December 13, 2018

DNA Isn't Culture

“There’s an Ancestry ad where a man trades his lederhosen for a kilt. And another where a woman traces her ancestry to the matriarchal Akan people of Ghana to conclude, “When I found you in my DNA, I learned where my strength comes from.” And yet another where a man bonds with his Irish neighbor after finding out his own DNA is 15 percent Irish.

DNA, these marketing campaigns imply, reveals something essential about you. And it’s working. Thanks to television-ad blitzes and frequent holiday sales, genetic-ancestry tests have soared in popularity in the past two years. More than 15 million people have now traded their spit for insights into their family history.

If this were simply about wearing kilts or liking Ed Sheeran, these ads could be dismissed as, well, ads. They’re just trying to sell stuff, shrug. But marketing campaigns for genetic-ancestry tests also tap into the idea that DNA is deterministic, that genetic differences are meaningful. They trade in the prestige of genomic science, making DNA out to be far more important in our cultural identities than it is, in order to sell more stuff.

First, the accuracy of these tests is unproven (as detailed here and here). But putting that aside, consider simply what it means to get a surprise result of, say, 15 percent German. If you speak no German, celebrate no German traditions, have never cooked German food, and know no Germans, what connection is there, really? Cultural identity is the sum total of all of these experiences. DNA alone does not supersede it.”

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