The Science of Knowing Who We Really Are

More ancestry testing leads people to discover a mixed bag of racial roots.

Posted:
 
178715713

Thinkstock

For nearly all of her life, Kathleen Carpenter had thought of herself as white, specifically, one-quarter German and three-quarters from the British Isles. But, after doing an Ancestry.com DNA test, the 70-year-old New Yorker now has an entirely new history that includes some North African DNA. In addition, her brother’s test showed a small percentage of West African DNA. Then came the Ancestry.com message from a black woman who also was using the website to search her roots: They were most likely cousins.

“I think we probably are cousins, just somebody someplace wasn’t so truthful about it,” Carpenter says.

Welcome to the new world of sophisticated DNA testing, where anyone with motivation, money and some free time can take part. This week, Carpenter and about 300 other people interested in genealogy came out for a panel discussion at the New-York Historical Society as part of the World Science Festival.

“It’s All Relatives: The Science of Your Family Tree,” was inspired by the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Of the desire to find ancestral roots, Gates says: “I think it’s because people feel so insecure with all the changes of post modernity, including the economic crisis, the crisis of cultures and of religions. I think people take comfort in identifying their own roots ... and I think that makes you more secure in the world.”

There is a case to be made for connecting with our past and our ancestors, which is how panelist CeCe Moore became involved. She calls herself a “citizen scientist” and also appears in Finding Your Roots. The big discovery for her family was that her brother-in-law, who thought his ancestry was Native American, is actually descended from Sally Hemings, the slave with whom President Thomas Jefferson had six children. It was a pivotal moment not only for her, but also for her blond-haired, blue-eyed niece, “who was excited to find out she was ‘black’,” says Moore. She sees a trend in the field of more “citizen scientists” getting involved and helping to expand the research.

science_festival
 Panelists Mark D. Shriver, Brenna Henn, CeCe Moore, Catherine Ball, and Randall Pinkston at the World Science Festival in NYC, May 29, 2014.

Christopher Farber for World Science Festival

Panelists were able to participate in an on-site genealogy study called ADAPT. It is the brainchild of geneticist Mark D. Shriver of Pennsylvania State University. He uses high-tech imaging to extrapolate genetic inheritance information based on facial features, skin color and hair texture. Shriver says the line of inquiry is important “because we need a better idea of how genes and the environment affect these traits.”  While his study will help predict the faces of our ancestors, it also has practical applications such as helping in forensic investigations.

Panel moderator and broadcast journalist Randall Pinkston was tested using ADAPT. “I’m looking forward to the results of my face,” said Pinkston. Beyond that, he said, it is important for more African Americans to discover their family trees, especially now that so much of the information is available online.

“I think these kinds of events and this kind of knowledge is important so that we can become more concerned about our history,”  he told The Root. “I have been concerned for decades about the failure of people to carry on family names. Not only that, but to make up names that may be meaningful to the parent at the time but that have no connection to anything in that family’s history. So, 100 years from now, you can’t figure out who was this child’s grandparents.”

Doris Withers was one of the few blacks in the audience. The 70-year-old said her mother began chronicling their family tree at least 30 years ago through the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Now, Withers is expanding on that research by incorporating genetic testing. She said she has used several DNA companies including Ancestry.com, 23andMe and African Ancestry, and found they all gave her similar results.

Cathy Ball, lead geneticist for Ancestry.com says differences in results among consumer companies that offer genetic predicting “are all about the algorithms and the underlying reference data used to make the predictions.” That is because the science is so advanced that “there is no true litmus test” that can pinpoint an exact percentage.