Tracing Our Ancestors

Rick Kittles, the speaker at Tracing our Ancestors event, researches and studies genetics and analyzes genealogies from the scientific and social science perspectives.  It was interesting to learn that researching genealogy is currently the second largest Internet business, and 80% of the people searching for their personal history are African American.  Kittles attributes this loss of identity to the transplant of Africans to America often without family or culture.  There is a certain tension that arises any time genealogy is in question because it calls for the entanglement of society, history and genetics technology. I liked the way Kittles addressed a current issue with both the technology and scientific basis as well as a geographical, social, political and historical lens.

Genealogy can be traced using several methods that use different genetic information.  Polymorphisms, or the many patterns or forms of DNA , are created using combinations of some of 20,000 existing genes. Specifically,  Single Nucleotide Polyphormisms (SNP) which are particular changes in a single nucleotide base can be used to help trace ancestry.  Ancestry Informative Markers (AIM) found in genes are few but can also be ancestry informative.  Mitochondrial DNA which is passed on maternally can be used to provide further geological information.  The highest genetic variation is in Africa and it is widely believed that this is because people evolved from Africa and then migrated.  Some genetic variances are strict or even exclusive to continents, but all people share many genetic similarities.  Kittles in effect argues that people are so similar and so mixed that they are biologically indistinct.

In the United States, race is based on skin color and ancestry, but biology is so diverse that this skin deep assessment is not enough to truly draw racial distinctions.  America represents the convergence of diverse ancestors, rendering America a biological melting pot.  However, after hearing Kittles’s presentation, I agree that there have been socially imposed ethnic demarcations that make little sense biologically. I was surprised to hear that the highest genetic diversity is within African Americans- but this makes sense because many African Americans are of mixed blood, with a combination of African, European and even Native American background.  Only 500,000 African Americans originally came to the United States as slaves, however, that number has grown to 40 million African Americans, and colonizing European powers in their blood.   Though African Americans can have skin ranging from very dark to very fair, they are all considered, or consider themselves African American.  Kittles claims that the sociopolitical history, more than biology has shaped the current and historical understanding of race more than anything else.  Laws such as the anti- miscegenation law preventing the intermarriage of whites and blacks and rules such the one drop rule have helped define race in America.  The one drop rule seems completely irrational, yet it was a way to separate the fully white children who were to inherit their white father’s property from his other children he had with slave women.  The one drop rule is that any one with any African blood, even if they are primarily of European descent, is considered African American.

Demographics also plays a role in the tracing of ancestry.  Though we may believe many African Americans travelled from the South during the Great Migration, the greatest concentration still remains in the South where their ancestors were brought as slaves.  The same phenomenon is apparent in the Southwest United States with very high concentrations of Hispanics.  Hispanics like African Americans are lumped together based on appearance or language despite having very different genetic makeups, the Native American Hispanics are very different from Puerto Ricans, yet both are defined as Hispanic.  Our current definition of race has become so convoluted that it is advantageous to identify yourself with a race for personal gain; Kittles cites the recent claiming of Native American ancestry with the the social benefits that have recently arisen for Native Americans.

As Kittles proved with his own karyotype, a person can express the phenotypic characteristics of one race through only a few genes, though the other genes which determine other factors such as health could contain elements of different races. Kittles indicates that there may be further implications for genetic ancestry research.  His work shows that certain diseases or health risks can be traced through the different racial backgrounds and may be manifested at particular loci on genes.  From this presentation, it seems that our current concept of race is not nearly as comprehensive or even accurate as it could be if it had a biological, ancestral basis, rather than a visual basis.

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