Ethnicity Estimates and Goals

I recently watched what I thought was a really good piece from CBC Marketplace on Twins getting DNA tests in 2019. They test with several companies and get different ethnicity estimate results between the various companies and it appears that sometimes their results differ from each other within the same company. They also interview people on the street about whether DNA testing is science and if the ethnicity estimates are true or false. They also show the famous or infamous Ancestry commercial featuring a guy who thought his family was German but found out through DNA testing they were “Welsh or Scottish”. They present videos and commercials with people who got surprising and sometimes life-changing results. People whose identity is changed as a result of these tests.

CBC Marketplace interviews some of the companies about their differing results and a professor about ancestry testing in general. In 20 plus minutes, they do a good job of explaining that your Ethnicity Estimate results are only as good as the company’s sampling around the world, that your results will change over time as sampling gets better, and that these are only estimates. In the end, stressing that this is science entertainment and your cultural affinities are not tied to DNA. So if you grew up in a first nation as part of Native American culture and it turns out you were adopted from a Polish family, sure…look up Poland and learn about that, but you’re still Native culturally at the end of the day. That’s your culture. You get culture from your family and community and even your own interests…but not from DNA.

I’ve done several posts myself comparing ethnicity estimates, watching them change, and seeing how they are different for myself and between my family members. Based on my own experience, I agree, ethnicity estimates are fun and sometimes useful, but not necessarily definitive.

Overall, I thought it was a great message, but I also had this nagging feeling that their piece was short enough and so focused on ethnicity as the end goal, that it could be a bit misleading.

Short Attention Spans, and Easy Answers

DNA story graphic 44 percent England an Northwestern Europe, 28 Percent Scotland
My DNA Story Estimate Pie Chart this year

Take the Ancestry commercial. It does seem like they’re saying DNA made Kyle say “Goodbye Lederhosen, Hello Kilt”. It is also unfortunate that Kyle would give up what is portrayed to be a long-standing family tradition so easily. You would expect that they have friends and family in the German community that would not be so easy to leave behind. Kyle gets an easy answer and makes sweeping life changes, quickly. He’s Scottish now.

But that is not exactly what the Ancestry commercial is saying.

Kyle, in the commercial, is not finding any German relatives in his family tree. The scenario presented is that he’s doing research first and then gets a DNA test when his research doesn’t match his expectations. He gets to a point in his paper trail research and says…where are all the Germans?

The question that Ancestry’s commercial doesn’t answer, but should, is did Kyle’s DNA ethnicity results better resemble what he found in his research?

If you’ve read any of my past postings about my aunt, you may remember that I was surprised by her large Irish ethnicity estimate at 23 and me (and also at Ancestry DNA). It seemed clear that she was getting a large Irish component that I could not place. Once we used DNA to find her real paternal genetic family among the Roberts, I could easily see that her grandmother was an immigrant from Ireland. The estimates of “Irishness” varied between companies, but they weren’t bogus.

Ancestry DNA ethnicity estimate for cheryl 41% England and Northwestern Europe, 31% Scotland 28% Ireland with an affinity for Munster and Cork.
Ancestry DNA ethnicity estimate for cheryl 41% England and Northwestern Europe, 31% Scotland 28% Ireland with an affinity for Munster and Cork.

When looking at Robert families that I had identified by slogging through segment matching people from Quebec and the U.P., I wondered how these DNA companies were coming up with a really high Irish component when all I was finding were French people and confusion. The amounts were so enormous and found broadly enough between companies that they warranted some explanation.

Ancestry compostion from 23 and me for Cheryl. 81% British and Irish with an affinity for Cork.
Ancestry compostion from 23 and me for Cheryl. 81% British and Irish with an affinity for Cork.

In the end, they are best interpreted through the lens of the other real work I did to identify her paternal family. Now, having done my homework, her ethnicity estimates better resemble what I found in my research and that gives them some more weight.

My aunt’s grandmother Mary Bayhan’s parents were both immigrants from Ireland.

