Let me save you a couple o’hundred bucks. Your DNA comes from Africa.
I did the DNA ancestry testing thing; I got curious about it a couple of years ago. My conclusion: my parents didn’t lie to me, which is good given the significant psychological ramifications of genetic testing. I’m a four continent mutt – four-and-a-smidge, if you count the Ashkenazi genes.
Do I believe it? Meh. I’ll come back to that question.
DNA ancestry testing works like this. You ship a company a sample of your DNA by supplying some bodily ichor, usually saliva. The company then extracts the DNA from your sample and amplifies it using a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCA), after which there will be lots of your DNA in that test tube and that makes it easier to analyze and catalog. It is this PCA technique that has made DNA testing less expensive.Your DNA remains unique; so only “you” are in that test tube, lots of copies, millions of bits of you.
What comes next is tricky: a blend shall we say of statistics, biochemistry, and storytelling.
Two types of DNA testing, mitochondrial and Y-DNA, identify maternal and paternal lineages respectively and focus on the far past. They look at the drift in genetic material to locate what we might think of as our oldest genetic ancestral parentage (haplogroups for the initiated). Think Wayback Machine set to six figure years ago when dinosaurs ruled the flat earth. These types of testing work some serious science.
The third kind of genetic testing is autosomal. This method reads the chromosomes and those harvested million bits of you and statistically compares the results to a database of other people’s DNA. That is to say, other customers’ DNA, and those same people, like myself, also completed a questionnaire that asked what was already known about our own ancestry.
DNA may have also been collected by a random sample of individuals from various regions around the world, but that’s not always clear. In any event, this DNA database is filled with a little bit of random sample, a lot of self-reporting and the customer DNA from about 12 million of us who are mostly form the USA at last count.
See the problem?
Your ancestry is determined by how similar your genes are to others in that database. There’s no independent metric. There’s no table confirming a gene came from a specific region – only clusters of statistical similarities.
But wait, there’s more.
These companies also chunk up the world into roughly 25 arbitrary areas: the whole planet, all cultures, all ethnicities. I can’t show you the maps because of intellectual property rights, but I can describe them. There are lots of intimate geographic areas in Europe, slightly larger areas in Africa, one to two areas in Asia, the entirety of Americas forms one region. Oceania, you are out of luck.Then, all of these socio-cultural regions are presented on a map in such a way that would suggest that our DNA can tell us which side of the Franco-Italian border our ancestors came from. You know, the border created by the Treaty of Paris on 10 February 1945.
All of that regional breakdown makes sense – lots of market sense, that is. It is the wealthy (on a world scale) who drive this process – those aforementioned 12 million people, who are mostly from the US and who have been ruminating and longing for a cultural romance with their tribe. That’s worth a few bucks. It’s about who has the luxury of time and money to use science to justify their tribalism. We don’t want to sound barbaric by just making a claim. It is imperative to have scientific justification. It’s like an I-knew-I-was-German bed and breakfast. Oops.. sorry… Ich-wußte-ich-war-Deutscher Übernachtung mit Frühstück.
Now for the hard truth regarding ethnicity and culture; we can’t inherit them. Sadly, we can inherit Tay-Sachs disease, but we don’t inherit Vikingness. We learn it.
Therefore, we are obliged to remind ourselves as we read our results that genetics cannot tell you who you are; they can only tell you what you have. Claiming Vikingess does not require a genetic connection. We don’t need Viking DNA to love Norse culture or Norse gods, and we do not need some weird genetic permission to establish relationships with them or that land. We’re all allowed to do that. To claim that our genes drive that bargain aligns with the racist and xenophobic fringes that have regrettably tainted the groups and practices within our collective communities. Those claims are barren- philosophically, spiritually, and scientifically.
We also don’t need Norse genes to visit Iceland either. Despite the television commercials, we can enjoy any region without being forced to show that we have genetic markers from the area. I swam in the Silfra fissure without so much a single Scandinavian DNA chromosome. All of us are heirs to our human heritage. Your genes are human and that’s all we need to know as spiritual beings.
So, should you do the testing? If you can live without the money it costs, testing is fun and offers information for reflection. It’s kind of like what I imagine it must be like to go see a Star Trek movie with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson: a little bit geek, a little bad science, and lot of fun.
Testing did make me think more deeply about my ancestors and what they went through – the exploration as well as the horrors. Testing also made me think about how easy it is to lapse into that tribal romance about one’s origin and the danger of using genetic evidence to build a story of supremacy and enhanced delusions of racial purity.
Worse yet, it might delude some people to think their genes offer privileged access to the divine. Let’s just call that wrong and racist.
Everyone is welcome to build relationships with all gods and nature. It’s about devotion, not base pairs. And, if you would love for your genes to strengthen your spirit’s connection with the land, meet Africa. No matter where you might be from, you came from there.
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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.