Tracing genetic identity can lead to resolution of uncertainty but can cause more problems than it solves. Will establishment of genetic identity be cohesive or divisive?
What can our genes tell us about who we are? The answer to that question depends on exactly what you want to know. In 1997, a Virginia pathologist and his colleagues used Y chromosome testing to corroborate (and in another case, fail to corroborate) the claims of families of African-Americans who believed themselves to be the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress, Sally Hemings.1 Researchers have used genetic testing to uncover evidence of genetic markers in the Lemba, a black southern African tribe whose oral history and customs have long suggested Jewish ancestry.2–4 In June 2002, the results of a genetic ancestry study were announced to a gathering of Melungeons,5 a “mixed ancestry” group in eastern Tennessee and Virginia6 whose ethnic origins have been clouded in mystery for centuries.7
Genetic ancestry tracing is not a purely academic exercise. A geneticist at Howard University has announced plans to offer commercial genetic ancestry tracing to African-Americans who want to trace their genetic lineage back to the areas of Africa from which their ancestors were captured and brought to America as slaves.8 The past few years have also seen the emergence of several commercial genetic testing ventures offering fee-for-service paternity testing, tests for evidence of Jewish ancestry, native American ancestry, or, in the case of Oxford Ancestors, a genetic connection to one of the so called “seven daughters of Eve.”9
- Genetic ancestry tracing is being used to decide claims about ethnic, political, familial, and religious identity
- While genetic ancestry tracing is becoming increasingly popular, its limitations make the information it reveals subject to misinterpretation
- The information about identity revealed by genetics must be weighed against other determinants of identity such as cultural determinants and historical narratives