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Recreational Genetics
July 15, 2007 5:27 PM   Subscribe

As advances in DNA testing allow us to discover our genetic origins in ever-greater detail, many people are making surprising discoveries. Especially in the melting-pot that is the USA. Of course there are always those who feel that access to such information about who we are will only lead to bad things
posted by nowonmai (46 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 


Good article. This frustrates me because I think so many wonderful discoveries are used for such terrible things and in very poor ways. But I also believe that the negative possibilities should not derail the individuals making it happen. Everything has potential problem. Even the best intentions... Sometimes people focus too much on what may happen and some sort of impending doom. The negative energy is such a deterent to beautiful discoveries.

On another note, my first thought was from a sign I saw this weekend: We are all immigrants. YEY for further proof.
posted by NotInTheBox at 5:50 PM on July 15, 2007


Reminds me of the story of a black man who had a DNA test done to discover he wasn't black at all.
posted by hafetysazard at 5:53 PM on July 15, 2007


can you imagine the impact it would have on an individual to sign in and discover two new brothers and a cousin? Or what it does to a family when great-grandpa is outed as an adulterer? You could be opening a really messy can of worms.

Or not. It's not like I'm personally responsible for the actions of other people. Great-granpappy was an adulterer? I'm disappointed to find out he wasn't the man I thought he was.

And meet over coffee, brother? Sure. But I am retaining the right to keep my life from being muddled by yours. I'll send you a Christmas card. If we hit it off well, maybe we'll do a BBQ.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:55 PM on July 15, 2007


Genealogy websites are the second most commonly visited on the internet (after pornography).

There's a pleasing kind of symmetry in that. "Recreational genetics" indeed.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:03 PM on July 15, 2007 [5 favorites]


We are all related. We are all Africans. Any refinement of these basic facts only serves to divide us from one another.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:04 PM on July 15, 2007 [6 favorites]


The one black student turned out to be 21 per cent white.

That's the kind of stuff that irks me, I mean : 21 white ? Why not 22, why not 20 ? It's a number without an understanding , it's just like say x > y without any further understanding of what x and y are, not even a statement making them different somehow.

From hafetysazard link
Here was the unexpected and rather unwelcome truth: Joseph was 57 percent Indo-European, 39 percent Native American, 4 percent East Asian – and zero percent African. After a lifetime of assuming blackness, he was now being told that he lacked even a single drop of black blood to qualify.
That's nonsense to me. Let's assume there is a known sequence of genes that belongs primarily to an area of the planet : that could be of interest , if the area shows a significant density of a significant disease, say anemy. Yet , possibly, one can ascertain the presence of the disease or the likelyhood by direct method, such as looking for a particular sequence.

But somehow people still buy into the root of the species, the fact that we somehow are curious about how we come from. I share this curiosity, but what about giving a flying about the "percentage" ? How's that relevant , and to what ?
posted by elpapacito at 6:11 PM on July 15, 2007


My great-great-grandparents all came to the US from Russia after slavery was abolished. My conscience is clear. Wallow in your guilt, slave-owner descendants!
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:11 PM on July 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


hafetysazard, that blog and some of the sites it links to smell creepy to me. "Racial Reality?" "Greek Racial Calculator?" Ewwww.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:12 PM on July 15, 2007


Although current genetic research is confirming this, it's actually something that anyone with common sense would have figured out by now. Thoughout European history one only had to examine how difficult it was for kings to have healthy offspring. Queens would give birth to stillborns, children with birth defects, and children who couldn't survive anything from shingles to the common cold without being an inch away from death at the drop of a hat. Yet for some strange reason those currently in power wanted their own bloodline to retain said power for generations after they were six feet under. We look at this concept today and it's completely ludicrous, but back then it made perfect sense.

The more inbred (aka "blueblooded") the various kingdoms would get, the more difficult it'd be to have an heir. And even if a dynasty could survive several generations, the offspring would turn out be increasingly insane or ignorant or just buzzkills for the rest of the civilized world.

