23andMe -- or Who? How DNA Testing Challenges Cultural Identity
One of the few truly non-digital innovations to enter the lives of consumers in the past few years is DNA testing, a technology that has expanded the voyage of self-discovery from the depth of our genes to the vast migration patterns of our distant ancestors. Like advertising generally, the ads for those products are a cultural mirror of powerful yearnings. If you watch TV, you’ve probably seen some. One 23andMe ad takes a captivating young woman, whose luminous face gleams with racial variety, from East Asia to the Middle East to West Africa to Scandinavia, where she meets all the cultural components of “100% Nicole”. That’s as good an excuse as any for what looks like a pretty terrific trip around the world. In an interesting contrast, Kyle, who had always thought of himself as German, is inspired by a tour of his Scottish DNA, courtesy of Ancestry.com, to “trade his Lederhosen for a kilt” when walking down the aisle. That seems like profound self-reinvention, not genetic destiny.
There are societies that make a fastidious practice of locating and documenting all members on the genealogical tree – many of the world’s tribal cultures, for instance, as well as European aristocracies. Though sharply divergent in many respects, what they have in common is a means of equipping people with a personal identity rooted in a clear historical context. Cultures that don’t provide that snug social fit, like our contemporary Western societies, leave us all with haunting questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we’re connected to others. The allure of Ancestry.com, even prior to the introduction of its DNA testing business, was an expression of that powerful longing. Now that we can reach so deeply into our genetic past, we are more interested in our distant forebears than in our posterity.
Genealogy used to be one of those slightly eccentric hobbies, available only to people from families with the luxury of baptismal records and “town hall” records – elusive for people like the Jews who lived on the run and on the margins of the larger social infrastructure. I’ve always craved a family history that could be traced farther back than the untrustworthy anecdotes of a few generations, and envied those with longer stories to tell. But the appeal of the distant past is clearly universal. None of us can help but marvel at how, against odds, we managed to get here, since so many other threads in the infinitely dense web of human origins have been cut forever. Dead ends everywhere, quite literally. Exploring our ancestry won’t answer the profound existential question that asks why some of us get to be born (and who else does not) but a sightline to our ancestry makes us feel less alone and somehow less accidental. Those people who are holding the ladder for us as we climb or descend into the future give us a sense of inevitability about the right to be here and the reason. Inventing a history from the data in our DNA soothes us by directing our gaze toward the door we were destined to enter rather than pointing us toward the exit
But DNA, while it may be destiny of a certain sort, is not culture. Culture is something we acquire from those around us, not from others who came centuries before. At a time when we are looking hard at what it means to accept people (hospitably or not) from another culture, it is interesting that the advent of DNA testing is encouraging us to think of our genes as the carriers of our culture, bestowing traditions – headgear or holidays -- like entitlements we can reclaim just because our DNA tells us we are 67% something, 33% something else. Kyle has little more claim on his kilt than I, a Jewish woman of Eastern European origins, have on a sari, even though I’d like to wear one sometime for the sheer fun of draping myself in another culture. Whatever Kyle’s genes say, his kilt is borrowed. And even if he has not a drop of German blood in him, he comes honestly by his Lederhosen. They were a gift to him from others who aimed to shape him with that gift, whatever misconceptions may have manufactured it. That gift of instruction is what culture really is. DNA testing is just another origin myth. It may be scientifically valid but from a cultural perspective, it is inauthentic.