DNA tests have become increasingly popular. Can they really reveal your genetic heritage?
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Kim stands in front of a large, white door, the white buttons of her blue blouse a striking contrast. She says something many have felt: “I wanted to know who I am and where I came from.” She took a DNA test and was shocked when her results revealed 26 percent Native American heritage.
Another commercial shows Kyle, a middle-age man with perfectly combed salt-and-pepper hair standing next to a table with a pair of beer steins.
“Growing up we were German,” he states emphatically. The next scene shows him dancing in his lederhosen. His pie chart then comes on the screen showing he is 52 percent Irish, Welsh and Scottish. He trades his lederhosen for a kilt.
These advertisements are everywhere and come with a myriad of promises. Here are a few more…
One claims: “Imagine a DNA test could reveal as much about your future as your past…Because knowing where you came from is one thing, but knowing where you could go, that’s power.”
Another shows an unnamed everywoman sitting at a comfortable, old-fashioned home. The voice-over states: “When you’re a mother, you don’t have the luxury of ignoring important things.” The health results she received allowed her to know what precautionary steps she could take to ensure she remained there for her family.
Yet another encourages viewers to “go beyond your vital signs and monitor the vitality of your cells.”
People want to know where they came from and what diseases or disorders they may have or may pass down. DNA tests promise to deliver this information yet come with a bevy of problems. How can you know for sure what is your heritage?
About 30 companies offer direct-to-consumer DNA tests in North America, China, Europe, East Asia, the Middle East and South America.
The desire to know where we came from is especially prevalent in America, which is referred to as “the melting pot” because so many people came from all over the world and intermarried. In addition, many people who came to the U.S. were illiterate or running away from something. They left their history behind and so many Americans do not really know from where—or whom—they come.
This is driving more to turn to DNA tests. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimated that by the beginning of 2016 about 2.6 million home DNA tests had been purchased in the United States. That number nearly doubled to 4.5 million by the start of 2017 and to 10.7 million by 2018. A large marketing push in the fall of 2018 grew the total number to an estimated 26.5 million tests by the beginning of 2019. Analysts expect the trend to continue to over 100 million tests by 2021.
Commercials encourage people to “uncover the lost chapters” of their history. During the high tension of the U.S.-Mexico border wall debate, one airline even ran commercials advertising discounts based on the results.
Some DNA testing companies will also let you search for relatives you may have not known about. If someone was an orphan, an adoptee, abandoned, a child refugee, or lost contact with their family for any other reason, such services can reconnect them even generations later. Companies that combine a person’s DNA results with a researched family genealogy can even specify from what region of a country a person comes.
But wait, there is more! These services offer more than just your racial and ancestral genetic profile. Genetic markers can show whether you will hate cilantro, smell asparagus, drink more caffeine than others, have wet or dry earwax, lose your hair, be more attractive to mosquitos, be intolerant to gluten and have a unibrow. They can reveal whether you could develop serious diseases like diabetes, cancer, nerve and heart damage. You can learn if you carry the genes that may pass diseases on to children or grandchildren even if you never develop them yourself.
DNA testing is also instrumental in catching criminals. In 2018, police uploaded a DNA sample from the so-called Golden State Killer to one of the largest sites. The investigators found around 15 distant relatives and were able from that to build a family tree to their great-great-great grandparents. Through standard police work, they reduced the list of suspects to only two, and finally matched the sample with another DNA sample from trash outside the second suspect’s home.
In April of 2018 police arrested the man, a former police officer, believed to be responsible for at least 12 murders and possibly 45 rapes between 1974 and 1986.
The DNA work allowed for further discoveries: During the following 5 months, another 30 murderers, rapists and victims’ bodies were identified.
Sampling DNA seems to have great potential to help individuals and organizations. But due to its limitations it cannot be an answer-all solution.
For one, all humans have remarkably similar DNA. The 1000 Genomes Project sequenced the DNA of 1,000 people from 26 different populations and found that people only differ in 4.1 to 5 million different sites that affect 20 million base pairs. While this sounds like a large number, it represents only 0.6 percent of the human genome, and that is the high end of estimates. Most estimates put human differences at only 0.1 to 0.4 percent.