The more diverse the gene pool the better! That way, over several generations, you'll get hardier, sturdier, and more versatile stock. Granted, your great grandchildren will look absolutely nothing like you, but you'll be dead by then, so why should it matter?
posted by ZachsMind at 6:15 PM on July 15, 2007


Although current genetic research is confirming this, it's actually something that anyone with common sense would have figured out by now. Thoughout European history one only had to examine how difficult it was for kings to have healthy offspring. Queens would give birth to stillborns, children with birth defects, and children who couldn't survive anything from shingles to the common cold without being an inch away from death at the drop of a hat.

Uh, that was true of most people at the time. Most children did not make it to adulthood at the time.
posted by delmoi at 6:30 PM on July 15, 2007


Faint of Butt: unless your great-great-grandparents were particularly industrious serfs, I'd hazard a guess that they were not entirely innocent.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:31 PM on July 15, 2007


Strictly speaking, what you say isn't true, ZachsMind.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:42 PM on July 15, 2007


Here. here.

And, too, plentiful examples of isolated jungle tribes that have existed for eternities without "new blood" in the mix.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:48 PM on July 15, 2007


The nice thing about being of Eastern-European Jewish origin is that--what with all the oppression--I pretty much never get blamed for anything my ancestors may have done.

Well, you know, except for that one thing.
posted by Partial Law at 7:02 PM on July 15, 2007 [7 favorites]


I don't know if I believe it entirely, but it sure is interesting. One of the examples is taken from a Berber in Asni, Morocco(pdf)- he has a lot of Italian in there. Assuming one of his recent ancestors wasn't Italian (happening more and more lately), it might support the explanation for specific traits among certain Berber tribes - pale skin, red/blond hair, green/blue eyes. Or it might not.

However, it also says that he has African-American from Illinois and Connecticut - not sure what to make of that.
posted by Liosliath at 7:06 PM on July 15, 2007


he was now being told that he lacked even a single drop of black blood to qualify

That brings up the whole nature vs nurture discussion and the question of what does it mean to be black. Then it puts it into a blender, hits puree and waits a delicioius glass of 'wtf', with a wedge of lemon.

I'm not sure why a group of numbers on a printed should suddenly alter someone's life.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:12 PM on July 15, 2007


Dear Mr. Planet

Our tests indicate that you are 100% alien.

Please do not breed. Thank you.
posted by jason's_planet at 7:14 PM on July 15, 2007


Joseph was 57 percent Indo-European, 39 percent Native American, 4 percent East Asian – and zero percent African.

Isn't this all genetic phrenology?
posted by cillit bang at 7:40 PM on July 15, 2007 [2 favorites]


Five Fresh Fish: "Strictly speaking, what you say isn't true, ZachsMind."

I cite the Tudor line of England as just one example. King Henry went through a bunch of wives predominantly because none of them could get him a healthy boy heir, and he refused to accept the fact that it was because he was from genetically bad stock. There's other examples, but that one's most prominent in my memory at the time. Henry the 8th was a twit.

So "strictly speaking" I have historical data to back up my statement. I'd appreciate not being called a liar, FFF.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:42 PM on July 15, 2007


Two healthy daughters="genetically bad stock"? Plus two sons (one illegitimate) that lived into their teens and died of (probably/possibly) tuberculosis? WTF?
posted by dilettante at 7:56 PM on July 15, 2007


I cite the Tudor line of England as just one example.

Well there were several king henry's, right? Which sort of takes apart your argument right there. And there are millions of men around the world today who cannot give birth to healthy children, or children at all. That may make them from "bad genetic stock" but does that mean they are all inbred?

One example doesn't prove anything, and given one doesn't mean you have "data" to back up your point, ("strictly speaking" you have you have a datum)
posted by delmoi at 7:59 PM on July 15, 2007


delmoi: "...Most children did not make it to adulthood at the time."

