The Essay: Our genetic awakening brings benefits and risks
Sometimes Moore’s clients don’t get the ancestral result they expect. They assume they are Irish, but the test says their DNA is more like that of a Russian Jew.
“This is just my experience,” Moore said. “It could be that people are drawn to testing who always felt like they didn’t fit in or always had a question in their mind, but the numbers are very high.”
Sometimes all that Moore can find out about a client is her general ancestry: a recent client discovered she was Mexican, which she had no idea was the case.
In fact, many people are dismissive of the idea of
exploring ethnic ancestry in the genome. There’s a fear that modern scientists, like the eugenicists of the early 20th century, are really looking for race in the genome and that it will be used against people. In fact, our collective DNA can help us correct the racist ideas that make people fear the biology of ancestry. Considering one’s own personal genome and the genome of friends and family makes it stupendously obvious that race is an imprecise and ultimately unhelpful notion in biology.
Everyone’s genome has been flavoured by the events of the past; some segments may be identifiably associated with certain populations, like the Y chromosomes that are typical of central Asia or the autosomal chunks that tend to occur in Africans or Australians.
Indeed, examining the way the genome moves through time and family trees makes it clear that there are no predetermined genetic or other physical divisions into which different human groups throughout space and time can be discretely assigned. Modern-day racists may wish to believe some DNA is more privileged than others, but nothing in the human genome can be explained by the age-old foils of racism, such as platonic intelligence or beauty or purity.
The genome doesn’t just tell us about history, it can tell us about our possible futures as well. We can learn about our risk for conditions that are affected by lifestyle, like Type 2 diabetes. People who find they are at greater risk for the disease may choose to build a lifestyle that lowers the risk.
When my husband and I had our genomes read, he found that he had a significantly higher than average risk for prostate cancer. You can’t lower the risk for prostate cancer in the same way you can for Type 2 diabetes, nevertheless the new piece of information opened his eyes.
Now, whenever he comes across a newspaper article about prostate cancer, instead of flicking past, he reads it. Slowly but steadily, he’s building a personal bank of knowledge about the disease. If he does end up having to deal with it, he’ll be much better equipped.
More and more, findings like these will come from genome wide association studies, where thousands of genomes are compared to one another and association between segments of DNA and health or conditions like autism spectrum disorder are found. Here, too, there is power in our collective genomes, and the more genomes that are in any one study, the wider the benefits. Of course, pharmaceutical companies realise this. The databases that genetic genealogy companies use to connect their clients with one another have lately become very valuable, and companies are opening them up to medical research or conducting that research themselves. Likewise, many governments have funded big projects to collect genomic data so as to illuminate the common genetic origins of disease. It seems that now is a good time to catch up on the genome and the benefits and risks of using its data.
Fortunately, there is no better way to teach some of these basic principles and ideas about risk and the connections between a single human node and the larger networks they belong to than through the ever-fascinating prisms of ourselves.
This essay includes modified excerpts from The Invisible History of the Human Race.