Tracing Our Ancestors

With every major advancement in consumer electronics, a community of early adopters and fanatics seems to bubble up in its wake. The most recent of these is the “quantified self” movement, which makes use of newly-commercialized technologies like home DNA analysis kits and fitness tracking devices to make sense of the data our bodies provide.

Rick Kittles’ “Tracing Our Ancestors” lecture at the Chicago Humanities Festival conveyed the many benefits of these technologies with a focus on heritage. Kittles argues that sociological forces have caused a deep polarization of race—we think of ourselves as black, or white, but not 84% black, 12% white and 4% Pacific Islander. But with the help of DNA sequencing and a vast database of genealogical research, we can more accurately describe our racial heritage.

DNA analysis such as this relies on “ancestry informative markers,” or AIMs. A single-nucleotide polymorphism becomes an AIM when it is discovered to have greater frequency in the gene pools of geographically or racially delineated population. Scientists use these to make correlations between the genes of an individual and his or her heritage.

These findings can often be shocking. Just today I read a story about an American white supremacist who, after agreeing to a DNA analysis, discovered that his heritage was 86% European and 14% Sub-Saharan African. (I hope this brought about some soul-searching for him.) Others might be delighted to find that they’re 4% Choctaw (Native American), or 9% Thai.

Beyond novelty, large-scale DNA analysis is important for scientists’ understanding of human geography, and for our awareness of the melting pot that is world civilization. In light of this knowledge, it’s hard to see race as anything but a stifling social construct based on the physical expression of just a fraction of somebody’s alleles.

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