up, but it isn’t like academics are going to give them that much insight. I know that the above is a working paper, but here’s a sentence that crept into that text: “…Hispanics are mestizo more or less by definition….” No, Hispanics are very specifically constructed as a race-neutral term in the USA. Obviously many Hispanics from the Caribbean also don’t self-identify as mestizo. Honestly, do the authors know any Hispanics?

So what has your experience been with scientific genealogy? I’ve already talked about my own personal journey at length. I think that race as a concept does have biological utility, but the biggest question mark which I move forward with is how oral history can diverge so rapidly from what our genomes tell us. In particular, the tendency to anchor on slices of privileged ancestry. Looking at it every which way I have confirmed to my satisfaction that my mother does have a small, but detectable, amount of Middle Eastern ancestry from her maternal grandfather as the oral histories and textual records tell us. But this dwarfed by a component she shares with my father which ties them to eastern Asia. But neither are aware of any such connection. These are ancestors forgotten, and makes me reflect on how recollection of memes is not always a remembrance of genes. This may not be as sexy an issue as reification of race through personal genomics, but to some extent that issue is so 20th century. Hundreds of thousands are people are just marching ahead into the future, no matter how “fraught” the results generated by obscure algorithms may seem.


Comments (28)

  1. antonio

    one of the authors included in her cv her ethinic/racial information: hispanic…
    however, different from you i’m not no longer surprised about of this type of assertion …. it is pretty much US ideology nowadays …

  2. antonio

    just to make my point clear: of course you’re technically right on the hyspanic suff but the way they are perceived is as a basicallly mixed people; and this is so also thanks to their own efford since many hispanics sell themselves as such.

    Actually sometimes is even more confusing than that since many hispanics try to sell themselves as even non-us citzens though they were born and raised here in us! they refer to places that they barelly know but since they sound so sure and they also taking about such exotic lands that the american americans, either white or black, really believe them!

  3. antonio

    id 21: Old stock Brazilian (descend of the founders) with some more recent European mix; Western Europe. Iberian/ Mediterranean maternal lineage ( mtdna u6a3) Northern-European from the paternal side (R1b1b2a1a). Very distant Chinese component from Macau (admixture with Swiss-German branch of the family). Unknown African or Amerindian ancestry.

  4. Ian

    id 39: Half German, half Indo-Trinidadian. Two great-grandfathers who claimed to be Pathan. One great-grandmother who was Indian Muslim of unknown origin. One great-grandmother who was of Hindu stock – one light-skinned parent (allegedly Kashmiri Brahmin), one “dark” parent.

  5. I’m going to venture a guess that 12 and 29 are a wildly attractive and completely anonymous white female and Indian male.

  6. one of the authors included in her cv her ethinic/racial information: hispanic…
    however, different from you i’m not no longer surprised about of this type of assertion …. it is pretty much US ideology nowadays …

    fascinating. ironic that those who (rightly) reject race as a platonic biological concept have their own platonic social ideals which they impose on the realized distribution!

    just to clarify#5, the indian male is not me 🙂

  7. You shouldn’t put yourself down like that, Razib!

  8. Ian

    @Michelle, I don’t think he’s putting himself down – sounds more like he’s clarifying that he’s not that specific “wildly attractive…Indian male”. Of course, if Razib were #29, someone would have to break the news to him that he’s adopted 🙂

  9. I know, I was just joking. It wouldn’t be him anyway, hez Bengali!

  10. gcochran

    Somehow I am reminded of the first time I had an X-ray, for a bunged-up knee. I had the irrational suspicion that they would see something really unusual – that my insides were not the same as those of other people. This was inspired by a certain Twilight Zone episode that had scared the hell out of me as a kid.

    I feel the same way about a gene scan: complicated, of course, by worries about intellectual property.

  11. chris w

    Am I on the chart to the left?

  12. no. your right. i gave you an ID remember? i’ll out you, you’re ID03.

  13. chris w

    doh, i meant right. i do remember getting an ID, but I couldn’t find it. haha, white! but not as much as 009.

  14. Antonio

    haven’t you never seen any (american, of course) movie where the cop asks whether the suspect is white or black or hispanic? It is pretty much racialized. Imagine if I attack someone in US and run: wouldn’t the victim tell the cops the suspect is white? even if they get my accent? (then I would be probably a russian 🙂 )

    what is really fascinating for me is that it seems to me you americans don’t really realize how these stereotypes actually dominated your world view.