Of course, it helped my research that her 2nd cousin in the Robert family had a test and then they had her first cousin tested, but watching the ethnicity begin to make sense and that puzzle piece fit, almost uniquely, in this single family was amazing. The ethnicity estimate was “more right” than I knew.

DNA testing is a “long game” and it’s hard to cover the nuances of a long game in a 30-second commercial or a 20-minute consumer journalism piece.

While I share the frustration expressed by CBC Marketplace with DNA company marketing that promises easy magical answers without you (the consumer) having to do any work, I think focusing solely on ethnicity estimates as the goal of DNA testing, and marking DNA testing as Science Entertainment, is also misleading and catering to short attention spans in a different way.

What Are Your Goals?

Culture is not tied to DNA although sometimes they go hand in hand. I know many people who love cultures they were not born into, no blood quantum required. Being raised in a culture always trumps DNA. If your DNA causes you to learn more about a culture, great. If you love a culture but don’t have the DNA to back it up, great, you go ahead and keep on loving.

The value you get from your DNA testing and whether it’s entertainment or serious business should map to your goals.

If you’re looking for a quick way for DNA to assign you a fun culture, then you’re in the realm of Science Entertainment. My advice is to stick to the big numbers like 45% British Isles. That’s a big amount, there’s probably some validity to it. When you get into the weeds, things get weirder. That 2% Middle Eastern may swap over to 1% North African down the line. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Try out some themed restaurants and learn some language, maybe appreciate some art or history and travel. There’s nothing wrong with that. You just have to know what you’re buying and that it is not 100% accurate. The broad brush strokes are probably real enough for some edutainment, the fine details…maybe not so much.

If your interest is in tracing your family and you find 56% Western European or 90% African to be accurate, but unfulfilling, you’re probably ready for some science work. Dig into your paper trail and then return to DNA to find repeating families among your larger (and closer) matches. Try to pin matches to your paper trail family. Test your parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins to get direction and compare to yourself. Work on segment mapping and triangulation to find out which segments of DNA belong to which family. You will probably uncover some genuine mysteries and may find interesting answers, but it will take some time and effort to put together the puzzle that is you. I think you’re worth it. We all are. Everyone deserves to know these things about themselves.

DNA testing is a tool kit you can use along with other tool kits like historical records and even family stories, to learn more about you. Ethnicity estimates are one part of the DNA tool kit and I would say that they’re not the best tool in the arsenal. They’re like that weird little toothpick in the swiss army knife, sometimes useful, but clearly not the best part. If you only focus on ethnicity then I feel like you’re missing out on an opportunity to do more and learn more.

Our Ethnicity Estimates

You can see my comparisons of ethnicity estimates at different times with various family members, along with a comparison of a friend from Britain (and the specificity he has regionally in the isles that I don’t have) in 2020 here: Ancestry Composition, Origins, Ethnicity Estimates…Oh My

You can see the difference in my old 2011 ethnicity estimates here: Genome Analysis

As a side note, where I feel that Ancestry DNA is making great gains for European Americans in ethnicity estimates and Locational DNA is in their “Communities” feature. I say European Americans because all the tests I have access to fall into that category or straight European. Communities require special permission and access to an ancestry DNA test. I have several African American relatives that I suspect will share the Ohio River Valley/Northern Blue Ridge Mountain DNA with me through my Finks family and their part in slavery in the U.S., but I haven’t seen their full communities report.

Here is an update for me in 2021. I gained two more specific communities:

Ancestry DNA communities featuring Early Connecticut and New York Settlers and Eastern Ohio River Valley and Northern Blue Ridge settlers.
Ancestry DNA communities featuring Early Connecticut and New York Settlers and Eastern Ohio River Valley and Northern Blue Ridge settlers.

As another point of interest. My aunt’s ethnicity estimates, likely because of bans on genetic testing in France, barely register her Quebec roots, but they shine through in Communities with featured genetic matches:

Cheryl's communities showing Southwestern Quebec, New York and Vermont French Settlers.
Cheryl’s communities showing Southwestern Quebec, New York and Vermont French Settlers.

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