Yes. Because inbreeding was not limited to the upper classes. It was commonly accepted to marry amongst your own kind. What appeared good for royalty was accepable behavior for everyone else.

Unfortunately it's impossible to get accurate census readings from the time, but historically it was those of hardier stock who came from more diverse backgrounds which excelled more readily than those who xenophobically stuck to their own kind. This would not be the case in every instance, because there are thousands of other factors one would also have to take into account.

Let me try to come at this from a more certain, if metaphoric, direction.

In cutesy dog shows, pedigrees might win cute little ribbons, but it's the mutts who'd pwn the pedigrees in a heartbeat if left alone with them in the parking lot after the show.
posted by ZachsMind at 8:04 PM on July 15, 2007


Zach, recent genetic research has determined that first-cousin marriages do not have a significant impact on genetic outcomes, ie. diseases and dysfunctions.

What you cite is, in fact, a myth, as far as I've recently read.

Now, perhaps what I read was out to lunch; it was, after all, a sciencey news item on the web. I did, however, provide you a couple of links, one of which directly addresses your claim and another that indicates diversity happens regardless.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:09 PM on July 15, 2007


Anything that muddies the waters of our system of racial classification is a good thing. And this is a great post!
posted by LarryC at 8:16 PM on July 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


Isn't this all genetic phrenology?

Not precisely. I think these tests are more akin to the calipers for measuring skulls and the tabulation of variations in physiognomy. The raw data measured is actually sound and valid, ie you can accurately be said to share, say, 21% of your genes in common with typical Berbers, but the political and cultural inferences you might draw from this are dubious. Having been told you're 21% Berber, if you then feel compelled to examine Berber culture, make a list of Berber customs, and choose 1 out of 5 of them to take up, well, that would be a problem with yourself, not the process.

Your genetic heritage only gives the broadest outline as to what kind of person you may be physically, and tells (almost) nothing at all about your character. However, widespread adoption of this process would seem to provide an antidote to purist-racist views, and by the weight of practicality, may gently force us to review the meaning of fatherhood, ancestry, race and ethnicity.

I'm interested to do this: genealogically I am of Irish, English and German ancestry, but I'm curious about what my genetics might show. Has anyone here gone through the process, and if you have, how did you go about getting it done?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:21 PM on July 15, 2007


Yes. Because inbreeding was not limited to the upper classes. It was commonly accepted to marry amongst your own kind. What appeared good for royalty was accepable behavior for everyone else.

WTF? Kids died because modern medicine did not exist. Trying to blame it all on 'inbreeding' is preposterous. Are you saying that every person on earth was inbred? because that's who was liable to have their children die. "What appeared good for royalty was acceptable behavior for everyone else." is 100% conjecture. Most of what you're saying is pure conjecture.

I know there is a bit of common wisdom that says that inbreeding was discovered to be bad by observing royal families, and we certainly know that inbreeding causes problems, but, but you seem to be way oversimplifying that into error by saying "It was difficult for kings to have healthy offspring" which is an absurd statement. Primarily because most kings were able to have healthy offspring. Now perhaps in some cases it got really bad, but we don't know about King Henry the 8th. He did have two healthy girls. The other problem is that you're trying to extrapolate from a single example, which is not really adequate.
posted by delmoi at 8:22 PM on July 15, 2007


Anyone who's knowledgeable about genetics or how this testing is done (I assume by checking a finite number of loci on the genome for certain traits?) want to weigh in with how accurate, reliable, or meaningful these tests really are?
posted by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson at 8:23 PM on July 15, 2007


On the subject of royalty, the educated and informed people of the middle ages thought diseases were spread by bad air and foul smells, they thought the absence of air was a flammable substance called phlogiston, they thought maggots spontaneously grew in rotting meat, and they believe in witchcraft. Note that the evidence available to them, as interpreted by them in the context of their culture, supported all of these views. Their concept of inheritance of traits was based purely around that degree of physical resemblance which one has to one's father, mother, and siblings. They believed royalty to be actually superior to common folk, which the evidence supported (ie, they remained royal).

