Here the tenuous connection between meaningful relatedness and biological relatedness becomes helpful. There is almost nothing biological there, but the cultural associations of DNA give these data the appearance of familial association, of science, of reality.
The mtDNA similarity is symbolically powerful in spite of being biologically trivial in this context. The intersection of that symbolic power with the free market has created a hybrid nature for the science of human population genetics: partly derived from Watson and Crick, that is to say, from molecular genetics; and partly derived from P. T. Barnum, that is to say, from the fellow who said epigrammatically, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Suppose there were a scientific test that allowed you to identify all of your family members and distinguish them from people to whom you were not related? You might find distant relatives you never knew you had; you might find that you are descended from someone noteworthy; you might find something exotic, romantic, interesting, or even admirable in your DNA.
You might even be able to fill in gaps in your self-identity and find out who you “really” are and where you “really” come from. That is, after all, the source of a classic dramatic arc, from Oedipus to Skywalker.
But what would such a test entail? After all, heredity is probabilistic.
You have, on the average, 25% of your DNA from each of your grandparents. Or more to the point, any bit of any grandparent’s DNA has a 25% chance of showing up in your genome. Consequently, you may not necessarily match any specific bit of your grandfather’s DNA since you have three other grandparents and only two sets of DNA.
Moreover, since you are related to every other human being, there is no qualitative break between your family members and nonrelatives that a genetic test could detect. That is the “constructedness” of human kinship systems: some people are defined as relatives and some people are not, regardless of their biological relationships. The only kind of test that can reliably sort people into your relatives and your nonrelatives would be a magic test.
In America, hardly any social fact can be understood outside the historical context of slavery. One modern legacy is the obliteration of the pre-slavery ancestry of African Americans. But what if your DNA matched that of an African tribe? Would that not provide a grounding in African soil and establish African kin? For a few hundred dollars, that service is now provided.
One pioneering company’s website “allows you to reconnect to your ancestral past—easily, accurately and profoundly” and will “connect your ancestry to a specific country in Africa and often to a specific African ethnic group.” And there is no doubt that it does what it promises—it connects black Americans to black Africa. But of course, that is a sloppy term— “connects”—sounding as if it has profound biological meaning, when the profound connection it provides may be more emotional than genetic.
After all, of the literally thousands of genetic ancestors you had 12 generations ago—say, about the year 1700—mtDNA is connecting you with only one. On the other hand, isn’t that better than nothing?
Well, when you consider the fact that all of these mtDNA forms are polymorphic— that is to say, varying within any population; and that the sampling of Africans is very poor, you have to begin to wonder whether a mitochondrial DNA match to a Yoruba may actually be worse than nothing. Being biologically meaningless, yet mimicking a hereditary identity, the mtDNA match might well be giving you a false identity in the name of science.
As the classic 1973 film “The Sting” showed clearly, the best scams are the ones in which the victim does most of the work. You give them the dots, and they connect them—to your advantage. In this case, the clients are paying for science and are getting it. They are getting accurate DNA results and true matches. The companies certify the match, and allow their clients to make the meaningful “connection.”
Testimonials vouch for the lives thereby changed, and why shouldn’t they? The only problem might be if you confuse them for scientific evidence.
Ultimately this essay is not intended as a public service or a whistle-blowing venture. Nothing illegal or even necessarily immoral is going on. Instead, this is an illustration of the way in which science has changed during our lifetimes. Science and, in particular, genetics may never have been “pure” but until quite recently it never had to compete seriously with the profit motive for its public credibility.
In short, this isn’t your grandfather’s genetics.