Identical twins come from a single fertilized egg and should have nearly identical DNA. If a set of identical twins sent their DNA samples to a genetic testing company, then the results coming back should also be nearly identical. In January of 2019, the host of a Canadian Broadcast Company television show and her identical twin sister sent their DNA samples to five different direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies to test the theory.
The twins expected to see very close results from each company. Instead, they received 10 distinctly different profiles, differing by as much as 19 percent from the same company!
Each testing company has its own proprietary methods for sampling the DNA and what markers they look for, which is why the results varied so widely.
When testing companies process a DNA sample, they can only test a certain amount. One of the largest companies will process a sample 40 times to test 600,000 variations—which is only 14 percent of the possible variations discovered by the 1000 Genomes Project—and report the average as a person’s definitive makeup. Perhaps this explains the differences the twins found.
Companies also draw the regions they claim people come from differently. Combine this with a relatively small population sample to draw from and the results can be haphazard. Greater clarity may only come as more populations in source regions are sequenced, but even that presents problems. People have been migrating for a very, very long time. When a group comes into an area and settles, do they become indigenous or are they always foreigners? If they intermarry, whose genetic line takes precedence?
In addition, DNA testing services can only provide limited health screening. Only two to three of the over 1,000 potential genetic variations that lead to breast cancer are looked at. Two out of every 100 people with one of these variations has a 45-80 percent chance of a breast cancer diagnosis—if they are of Ashkenazi Jew descent. If they are not, then the likelihood is less than 12 percent for the 1 out of 1,000 with the mutation. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves these tests for general use, but that does not mean these tests are clinically useful.
All this information about a person comes with a significant warning. If you can find the people to whom you are related, then your relatives can find you too. A study published in the November 9, 2018, edition of the journal Nature estimated that every American has on average around 850 relatives that share a common great-great grandparent. The study also projected that 60 percent of DNA searches of all Americans of European descent would result in a third cousin match or closer. These searches when coupled with demographic data such as approximate age and home address would mean that a search like this could implicate nearly any person in the U.S. of European descent.
The four largest DNA testing companies all stated they would not let police search their databases without a warrant. The smallest of the four, however, quietly changed its terms of service to allow the FBI to upload DNA from crime scenes and search for near relatives. Everyone who uses these services is subject to these changes without notification.
If we cannot trust DNA samples to prove beyond a doubt who we are, what or whom can we trust?
Nations are families grown large. The Bible shows how all of the Earth’s nations came from one family.
Adam and Eve, Bible readers may say?
This is true, but there is more to the story. All modern peoples would have come from Noah and his three sons—who along with their wives were the only ones left to repopulate the Earth after the Flood (Gen. 7).
Noah and his family began to repopulate the planet after they left the ark. Genesis 10 describes how these families would become the nations and peoples alive today.
As cities thrived, people began to rebel against God, which led to the Flood that earlier destroyed the entire globe save Noah. Instead of spreading across the Earth as God instructed after the Flood (Gen. 9:1), the people said, “let us make us a name [a position or mark of individuality], lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (11:4).
Verse 1 tells the people at the time were “of one language, and of one speech” during the early post-Flood world. They gathered their resources and congregated in one place so they could build a tower that would reach the clouds.
Displeased with their rebellion, God caused people to speak in different languages. He understood that with a single language, “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (vs. 6)—and those imaginations tend to be evil (8:21).
When the languages changed, people congregated with those they could understand and moved together into different regions of the Earth.
The families that descended from Noah’s son Ham spread to the south into Africa and parts of the Middle East. The families of Japheth went to the east and north into Asia, Oceania and the Americas (note Genesis 10:5 says the sons of Japheth took many islands and coasts, implying they sailed to those regions).
The families of Shem stayed in the Mesopotamian plain or spread north into western Asia and Europe.
The patriarch Abraham, one of Shem’s descendants, was promised to “be a father of many nations” (17:4). In Genesis 48, Abraham’s grandson Jacob had 12 sons who each became one of the 12 tribes of Israel. At the end of his life, Jacob blessed two of his own grandsons with an amazing birthright promise (vs. 16).
His blessing was that these two children would become a nation and a company of nations. The single nation would be the greatest nation ever and the company of nations would be even greater.
God’s Word clearly identifies who these peoples are today, as well as all of Abraham’s descendants. It also shows what God has in store for them in the coming years.
To learn more about this amazing story—and where you truly come from—read America and Britain in Prophecy.