Even the science of animal husbandry wasn't advanced. Breeding for characteristics was a matter of mating two animals with that characteristic and hoping that the offspring would have the characteristic. A reasonable enough hope, as it turned out, but the people who did it had no idea why. Gregor Mendel didn't publish his research until the 1850's; that is how recently we've had more than the vaguest clue about how inheritance work.

So, while we can look with hindsight and ask, why wouldn't the royalty, who were in the best position to do so, select the most beautiful and intelligent of the peasantry to marry, so that each generation of royalty would become more beautiful and intelligent than the last, we are missing the point: "royal", in the cultural context, had a meaning just like "beautiful" and "intelligent", and was of more value. The royal families of Christendom were breeding for what they believed was the best possible trait for a person to have: royalty.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:44 PM on July 15, 2007 [3 favorites]


I'd bet on a plain yet streetwise commoner over a socially-accepted, beautiful, (arguably more) intelligent, blueblood any day of the week. That's all I'm tryin' to say.
posted by ZachsMind at 8:53 PM on July 15, 2007


I would love to find out more about my genetic background, aeschenkarnos, but I'm English and as far as I can tell the more fine-grained studies that would diferentiate between the different ancient groups that make up the British populace currently only work with Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA, so I would only find out about two of my ancestors in each generation. That is, they would tell me about my grandfather on my father's side, and about my maternal grandmother, but nothing about the other two grandparents. I will wait until more information is available.

I have been assuming that the tests on which the Observer article is based use markers spread around all of the chromosomes, such that more of one's ancestors would be represented than just two people per generation. It looks like this place (first hit on google, not shilling for them) does pretty much that. So I would imagine the tests that tell you you're 23% European and 67% African are pretty accurate. The other tests with finer granularity are also likely to be very accurate, but only tell you about one male ancestor and one female.

Nicholas Wade's book Before The Dawn is about the way people are combining genetic, linguistic and anthropological studies with paleology as archaeology to find out more about our ancestors, and has an in-depth but readable treatment of the type of DNA studies that have been used, and their limits. I found this book fascinating and was particularly interested in the way it flatly contradicts some of the conclusions of Jared Diamond's much-lauded Guns, Germs and Steel.
posted by nowonmai at 8:54 PM on July 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


I always wanted to participate in one of those genetic studies but I've had the same concern that the Sunday Herald raises: to whom will they sell my genetic data?
posted by who squared at 10:03 PM on July 15, 2007


they thought maggots spontaneously grew in rotting meat

I won't vouch for maggots, but I swear to god that fruit flies are spontaneous!
posted by five fresh fish at 10:07 PM on July 15, 2007


Aren't we all descended from the same dozen stoneage Eves, anyway?

I'm the sum total of my ancestors
I carry their DNA
We are representatives of a long line of people
And we cart them around everywhere
This long line of people
That goes back to the beginning of time
And when we meet - they meet other lines of people
And we say bring together the lines of me.

posted by UbuRoivas at 10:16 PM on July 15, 2007


You can get your DNA tested for free at this place.

They don't give you the results, but they'll tell you if you have a match to anyone else tested by them. Then they'll give you a coupon for testing at this place.

Basically testing at these places is of the paternal or the maternal line, so, as was mentioned earlier, that leaves out lots of ancestors. I think they use certain specific gene markers, different than what is used for paternity verification or for police DNA evidence, and they don't look at the DNA medical markers. (The paranoid in me wonders if they are doing more with your DNA samples than what they are telling you).

An example of the paternal line testing: there are certain genes that are passed from father to son, and so on, for thousands of years. Every so often there is a random change in one of these markers. So a 100% match of so many markers means a certain likelyhood of a common paternal ancestor within so many generations. A 99% match means there is a likelyhood of a match a certain minimum number of generations back, etc. Of course, if you go back far enough we are all probably related.
posted by eye of newt at 10:50 PM on July 15, 2007


It's interesting that this post came up here now. I just got my latest batch of results from Family Tree DNA.

