DNA Kits: Secrets of Your Past or Scientific Scam?

One of the by-products of human consciousness is self-consciousness, that is, knowing deeply that you are alive.

Part of self-consciousness is also wondering where we came from; it's clearly human nature to seek one's roots.

For some people, that task is relatively easy because there are oral legends or written words that go back at least several generations (assuming family history is passed down accurately). But for most people, the path backwards is rocky, cluttered with confusing detour signs, or simply blank.

For Americans, citizens of the quintessential melting pot, the quest for identity often propels older people (it's interesting that we often search for our dead relatives while looking death square in the face) to the lists of immigrants into Ellis Island or other ports of entry into the United States and to the repository of genealogy in Salt Lake City.

It also leads unwary seekers of the past right into the hands of scam artists who claim they can trace anyone's DNA back to its source.

Anyone with a spare $100 to $900 can buy a "DNA ancestry kit." Self-collection of DNA requires only a quick swab of the inside of the mouth to gather cheek cells. Mail that smear back and the company will then compare your DNA to various other samples.

But claims that this analysis will tell you much about where you came from are downright fraudulent, anthropologist Deborah Bolnick of the University of Texas at Austin and 14 co-authors recently reported.

Instead of tracing our genetic past, what we get is a scientific scam.

"It sure looks like science," says anthropologist Jonathan Marks of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, one of the authors of the study. "Well, it is science. It’s done by scientists, and it’s done on DNA samples. And it produces real data."

But, Marks points out, these companies are preying on the public because they simply don’t have enough comparative information to pinpoint a gene on a world map. They might match your DNA to some group on some continent, but what they don’t tell you is that you would probably also match the group next door if only they had some of those samples as well.

More insidious, these companies pretend to trace your unique ancestry through mitochondrial DNA, but that’s simply not possible. A few hundred years, a few generations, and every person's history is a genetic mishmash. One little gene isn't going to inform anybody about anything.

As Marks puts it, "That’s the beauty of this scam. The companies aren’t scamming you. They’re not giving you fraudulent information. They are giving you data, real data, and allowing you to scam yourself."

Humans have, in fact, turned the whole world into one large genetic melting pot. We have always been a species that crossed mountains, continents and oceans; we have always loved to mate outside our ancestral group.

If you want to know who you are, look in the mirror. Written on your face is countless generations that have survived to reproduce, and the only thing you can realistically do at this point is thank them and then move forward.

Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).