September 21, 2019

DNA Kits Are the Emperor's New Clothes

“Most people remember the emperor: a vain ruler, swindled into paying for a nonexistent magical garment, parades in public, only to be embarrassed by a little boy. To me, the story is really about the swindling tailors. Audacious, imaginative, their true product is a persuasive illusion, one keyed to the vulnerabilities of their target audience. In contemporary terms, the story is about marketing; and as such, the tale is tailor-made for an examination of genetic ancestry tests, because these too are sold with expert persuasion, with promises woven from our hopes, our fears, and the golden thread of DNA.

With these new tests, as in Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th-century tale, a gap yawns between the promise and the reality – and now and then, as in the story, someone says so in the public square. For example, when Phil Rogers, a reporter in Chicago, tried out home DNA test kits from competing companies last year, he discovered contradictory results. So did the Canadian reporter Charlsie Agro and her twin sister Carly, who mailed spit samples to 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage and LivingDNA. As with Rogers, the companies gave different histories – Balkan ancestry, for example, ranged from 14 to 61 per cent – but 23andMe actually reported different scores for each twin. (According to the company, Charlsie has French and German ancestors, while Carly does not.)

The tests are sold with variations on a single pitch: find your story. The companies don’t mention that the story might shade into fiction, or that stories can conflict. The evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas at University College London has dismissed ancestry testing as ‘genetic astrology’, but it could be as useful to think of it as genetic gossip: a rumoured past that, like most rumours, is at least partly true. It begins with a test-tube of spit and ends with fractional estimates: a story, whispered by an algorithm, in the language of information.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Picks

"Blackface. I’ve been writing about, and researching – and opposing – racism for more than thirty years. And make no mistake: blackface isn’t funny. It’s racist. Ask Megyn Kelly. A year ago, the former Fox News star was filming a segment about..."

"Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s “selfie line” may be a “political phenomenon,” according to CNN, but it’s also a misnomer, twice over: The photos that supporters end up with aren’t technically selfies—campaign aides snap them—and no one waits in a line..."

"In the archives of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, there is an old postcard from the city aquarium of a large sea turtle with four boys straddling its back. The turtle lies flattened upon a pathway in front of a fence. At the feet..."

"As we celebrated my granddaughter’s third birthday this summer, I made the following rough calculation: I’d trekked from my home in New Jersey to her Brooklyn apartment roughly 150 times to provide once-a-week day care, plus other times as needed."

"That seems to be the emerging bipartisan consensus. “On the evidence we have, the meritocratic ideal ends up being just as undemocratic as the old emphasis on inheritance and tradition,” writes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. “Our..."

"It was the 2019 Pet Sematary that finally broke me. Was this really necessary? I seethed in a theater earlier this year, at a loss for why anyone would green light a self-serious update to a 30-year-old so-bad-it's-good movie. "Update," even, was.."

"Tuesday was election day in Israel. But no winner has yet been declared. As of this writing, it appears that the parties committed to supporting Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister will not win a majority in Knesset. At the same time, the..."

"The last time Netflix asked me “Are you still watching?” I had to think really hard about it. Was I still watching? Or at least enough to make my $16-a-month payment worth it? The subscription economy can be a wonderful thing. We don’t have to..."