Where I work at Zayed University, I am struck by the length of students’ names when they sign up for registration. When I crunched the numbers, the average student had 35 letters in their name; the longest was 55 characters long. These names reflect Emirati naming conventions and the importance Arab culture places on ancestry. I know at least one student who can list the names of her direct male ancestors going back to the seventh century.
Driven by advances in DNA testing and the advent of cheap, home-testing kits, the past few years have seen a surge of global interest in ancestry. In the UK last year, DNA kits emerged as surprisingly popular Christmas gifts. Genetic-testing kits broke sales records worldwide, with the company Ancestry announcing it had sold 14 million kits and another firm, 23andMe, passing the five-million customer mark. Figures from Global Market Insights show the genetic testing market is set to pass $22 billion in the next five years.
The tests are relatively inexpensive, costing as little as $20 and involve sending a swab or saliva sample to a laboratory. For that, DNA-testing companies promise to tell you where your ancestors lived more than 500 years ago, narrowing it down to percentages of your genetic make-up based on 1,000-plus regions around the world, with the database and accuracy supposedly increasing as more people sign up.
As loneliness reaches epidemic proportions in some nations, the prospect of discovering a new extended family might seem particularly appealing, especially if the existing one is not particularly reliable. Many of the websites associated with these for-profit genotyping services throw up people who are a strong genetic match to us, from distant cousins to our direct biological relatives. Some firms provide names and contact details for possible connections, which can lead to happy circumstances and meetings.
The results of these tests also promise to give us validation about where we come from and give us a sense of belonging. They can feed our basic human need for identity and a sense of being part of a wider community. This feeling of belonging is particularly important for our wellbeing as being part of a social group is associated with longevity and improved health. As Alexander Haslam, a professor of psychology renowned for his work on social identity, writes in Applied Psychology: "Social identities and the notions of 'us-ness' that they embody and help create are central to health and wellbeing."
There are scores of studies supporting this idea. The stronger the sense of belonging to valued social groups, the better the outcome for conditions such as depression, heart disease, stroke and more. The “belonging effect” has led to talk of a “social cure” – the idea that joining a group activity or club can boost your health and wellbeing. Groups based on nationality or ethnicity can be a source of giving this sense of belonging, with the DNA test results giving us a ticket to join in, on a biological level at least.
But what if we discover that, genetically speaking, we don’t belong? What if the test results reveal some shattering secret, such as casting doubts on our parentage or ethnicity, or that we are adopted, or that our siblings are not who we thought they were? The results of such tests could potentially destabilise us, undermining our concept of who we are, with attendant negative implications for our health.
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There is a danger, too, that for those inclined to believe in the supremacy of one particular race or nationality, the results could breed racism or exclusion. A panel will discuss the link between genetics and identity in a talk next month in New York University Abu Dhabi, posing the critical question: is such science racist? And an article published last year in Sapiens by anthropologist John Terrell criticised DNA tests for reintroducing and reinforcing outdated concepts of race and ethnicity. He argued that the idea of race was a discredited invention of the human mind and while substituting it for terms like "ancestry" or "heritage" might sound progressive, it wasn't in reality. To underline his point, he described how some white supremacist groups were using DNA tests to push dangerous notions of "racial purity".
Dr Terrell went further by pointing out that while you and the generations preceding you might have lived in one place for a long time, that did not necessarily mean you were genetically representative of that place. Genes can travel and it makes no sense to have a report telling you, for example, that you are 30 per cent British and 5 per cent Norwegian when we live in such a diverse, globalised world, where there is no clear definition of what it means to be deemed genetically “British” or “Norwegian”. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. Indeed, if you go back far enough, Britain itself was invaded by the Romans, Germans, Vikings and Swedes. As Dr Terrell says: “Go back more than a few thousand years and you are genealogically related to almost everyone on Earth.”
For most people, however, the results are mundane, telling them exactly what they already knew. DNA tests are not going to help us discover that we are the long-lost descendants of Cleopatra or Alexander the Great.
For the majority of people eagerly sending off their samples and waiting for their spit to be analysed, I suspect these kits represent a harmless diversion, a benign expression of curiosity about our connections to places and the past. Like the students in my class with long lineages, knowing our personal histories can help us better appreciate who we are and how we got here. Ultimately though, a more profound sense of connection comes through our interactions with people in our present. It is psychology rather than biology that connects us. Sharing stories is far more important than sharing DNA when it comes to meaningful and fruitful human relationships.
As the poet and political activist Muriel Rukeyser said: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” It is through telling and retelling stories that we gain and give a better understanding of the universe and our connection to it.
Dr Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University