Ancestry testing as a Rorschach test

By Razib Khan | July 27, 2013 6:25 pm

Vanessa L. Williams
Credit: Tabercil

The website The Root often has a Q & A with various African Americans, famous and not so famous, about their genealogy in relation to personal genomics. In most cases these tests tell you what you already know, but for African Americans there is often actually value-add in terms of greater specificity and precision, which would otherwise be lacking for obvious historical reasons. Despite its objective scientific patina the processing and interpretation of the resultant information can be rather subject, and illuminating. Recently they sat down with actress, and the first black winner of Miss America, Vanessa L. Williams, to discuss her results. There were two passages which I think were particularly interesting, so I’ll quote them below:

What did you find out about your DNA?

My DNA breaks down as follows: I’m 23% from Ghana, 17% from the British Isles, 15% from Cameroon, 12% Finnish, 11% Southern European, 7% Togo, 6% Benin, 5% Senegal and 4% Portuguese.

Now, I can’t wait to go to Ghana and Cameroon and Togo and Senegal — it’s a great opportunity to see why the customs resonate with you. I love to travel and I love to explore, and I have to admit that I was always jealous of people who knew their cultural background. Both my family and myself came out with light eyes, so obviously there is a recessive gene here. Not knowing what that was just made me very curious.

How did your family react to all this information?

They loved it. They really can’t wait to go on our world tour of where we’re from. The biggest surprise was Finland. How did that happen? Who is Finnish? That is definitely going to be one of my trips coming up. It’s all surprising, really interesting and it’s really incredible.


First, note that Williams highlighted her African components as particularly noteworthy. She did not say she can’t wait to go to Finland. Not surprising, but it emphasizes that people are looking for specific things, not objective truth. On that Finnish ancestry, perusing what I can find about the AncestryDNA service it seems that this a Finnish-like component, not necessarily Finnish. This sort of confusion is common, and I hope that ancestry services will work on greater awareness of the best way to interpret their results in the future.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal Genomics
MORE ABOUT: Personal genomics
  • aeolius

    I was struck by her comment “The first person I called was my mother, and I sent her my results and
    copied all my kids so they know where half of their genetic makeup is from”

    One has to wonder which “half” of her heritage excited her. It would appear that she is less then comfortable being biracial. The prevailing attitude among “Afro-Americans” seems to follow the Southern notion of “one drop of black blood…” in self-definition.

    Perhaps we will find that presence/absence of Neandertal
    genes will be a more suitable definition

    • Sandgroper

      It’s because the customs resonate, man. You know?

      Wait until she catches the cultural resonance in Finland. It’s going to really tick her off that she doesn’t have any Punjabi ancestry. Actually, that’s something I’m not very pleased about myself, the way I vibrate to Bhangra. I’m also slightly irritated to find I don’t have any Zulu ancestry either, because those kids rock.

    • razibkhan

      she is NOT ‘biracial’, in that both her parents are african americans of mixed african and european heritage (ie she does not have one black and one white parent).

  • TheBrett

    I’d like to try one of those tests as well. I have a pretty solid idea of my father’s side of my ancestry, since he’s a recent immigrant and I have a cousin on that side who traced the whole family back 300 years throughout southern England. But my mother’s side is more of an open question – mixed German/English, but from where? And is there anything else mixed in?

  • JayMan

    They’ll probably love what they’ll find if they sequenced my DNA…

  • Dmitry Pruss

    Why Rorschach, it’s more like traditional fortune-telling where the interpreter ought to observe the client’s body language and speech patterns in order to give the right answer. With Rorschach, it’s supposed to use zero feedback from the test-taker.

  • Guest

    Razib writes: “She did not say she can’t wait to go to Finland.”

    This is true, but at the end of the interview you linked to she comments that “the biggest surprise was Finland”, wonders where her Finnish ancestry comes from, and says that Finland is “definitely going to be one of my trips coming up.”

  • Joe Q.

    She didn’t say that she can’t wait to go to Finland, but she does express wonder at her Finnish (or Finnish-like) ancestry as well as an interest in pursuing it — so she doesn’t dismiss it entirely. In any case, I’m not surprised that she highlights the African part of her ancestry, for some of the reasons you cited — the precision that the results provide — and also because, for an American, west Africa is likely a lot more exotic than Finland.

  • razibkhan

    the mormon church owns a different site, some of the people behind have a mormon background though. please be precise and don’t spread misinformation.

    • Elias Chan-Sui

      My mistake. I was using the information from the Wikipedia article. To be precise: footnotes 12 – 16 and 19. I misinterpreted those to indicate that the company had (past tense) some type of affiliation with the LDS.

      I’ll grant that my statement was intended as flippant and should have been kept to myself since I don’t know if the earlier companies’ close ties with the LDS in any way affected their viewpoints (past or present) on how they currently present genetic heritage.

  • razibkhan

    I find it hard to believe that Williams is >50% African

    by this, do you mean you think it is genetically implausible, or that you simply have some intuitive sense that this wouldn’t produce this result? if the former, that is obviously wrong, as anyone who has read this blog for a while (as you have judging by comments i’ve seen around) has. discrete inheritance + sample variance. if that doesn’t make sense to you after all this time stop leaving comments.

  • razibkhan

    this sounds wrong. either you used an older service, a different service, or, you are making it up.

    • Sandgroper

      Anon, the % do not refer to mtDNA, they refer to autosomal. 23andMe gave you an mtDNA haplogroup subgroup code, and you found that code occurs in people in various parts of Europe, right? That’s really not surprising. But that’s not what Ms Williams is talking about. It’s hard to miss the % for different geographic regions given by 23andMe in the results (impossible, I’d say), so what you are saying doesn’t make sense – unless you mean they said that you are 100% undifferentiated European, but that would be pretty odd.

  • Sandgroper

    Oh come on, Greg – don’t tell me this doesn’t strike some deep ancestral chord. Choir of angels, I could listen to them all night. I know singers who would kill to be able to do harmony like this. (Couldn’t post the Zulus because they’re not suitable for work.)

  • kyrifles

    I suspect a big star like Williams has probably gone to most of Europe either on tour or on holiday. Africa is a different kettle of fish – exotic (and dangerous) in a way Europe wouldn’t be for the average well-traveled American.


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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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