Who do they think I am?
Once upon a time, when The Legal Genealogist was a very small girl,1 the Hot New Toy for the Christmas season was a particularly frilly baby doll. Blue eyes, short blond curls, frilly baby clothes, the works.
That was the year when I didn’t care much what all I got for Christmas … as long as one package, any one package, contained that doll.
And that was the year when my mother didn’t get the Sears order in anywhere near early enough and, by the time she ordered, the doll that was left — the doll that ended up in my stack of gifts — was a Raggedy Ann.
Now don’t get me wrong. In a family the size of mine, any gift is a good gift. And a Raggedy Ann is a very fine doll, one that at another time perhaps would have been loved and treasured.
But to my five- or six-year-old self, it was a bitter disappointment.
That pretty much sums up my personal reaction to the new AncestryDNA Ethnicity Estimates that were rolled out to the first group of customers on Thursday.
Because, you see, many of the people included in that first group — all customers will see the new estimates within the next month or so — they got the baby doll.2
Me… I got Raggedy Ann.
Unlike many AncestryDNA customers who thought their old ethnicity estimates were way off, I thought my old ones were probably pretty close, except for what I thought was a high estimate of Scandinavian since I have no known Scandinavian ancestry. They seemed to reflect pretty well my 50% German ancestry from my father and my mother’s more mixed but largely British and Scots-Irish (not Irish, mind you, but Scots-Irish, which isn’t Irish at all) heritage.
The new estimates… well…
So… okay… where did my Germans go? And where did all those blankety-blank-blank Scandinavians come from? And why, oh why, is everybody else getting ethnicity estimates that more closely approximate their known ancestry — and I’m getting estimates that are farther away from mine?
Why does National Geographic’s Geno 2.0 say the population I most closely resemble in today’s world is the German population — and AncestryDNA shows me with just a trace amount of DNA from what it now calls Europe West (Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein)?
Why does 23andMe report much higher percentages of French and German, and much lower percentages of Scandinavian, no matter which level of analysis I look at there?
And beyond the German-or-Scandinavian results issue, why does 23andMe say it can detect trace amounts of Sub-Saharan African in my ancestry — and AncestryDNA says the African it’s picking up is from the Saharan region (called Africa North: Morocco, Western Sahara, Algeria, Libya)?
Now I’ve carefully read the Ethnicity Estimate White Paper dated 4 September 2013 that AncestryDNA offers to its customers who see the new results.3 It explains, carefully and in detail, how each of our DNA samples is compared to those of what are called reference populations: groups of people from specific geographic areas whose pedigree establishes that their great grandparents, grandparents and parents were also from those specific geographic areas.
And there are parts of this White Paper we all need to remember:
• “When considering AncestryDNA estimates of genetic ethnicity it is important to remember that our estimates are, in fact, estimates.”
• “(I)n genetic ethnicity estimation, we are attempting to estimate the unknown amount of DNA actually inherited from all of a sample’s ancestors. Genetic estimates of ethnicity also go back thousands of years, beyond the end of a pedigree paper trail. Regions identified as ‘populations’ in a pedigree may have been very different thousands of years ago, and so may be represented differently in a genetic ethnicity estimate.”
• “Britain and Western Europe are geographically close, and a significant amount of historical migration (and hence, interbreeding) has occurred between these regions. Frequent interbreeding has led to very little genetic differentiation between these two regions, and thus our current approach has less power to identify the true ancestral source for individuals with ancestors from these locations.”
So why — given the fact that I know darned good and well that these are (a) estimates, (b) estimates based on comparisons not to actual historical populations but rather to small groups of people living today, (c) estimates based on comparisons not to actual historical populations but rather to small groups of people living today and based purely on the statistical odds that those small groups tell us something meaningful about past populations — why am I disappointed?
This may be a perfectly good set of results. Maybe all of my Bremen ancestors (documented back many generations thanks to civil registration and church records) actually descend from a pocket of displaced Hanseatic League sailors from Stockholm or Bergen.4 Maybe a bunch of the British and Scots ancestors in my tree descend from invading Vikings.
The problem is… we don’t know what these statistical analyses of our genes today are really telling us about our ancestors who lived so many years ago — decades, generations, perhaps millennia in the past. Maybe we’ll never know. Particularly for those of us with nearly 100% European ancestry, comparing ourselves as living beings today against other living beings today may never tell us with certainty what we’d like it to tell us.
What I want, of course, is a road map to every part of my genome: this part is English, this part Scots, that batch over there German and that part French. What I want is for all my DNA results from all the companies to agree with generally conforming percentages rather than being, literally, all over the map. What I want is for the science to be there, right now, today (yesterday would have been better) to take all the uncertainty out of this.
What I want is the baby doll.
And, once again, what I got was Raggedy Ann.
Darn it all.
- And when dinosaurs roamed the earth… ↩
- See, for example, Blaine Bettinger, “AncestryDNA Launches New Ethnicity Estimate,” The Genetic Genealogist, posted 12 Sep 2013 (http://www.thegeneticgenealogist.com : accessed 14 Sep 2013). ↩
- AncestryDNA, Ethnicity Estimate White Paper, 4 Sep 2013, online to select AncestryDNA customers (http://dna.ancestry.com/ : accessed 14 Sep 2013). ↩
- Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Hanseatic League,” rev. 29 Aug 2013. ↩