Ancestry, what’s the trouble?

Having use ‘the trouble with ancestry’ as the subtitle of my recent book, Genetic Geographies: The Trouble with Ancestry, 2015, it is worth setting out what I mean by this.

It is well known that thousands of people spend a lot of time and money trying to find out about their ancestors. Interests in family history has grown and grown over the last decades as has genealogy has gone digital with huge amounts of data available online for free or for a fee. It has also gone genetic. Over the last fifteen years more and more companies offer on-line tests to provide information to customers about distant ancestry and places of origin.

This is paralleled, and often underpinned, by scientific efforts to know the timing and geography of human origins and early migration though studying patterns of human genetic variation across the world and in specific regions. Sometimes the focus is on a global family tree or the histories of settlement of specific places and the ancestral relationships between particular groups of people.

So what’s the problem? One response to this might be to simply say that there are better things for individuals or research institutes to spend time and money doing – paying attention to living people rather than the dead, addressing pressing issues about human welfare, inequality and the future of all living things on the planet. Of course one key argument for studying human genetic variation is its potential usefulness to biomedicine. The other is the value of collective self-understanding, of ‘knowing where we came from’. But with some exceptions, the medical benefits are all unfulfilled promises so far. So a lot rests then on the significance of knowing ‘our’ past.

And knowing about the past matters to people. Most people would agree about the value of historical knowledge in helping individuals and societies understand themselves. Ancestral knowledge also matters particularly to people who have lost that knowledge through the displacement or enslavement of their ancestors, or when ancestry is linked to political claims about rights to land and the survival of livelihoods for indigenous groups.

The trouble with ancestry is not about the focus on ancestors itself. It is about the particular models of ancestry and relatedness that are often at work in the ordinary genealogy, and that are routinely at work in genetic genealogy. These versions of relatedness are also found in the science of human genetic diversity that underpins these tests for ancestry and accounts of the origins and migration of early humans.

Genealogy, as a historical practice based on documents, involves compiling family trees that are as detailed and as accurate as possible. Family history is close and overlapping but allows more for stories, memories, interpretation, imagination and selectivity about emphasis and focus. Though this is often part of genealogy too, and these terms overlap, perhaps the rules of who and who is not a relative are more flexible in family stories than in family trees. The practice of relatedness is also much more flexible than rigid kinship categories: people who are unrelated in a conventional sense can be valued as relatives. Real relatives can fail to act like relatives or not be included in who counts as family. Families in practice are complex and variable social units.

But relatedness has to be genetic in genetic genealogy and human population genetics. This is logical since the focus is on patterns of genetic variation, similarity and difference that are shaped by human reproduction rather than relatedness as a social practice. But this matters given the way in which knowledge of personal and collective ancestry is given so much significance to ideas collective identity in the presentation of human population genetics and genetic genealogy.

What might seem to be a benign idea – that ancestry is a central to relatedness – has more troubling implications. If ancestry is meant to mean so much, does that imply that not sharing ancestry naturally differentiates people – that social closeness somehow naturally correlates with genetic closeness? If genealogical connections between people are meant to mean so much, does this suggest that there is no natural basis for senses of care between those who are not related or for people far away geographically, genealogically and genetically.

Of course an idea of humanity as a single family, sharing ancestors and ancient origins, can counter divisive ideas of difference especially race. But studies of human genetic variation are about variation not global sameness, about degrees and differentiated patterns of relatedness rather than generalised relatedness. If shared ancestry is figured as such a positive thing in terms of collective identity, could is not sharing much, or only very distantly in the past, be used as a natural explanation for antipathy or antagonism between groups?

It is rare for dangerous claims like this to be made directly but they are the logical implications of celebratory accounts of the discovery of shared ancestry between people or suggestions that collective identities have some basis in shared ancestry and genetic similarity. Ethnic and national groups are traditionally understood as being in some sense communities of shared descent but in practice are more flexible, dynamic and fluid than strictly genealogical.

Furthermore, genetic tests for ancestry, and the science that underpins them, depend on a process of producing human groups as ‘genetic clusters’ out of the tiny and geographically continuous pattern of genetic variation between people. They depend on naming those groups as if they are both natural units of genetic variation and cultural units – the Irish, or the European for example. This has the potential to suggest that collective identities and senses of belonging at different scales – local, regional or national, or continental – are based on shared ancestry. Issues of race, nation and ethnicity are all entangled here.

So in contrast to those who claim that human population genetics and genetic ancestry tests have the potential to undermine ideas of race, or exclusive versions of ethnicity of nation, my argument here and in Genetic Geographies is they are not the places to look for complex, subtle and simply better understandings of ancestry and relatedness.

the Irish, or the European for example. This has the potential to suggest that collective identities and senses of belonging at different scales – local, regional or national, or continental – are based on shared ancestry. Issues of race, nation and ethnicity are all entangled here.

So in contrast to those who claim that human population genetics and genetic ancestry tests have the potential to undermine ideas of race, or exclusive versions of ethnicity of nation, my argument here and in Genetic Geographies is they are not the places to look for complex, subtle and simply better understandings of ancestry and relatedness.

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