  15. Ian

    To get back to Razib’s question about what the experience has been like, as I mentioned yesterday, I think the most interesting finding had to do with my mt DNA lineage. Anything unexpected is interesting, but this also suggests that my suspicion of Slavic substratum in my maternal line seems reasonable, and also adds the possibility of some ‘steppe nomad’ ancestry. Until Razib posted that article about the Sorbs, I just didn’t expect to learn anything from my mother’s ancestry that I didn’t already suspect – they’re German, going back several hundred years. It’s fun to find hints of things that were entirely forgotten.

    My Indian ancestry is consistent with the idea that my great-grandfathers were Pathans. Not proof, but it’s one additional data point. The “east Asian” element is also not terribly surprising. I suppose the next question, which may or may not be answerable, is whether this is Turkic or Mongol, or whether it’s Tibeto-Burman. I’m hoping that Zack’s HAP project will tell me something about the female lines, but the reality of it is that I’m much more likely to find something interesting but I strongly suspect that my best bet would be to get my father to submit a sample…

  16. re: mongol, etc., the fractions are low, but it doesn’t look THAT northern to me. there is a pathan with likely turkic admixture, and look at the very good balance between light blue and violet:

    the yakut turks are all violet. to further explore i could run a different “eastern biased” admixture.

    you have some violet, but that’s probably not that abnormal among tibetans (look at the japanese).

    but you’re right, your dad is the one to go too.

  17. Wara

    My father swore we were pure Spanish…until the Native American and North African DNA matches couldn’t be explained…still can’t figure out how the Ashkenazi got in there either.

  18. “pure spanish” might entail north african. so i don’t see that that’s an issue. a spanish identity with castilian at its center only crystallized during the and after the reconquest.

  19. pconroy

    ID010 – Paul Conroy

    Yes, I’m Irish, but what I’m interested in is not that swath of blue (European), but all those other bits – the how and why of it all. Like my small percentage Papuan, what is this, is this Denisovan (aka Home Erectus) or Neanderthal?

    On a more general note, I’m still trying to figure out how my number of matches (about 650 now) is in the Colonial US range and how most of them are concentrated in 5 adjoining states in the US South – and the fact that this is the same for both of my parents, even though one is Native Irish and one is Anglo-Irish. How I have about 25 or so relatives where I have 2 or more shared segments, and they came from different parents. So somehow my parents share a common ancestor back in time.

    Also, how my father happens to have relatives all over Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, South Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Greece) and around the Carribbean (Barbados, Bahamas, Jamaica, Mexico) – even though he’s Native Irish, with only one known emigrant – to Iowa in the 1840’s?

    Also how both my parents have 100% Ashkenazi Jewish relatives, and of my top 12 closest relatives, 3 of them are mtDNA K1a1b1a – when I have no known Jewish ancestry, and indeed Jews in Ireland were historically about 1,500 people total.

  20. mpc

    this paper seems to be basing responses on skip gates’ pbs genealogy programs, which have a very definite “roots”-like agenda, and on the media that followed or imitated them. many people asked about “blurring” in that context are probably thinking negatively about slavery and jim crow, and the genealogical brick wall of slavery, not forward about mixed relationships of choice in a better world. so it reads black reactions in that very limited context but doesn’t mention that context. i and my family, who always thought we were just black, have been open to any new info and insights concerning ancestry paintings and other results. i’m exploring those connections and questions for us as the family genealogist. and there plenty of others like me doing the same. and every other afram thread on 23andMe focuses on mexed ancestry in one way or another, usually as a matter of fact or positively.

  21. mpc

    a-ha, the paper’s been broadened and re-worked (for the better!). here it is:

  22. pconroy

    Incidently – my father just got his first Nigerian born relative today

  23. Wara

    Yes, my father’s concept of “pure Spanish” is a bit different than the reality, given the historical occupation of the Iberian peninsula by the Moors for centuries. Even with the inclusion of native American Ancestry to help describe and define the term “Hispanic,” I have always wondered how a definition of “Hispanic” could be very ethnically or racially descriptive. If anything, it’s more of a catch-all term for any descendent of a Spanish-speaking person who once lived in any part of the Americas except for The US, Canada, or Brazil. Though Brazil is still an enigma to me. Are they “Hispanic” too? The terms “Hispanic,” and “Latino” make little sense to me. The variation is incredibly great, (and normally includes the big three ‘races’ European, African and Asian) which is part of the reason I ran my DNA. Even if the analyses are still in their infancy, I’ve found a lot of useful data. Far more than from oral history, to be sure!

