The impact of genetic ancestry testing

By Razib Khan | June 27, 2011 1:07 am

Attitudes on DNA ancestry tests:

The DNA ancestry testing industry is more than a decade old, yet details about it remain a mystery: there remain no reliable, empirical data on the number, motivations, and attitudes of customers to date, the number of products available and their characteristics, or the industry customs and standard practices that have emerged in the absence of specific governmental regulations. Here, we provide preliminary data collected in 2009 through indirect and direct participant observation, namely blog post analysis, generalized survey analysis, and targeted survey analysis. The attitudes include the first available data on attitudes of those of individuals who have and have not had their own DNA ancestry tested as well as individuals who are members of DNA ancestry-related social networking groups. In a new and fluid landscape, the results highlight the need for empirical data to guide policy discussions and should be interpreted collectively as an invitation for additional investigation of (1) the opinions of individuals purchasing these tests, individuals obtaining these tests through research participation, and individuals not obtaining these tests; (2) the psychosocial and behavioral reactions of individuals obtaining their DNA ancestry information with attention given both to expectations prior to testing and the sociotechnical architecture of the test used; and (3) the applications of DNA ancestry information in varying contexts.

If anyone wants the paper, email me, I can send you a copy. But really it’s just kind of dated because the information was collected in 2009, before the massive increase in 23andMe’s customer base which began in the spring of 2010. Additionally, “genome blogging” really hadn’t started much at that point.

In terms of the reactions to ancestry analysis, my personal experience after doing analysis on hundreds of people (most in public for AAP, but some in private) is that most are pretty calm about whatever they find out. On occasion you run into a stubborn person who is basically going to fix upon a really implausible explanation for a particular ancestral slice rather than the lowest hanging fruit. But there was one individual who had a freak out when their results were published, because it did not accord with family beliefs. I was kind of confused, and checked their results with their self-reported ethnicity. Weirdly the results were exactly what I would have expected from the self-reported ethnicity, so it was a really strange reaction.

MORE ABOUT: Genome Blogging
  • Charles Nydorf

    To me the most fascinating thing has been the shift in attitudes over the last two years as autosomal testing has come in and eclipsed uni-parental markers.

  • Ian

    Just got my 23andme results a couple days ago, and I took a moment to think about my reaction to them. The first surprise came from my mt haplogroup – U2d. First glance at the distribution map on 23andme was really confusing, since it showed the entire U clade, which was predominantly Indian. Since I’m Indian on my father’s side, not my mother’s, it was puzzling. A bit more reading left me, if anything, more confused, since they said that U2d was primarily Jordanian and Palestinian. I considered for a moment whether this meant Jewish ancestry, but then I realised that if they meant Jewish, they would have said Jewish.

    So off to Google Scholar, which turned up this paper. That discovery tied things together in a way that was even better than I had hoped. Turns out that U2d is found and parts of the Caucasus, and among Czechs in western Bohemia, together with a relatively high frequency of east Eurasian mt lineages. The authors (in a previous paper) suggested that this may reflect Hun or Avar incursions. Why I find this all so cool is that after reading Razib’s blog post about the Sorbs, it crossed my mind that I might find a Slavic signal in my mt DNA, given my maternal lineage’s deep roots in Sachsen-Anhalt. Given the whole “men move, women stay put” idea, it seemed reasonable to posit Slavic ancestry. Finding what could possibly be Avar or Hunnic ancestry though, is even more fun.

    I reacted differently to the overall ancestry matching thing. Being told you are 96% European and 4% Asian bothered me at first, even though I realise that “European”, as they define it, includes Indian. By the time I was about 6 or 7 years old I had a clearly defined “non-white” (and non-black, so “brown”) identity…living in Canada but identifying very strongly as Trinidadian. Back in Trinidad though, I was always taken for “white” and that bothered me because I strongly identified with my Indian half, and did not identify with the “local whites”. While I was unhappy having 23andme tell me I was “European”, I was happy to be told by Interpretome that I was “Central South Asian” rather than European. Granted, it’s probably says more about the wisdom of mapping data onto a pre-existing PCA than anything about me. But it was still fun to get the software to give me the result I wanted rather than the result I know to be true :)

  • Razib Khan

    if, u want me to do analysis before zack gets to you, i post some stuff here (i’d give you an ID):

    just email me at the link to the right.

  • normann

    I had my genome sequenced by 23andme this winter, and one minor surprise was that the family rumor of American Indian ancestry was not confirmed (though after five generations, there would not be many traces left, at least statistically). However, the big surprise is that, at the level of the shortest segments with only one grandparent per country, I have between 3.9% and 7.3% Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. I suspect my father’s paternal grandmother, who was Bohemian but not Czech-speaking. She was very dark, which is the source of the dark complexion in my father’s family (and not American Indian ancestry). Her brother was an officer in the Imperial army, which means that at least one of her parents converted to Catholicism prior to emancipation. There are also no Ashkenazi segments on my X chromosome. I also have genomic cousins from all over the Habsburg empire, many of them Jewish.

    I thought it was amusing that my brother (for whom I bought a gift membership) and I only share 45% or so of our genomes. This should not be surprising, since we do not look at all alike.

    It is all very cool.

  • Ian

    Done. And thanks!

  • antonio
  • antonio

    is it something new? best,

  • Razib Khan

    i’m posting there instead of facebook from now on.

  • antonio

    i ve been think about setting up a project for brazilian genomics …. posts like your long one below make me wonder all sort of interesting social science questions that may have enlighting answers using genetic data… we have al sort of estories about the constitution of the brazilians but very little data on them let alone genetics…

  • Razib Khan

    #9, i hear from a brazilian scientist that some more stuff will come on brazilian genomics soon. but it’s all medical oriented, not social science. seems like this is going to be low hanging latin american fruit over the next 10 years.

  • antonio

    “seems like this is going to be low hanging latin american fruit over tbe next 10 years.” are you refering to the medical stuff? I was thinking that this is the case for the social science stuff … for instance how the whitening process really opperated? from my poor understanding brazilian population should have a much higher african contribution than it actually has; if so, when does the gene flow happened? From what I getting in foruns such as 23andMe the old stock people are pretty much european so that the was the slaves who got the gene influx. But i am digressing ….

  • Razib Khan

    social. med stuff is being worked on a lot already.


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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

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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