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Genetics

Do You Know the Difference Between Ancestry and Heritage?

Learning where your biological ancestors came from doesn't make you one of them.

All of us have ancestors, or we wouldn't be alive today. All of us have a heritage, or we wouldn't be human. The difference between these two statements about ancestry and heritage is fundamental and can be important.

A lot has been written about these two concepts. Here, however, I want to simply say that ancestry is about what you are, while heritage is about how you are.

What It Takes to Make You Who You Are

Journalists have long followed the helpful advice that any news story worth putting into print (or online) should answer six fundamental questions: What? Where? When? Who? How? Why? Don't get me wrong. Who you are is not just a news story. But What you are is what ancestry is all about.

What do I mean by this? Your biological ancestry is what has made you human rather than, say, an oyster, orangutan, or zebra. Moreover, what you are like, biologically speaking, is 99.9% like what everyone else who is human is also like. It may be hard to believe, but it's basically just the remaining 0.1% that helps make you Who you are as a singular biological individual — including some ancestral biological characteristics in this tiny percentage of what you are like as a person that may be distinctly less than wonderful, such as a genetic predisposition for certain cancers and other diseases.

 Flickr (CC BY 2.0) / public domain
Figure 1. Associated Dairies delivering milk with horse and wagon. City of Vancouver Archives.
Source: Flickr (CC BY 2.0) / public domain
 Joe Roe, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Figure 2. Interpolated map of the percentage of adults that can digest lactose. Circles mark sample locations.
Source: Joe Roe, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

History shows over and over again that some people try to make this 0.1% less than wonderful in other ways, too. Believe it or not, cow's milk is being used, for example, by some as a racist symbol of white supremacy.

Back in February 2017, neo-Nazi protesters let themselves be videoed dancing outside an anti-Trump art installation messily chugging gallons of milk. Why? On the mistaken belief that because people of European genetic ancestry are generally able to drink milk as adults without unpleasant and even painful side effects, milk definitively sets them apart from other people on Earth.

However, as the map in Figure 2 shows, far from being a distinctive racial characteristic, how well adult humans can drink milk merely tells us where people have long been raising animals that can be milked, and have been drinking milk as part of their regular diets.

Ancestry Is Your Sexual Inheritance

Genetically speaking, if all of us are 99.9% the same, then it doesn't make much difference where on Earth our genes have come down to us from as long as we end up with all the ones we need. Nevertheless, commercial DNA testing companies such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA® are making money apparently off the the old worry that you don't really know Who you are if you don't know Where your ancestors came from.

Since we are mostly a nation of immigrants here in the United States, it isn't surprising that apparently the biggest market for these testing companies is in North America. People elsewhere may not feel as lost to the world, as unattached to people.

 Gringer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A chart illustrating the different types of cousins, including genetic kinship marked within boxes in red which shows the actual genetic degree of relationship (gene share) with 'self' in percentage (%).
Source: Gringer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Good luck, however, with feeling better about yourself if all you have to go on is your genes. Based on this evidence alone it isn't possible to look back in time for more than, say, five or six generations to pin down who may have given you some of your genes, or where they may have lived for long enough for them to call that place home.

So despite the claims of commercial DNA laboratories, ancestry is about what you have inherited sexually from others in the past and not much more than that when you try to look much further than a few generations back into the past.

But then what makes heritage different from ancestry?

Heritage Is Your Social Inheritance

 Henri Hayden, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, via Flickr
Gandalf's Gallery, Henri Hayden - Chess Players , 1913.
Source: Henri Hayden, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, via Flickr

If ancestry is about biology and genetics, then heritage is what we are taught by others about how to be human. What do I mean when I say this? Defined simply, your heritage is the ways and means of acting and thinking like a human being that you learn from others who are already knowledgeable and maybe even grand masters of those ways and means.

This definition of the word heritage makes it clearer, I think, how heritage is different from ancestry. Although the science of genetics nowadays is reportedly getting to the point where human beings can be customized in the laboratory even before they come out of the womb, we humans have little say in what we are like biologically. In contrast, the astonishing diversity of human customs, languages, and ways around the world testifies to how freely we humans invent our own ways and means, and then may work to pass those achievements down to our offspring... assuming that they need and want to listen to what we can offer them.

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