"I'm interested to do this: genealogically I am of Irish, English and German ancestry, but I'm curious about what my genetics might show. Has anyone here gone through the process, and if you have, how did you go about getting it done?"

As I mentioned above, I used FTDNA. I did this in two sections. First, I did the mtDNA -- the maternal line DNA. This isn't all that helpful for genealogy, but it is interesting. And the haplogroup I turned out to be in does fit nicely into my known maternal line ancestry.

(Incidentally, a MeFi comment originally inspired me to do this -- I think it was by Asparagirl.)

"Basically testing at these places is of the paternal or the maternal line, so, as was mentioned earlier, that leaves out lots of ancestors. I think they use certain specific gene markers, different than what is used for paternity verification or for police DNA evidence, and they don't look at the DNA medical markers. "

Just recently I tried something more experimental -- an autosomal DNA test. This does give you the CODIS markers to work with. The results allow you to compare your markers with several databases of different populations. It can't exactly tell you "you are 23% Scottish", but it tells you which populations you are closest to matching.

The interesting thing is that it matches my known researched genealogy perfectly. My mom's side of the family is Norwegian, Swedish, English, Irish and other things. My dad's side is Scottish and English. My strongest matches from the autosomal test? Norway, Sweden, Scotland, followed by Ireland, England, and so on. So, while this is all still very new and nothing is very definite, it seems likely that my results are accurate.

The great thing about this is that it does give you an interesting perspective about your origins. I now know that my maternal line came from the area of Syria or Iraq about 10,000 years ago (of course, from Africa long before that), and probably came through Eastern Europe into Scandinavia. I would have never thought of direct ancestors living in the Middle East, even though of course I knew about Mitochondrial Eve coming from Africa. I read about the origins of civilization in Mesopotamia now, and part of me thinks "my ancestors were there."
posted by litlnemo at 1:16 AM on July 16, 2007


litlnemo: your relatives are also in Mesopotamia now.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:23 AM on July 16, 2007


Heh, I was going to add that as well. Yes, that is part of the perspective it gives you. You aren't as likely to look at, say, modern Iraqis and think "They aren't like Northern European me at all."
posted by litlnemo at 1:40 AM on July 16, 2007


(Not that I thought that before, exactly, but you know what I mean. I am really sleepy at the moment so I can't guarantee anything I type will make sense.)
posted by litlnemo at 1:42 AM on July 16, 2007


"It might seem like a good idea when you think it will prove you're a descendant of ancient kings, but you won't think that when you don't get a job because your employer's DNA scan indicates a possible predisposition to illness, and that's the direction this is taking us in," said Cooper.

I was speaking with a good friend just this week along these lines. She had recently been diagnosed with a genetic abnormality that leads to problems with certain muscles and valves in the heart. As a mother, she really wants to get her kids tested to see if they carry the marker as well. But, she's hesitant to do so, due to the potential impact such knowledge might have...such as the kids being able to get insurance once they are adults and on their own.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:50 AM on July 16, 2007


It's Bush's fault.
posted by ryanrs at 5:57 AM on July 16, 2007


I did National Geographic's Genographic Project. It's US$100 and open internationally.

you won't think that when you don't get a job because your employer's DNA scan indicates a possible predisposition to illness

Like Gattaca.
Which I like to say like Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. "Gattaca! Gattaca!"
posted by kirkaracha at 6:34 AM on July 16, 2007


We all come from the same place, but all some people are looking for is a way to draw distinctions between us.
posted by SaintCynr at 8:52 AM on July 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Also, don't discount the "non-paternity event" the most brilliantly delicate euphemism I've heard in ages.
posted by nax at 3:52 PM on July 16, 2007


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posted by who squared at 5:53 PM on July 16, 2007


I am so very eurotrash. I suppose it might be nice to have that on a certificate.
posted by blacklite at 5:29 AM on July 17, 2007


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