Our Heritage: Family Memories or Questionable DNA Testing?

What we learn growing up, and at meals, can be more telling than a DNA test.

Posted Apr 08, 2018

Public domain, wikimedia
Source: Public domain, wikimedia

Our values have more influence on us than the ancestral origin of pieces of DNA in our genome. Today’s clever media advertising about ancestry kits portray a picture that might not reflect what is possible to determine.  For people with no family -- unsure of their roots --DNA kits might be helpful. However, science tells us that the results of these direct-to-consumer (DTC) tests are questionable.

The value of memoirs: People writing creative non-fiction memoirs are well aware that what matters most about family history are the stories and rituals we learned from parents and grandparents. Furthermore, traditions often reflect our cultural heritage. Each Easter my nephew replicates our grandmother’s Italian ham and cheese pie, pizzagaina. This dish becomes another opportunity for us to share family stories and reflect on our past as is remembered by different relatives. Despite some differences, no one is keen about ancestry testing.  

Ancestry accuracy is complicated:  With the sudden popularity of ancestry testing, one must keep in mind its limitations.  Tests for disease patterns are different than tests for ancestry.  It is a misguided notion that a company doing medical testing, as well as ancestry testing, is likely to be more accurate than others. 

Although DNA sequence analysis can identify possible risk to a specific genetic disease, here is what Nature reported in Genetics in Medicine, March 2018.  The article is False-positive results released by direct-to-consumer genetic tests highlight the importance of clinical confirmation testing for appropriate patient care.

“Direct to Consumer (DTC) tests can provide genetic information to individuals who might otherwise never have been tested due to circumstances such as lack of a family history of disease, inaccessibility of clinical genetic testing, prohibitive cost, or poor insurance coverage. However, unlike clinical genetic tests, DTC tests are not diagnostic and offer risk information for only a limited set of conditions.”

Ancestry analysis looks for segments of DNA sequence that are similar to segments that have been found in a specific population of humans. It may be interesting to find that you have a DNA sequence that has been reported on a small island in the Pacific.  However, the original population may have had many other people from different areas who settled there as time passed.  As such it may only be a pop up or perhaps just a "passenger," that is, a particular gene that has not been looked at before. 

Consider the case of identical triplets who had their DNA tested in December 2017 with results released on the Today Show.  Three different tests yielded different results.

The truth about DNA testing and privacy: Professor Sheldon Krimsky, the Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at Tufts, Krimsky, is author of Genetic Justice and board chair of the Council for Responsible Genetics. He has also written,  Ancestry DNA Testing and Privacy: A Consumer Guide, available as a PDF.

Krimsky talked of the issues in or a March 2018 Tufts interview: Pulling Back the Curtain on DNA Ancestry Tests. When asked about the accuracy of the tests, by Genevieve Rajewski at Tufts, this was his response:

"We don’t really know, because the companies selling these services—and there are close to 40 of them—don’t share their data, and their methods are not validated by an independent group of scientists and there are not agreed-upon standards of accuracy.  . . . So you have to look at the percentages you receive back with skepticism."

He also reminded us that companies are not making money from the tests, but rather from selling “genetic information to other companies interested in having access to large genetic databases." 

The case of my family history and Senator Warren's
In collecting stories for a family memoir, my 97-year-old aunt distinctly remembered her Papa coming from the old country when he was 8 — or was it 18? And she remembers that he was either from Buccino or Avellino.  He either met and married Grandma in this country or at a village in the old country. These are the details we might determine from an biographical search or detailed research.

Copyright Rita Watson 2018
Source: Copyright Rita Watson 2018

But what matters most to us are the stories rather than historical accuracy.  If we took an ancestry test and suddenly learned we came from the hills of France — that would not change our sense of values or our family history as we know it.  At Easter time we will still compare pizzagaine stories and each year we will say to our nephew, Jude: “This is the best one you ever made.”

As for Senator Elizabeth Warren, she is often chided by Donald Trump who disparagingly calls her Pocahontas. She remembers growing up with stories of her American Indian heritage. People suggest she take a DNA test. Why? To silence the chief bully?  She has a right to her stories. And she deserves respect with regard to her cultural heritage and all she remembers from oral tradition.

Copyright 2018 Rita Watson/ All Rights Reserved