What impact will DNA testing have on your life?

Some people expect that when they send a cheek swab off for DNA analysis, the results they get will be the final answer to a specific question: will I get cancer, who were my ancestors, is this man the father of my child?

Let's assume for the moment that the tests have no false positives, false negatives, or technical complications that put the data in question. The results come in and you have an "answer". Did you think ahead of time about what the answer will mean to your life?

If you considered the answer to be a part of a much larger whole, that must fit together and be rational, then you are more likely to be satisfied with the answer you received and behave in a reasonable way.

I received in my Google alerts today an article from the Hartford Courant, my hometown newspaper. It was called, The DNA Path To Identity, and was written by Frank Harris III. As you could see from his photo Mr. Harris is black. What you can't see is what his DNA test told him, in his words:

In my case, my DNA markers matched definitively with those of the Ibo people in Nigeria and the Kimbundu people, also known as Mbundu, in Angola.

Mr. Harris approached his DNA test with an open mind and a clear intent to select as accurate a test as possible. He chose a company that focused on African Americans and investigated the company, its capabilities, and its do-director. After paying his money and receiving his test kit, Mr. Harris sent it and and received results:

The results were contained in a brownish folder that opened up to reveal the words "African Ancestry" in a pyramid. There was a cover letter from company president Paige. It said: "It is with pleasure that I report that our PatriClan analysis successfully identified your paternal genetic ancestry. The Y chromosome DNA sequence that we determined from your sample shares ancestry with the Ibo people in Nigeria and the Kimbundu people in Angola."

There followed specific scientific data related to polymorphisms, which are different forms of DNA. Along with the packet of information was a copy of my Y chromosome polymorphisms, a certificate of ancestry authenticating that my polymorphisms matched with the two groups of people. There was also a full-color map that illustrated my ancestral origins, along with an "African Ancestry Guide to West and Central Africa" that describes the countries and the people. I had expected to have just one country and one people, but was told that "while the groups differ socially and culturally there are people within them who share a common genetic ancestry."

Now, how does he fit these results into his life?

All of this leads to more questions about identity. Instead of being a black- or African-American, am I now a Nigerian-American or an Angolan-American? Or am I, more accurately, a Nigerian-Angolan-American? These questions stem just from having my paternal lineage checked. What would my maternal lineage reveal? Should I acquire this knowledge and what it reveals, there will still remain much I do not know.

So, he continues the other ways in which he is tracing his heritage, because:

Any knowledge of my family tree pertaining to nation of origin and ethnicity is incomplete without names, dates and specific places.

Mr. Harris, I think, is different from many parents. Rather than fighting the teachers who assigned the "find your heritage" projects for his daughters, he thought of creative ways to help them and--even though the results of his DNA test did not form part of his younger daughter's project, she did well. He comments on the teachers this way:

And as to these projects that spark such uncomfortable feelings, I don't fault the teachers for assigning them. Knowing one's origins can instill pride and be an important way to study history and learn respect for other cultures, as well as one's own. But in this quest for identity and affirmation that all groups have, it is important to recognize that finding the country of one's origins is still a particularly arduous task for blacks.

It is also important for teachers to recognize this as a rich teaching opportunity to show the similarities and differences between students. It is an opportunity to shed light on the larger role that slavery and race have played in shaping American history and cutting off the lights to a specific African connection - not only for blacks with deep American roots, but also blacks with roots in the Caribbean who would face similar challenges if asked to name the country in Africa that they were from and the ethnic people from whom they are descended.

In commenting on the man from the PBS African-American series, he writes:

I was skeptical about those results, since this man looked more black - albeit light-skinned - than white or Asian. But I knew that DNA analysis has shown that all humans have more in common in our biological composition on the inside than the physical differences on the outside. I also knew race was a sociological definition more than a biological one. In addition, I knew years ago geneticists had traced the first original human species on Earth to a woman in Africa.

You can read the full article at http://www.courant.com/news/local/northeast/hc-dna0219.artfeb19,0,1387989.story?page=3&track=mostemailedlink

Marie Godfrey, PhD

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