  24. #23, hispanic/latino in the USA is a function of american social policy and cultural trends. it doesn’t map onto the self-definitions of people from latin america themselves. hispanic was a term promoted in 1970 by the US gov. for purposes of census classification. latino tends to be more popular on the west coast i think.

  25. ackbark

    For me the major revelation in my 23 and Me result was that I had to throw my ‘found in a crashed ufo’ theory right out the window.

    But ‘lost time traveler’ still has some utility.

  26. Anthony

    “Hispanic/Latino” has two different definitions in the U.S.: The bureaucratic definition, and the “street” definition.

    To a college admissions officer, or a “human rights commission” DBE clerk, “hispanic” means a person with ancestry in the Americas south of the United States. It might also mean people whose ancestry is directly from Spain or Portugal, though that’s controversial, and depends on the specific agency.

    On the “street”, it means you’re likely to respond reasonably correctly if addressed in Spanish, which usually means having some visible American Indian ancestry, or at least a good tan and black hair. Until I got my 23andme results, I thought my mother’s ancestry was purely European, but when I was working outdoors a lot, the Mexican construction laborers would usually address me in Spanish first. It turns out I’m about 6% American Indian, which shocked my mother.

  27. empanada

    My parents and I (of Mexican descent) are used to referring to ourselves as Hispanic. In Spanish we use the term “Hispano,” and take “Hispanic” as the cognate of that word (although they may have developed via different paths and not really be cognates). I grew up in Southern California hearing “Hispano” as the usual term among the community and on local TV news. Actually my parents don’t really like using the term Latino . . . they seemed to think it sounded artificial. “Hispano” to my family just means Spanish-speaking people, and so includes people of different ethnic appearances. I was told by some white and Asian Americans not to say Hispanic because some people are offended by it, but I never met someone who was actually offended. To avoid the controversy, lately I say “Latin American” because the word “Latino” by itself to me still implies people who lived in Italy 2500 years ago.

    Unfortunately, as Anthony says, many people on the street still think Hispanic/Latino is a race and don’t understand it could refer to anyone with any sort of appearance. This misconception has caused problems for me socially. Although both my parents are of Mexican descent and genetic testing says I have 1/3 Amerindian ancestry, I have light skin and everyone (whether Mexican, white, other Latin American, etc) assumes I’m white. So when people (usually white people) find out my ethnicity sometimes their reaction is negative. They may actually back away from me in shock, or suddenly get very quiet and start avoiding me, give me a hard stare, etc. I wish I looked more like a stereotypical Mexican so I could avoid these awkward situations. Even Jessica Alba, who is only half Mexican, looks more stereotypically Amerindian than me.

  28. empanada

    As for my experience with genetic genealogy, it has been interesting for me. As a Mexican American, all I knew about my background was some sparse family oral history that mostly concentrated on a few “exotic” European ancestors (English and German . . . maybe not exotic to white Americans, but felt special to my family when everyone else has a Spanish surname). I knew what I learned in Chicano studies classes about “la raza cosmica,” the triracial composition of colonical Mexico, but knew next to nothing about my Amerindian ancestors, and didn’t even suspect African ancestors. Growing up in southern California where many people have multiethnic ancestry, I was used to the question “what are you?” and hearing peers answer in terms of fractions. But when we have been mixing for 500 years, how could we untangle our history in such a straightforward way like US Amerindians and their blood quantum cards? I wished my background was so cut and dried. I didn’t know “what” I was, and having a white-looking appearance when others in my family looked like what American society thought Mexicans ought to look like just puzzled me. Having my DNA tested answered some questions I’ve always had about myself, and also gave me some surprises, like African and Jewish ancestry that no one in my family knew about.

    But now I have new questions that may not be answerable. I don’t know anything about the ~1/3 of my ancestors who were Amerindian, not even their tribe names. Many paper records were lost or never that complete in the first place. I hope some genome blogger somewhere will start a project specifically for Amerindian ancestry someday. Likewise I wish I knew more about the history of the African slave ancestors or Jewish ancestors that every Mexican seems to share, but are hardly talked about in official histories. This experience makes me realize that there is so much academic research that has yet to be done despite the history being less than 500 years old. But I now have a whole new understanding of my ancestral home and I feel more of a personal connection to it.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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