October 31, 2005

Brent Staples gazes at his genetic navel

The NYT editorial writer who is obsessed with his genealogy has ponied up for the DNAPrint Genomics racial admixture test (AncestryByDNA) and tells us about the results in "Why Race Isn't as 'Black' and 'White' as We Think:"

I've known all this for a long time, and was not surprised by the results of a genetic screening performed by DNAPrint Genomics, a company that traces ancestral origins to far-flung parts of the globe. A little more than half of my genetic material came from sub-Saharan Africa - common for people who regard themselves as black - with slightly more than a quarter from Europe.

The result that knocked me off my chair showed that one-fifth of my ancestry is Asian. Poring over the charts and statistics, I said out loud, "This has got to be a mistake."

That's a common response among people who are tested.

There's a reason for that: at the individual level, there are a lot of dubious results, as DNAPrint's own FAQ admits. Staples goes on:

Ostensibly white people who always thought of themselves as 100 percent European find they have substantial African ancestry. People who regard themselves as black sometimes discover that the African ancestry is a minority portion of their DNA. These results are forcing people to re-examine the arbitrary calculations our culture uses to decide who is "white" and who is "black."

Actually, although individuals with anomalous results get a lot of publicity (for example, back in 2002 I gullibly wrote up DNAPrint technical advisor Mark D. Shriver's claim to be 22% black even though he'd always though he was all white-- he has since retracted that), when you look at a large number of people, the vast majority turn out to be what they think they are. About 90% of people who call themselves African-American are at least half black by ancestry and practically nobody who calls himself white is over 10% African.

Staples daydreams:

Which brings me back to my Asian ancestry. It comes as a surprise, given that my family's oral histories contain not a single person who is described as Asian. More testing on other family members should clarify the issue, but for now, I can only guess. This ancestry could well have come through a 19th-century ancestor who was incorrectly described as Indian, often a catchall category at the time.

But, to be close to 20% Asian, Staples would need at least three of his 16 great-great-grandparents to have been full-blooded Asians passing, for inexplicable reasons, as American Indians (that would put him at 18.75% Asian). If the Asian genes came from just one part of his family tree, then one of his grandparents would have to be over 3/4th Asian, which would likely be noticeable..Considering how much he studies his family tree, the odds of this being true are remote.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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