Monday, June 30, 2008

How Misunderstanding Genealogy DNA Tests Can Cause Unnecessary Ethnic Confusion

As counter-intuitive as it may seem with all the myriad news and RSS sources available on the Internet, apparently you STILL have to keep a print subscription to The Cincinnati Enquirer for fear of missing something.

Case in point - there was an insert in yesterday's (Sunday's) Enquirer called "RiseUp" that had an absolutely fascinating article titled "Advances in DNA science challenge our understanding of who we are" by Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa.

Now, I have searched the Internet long and hard for a web-posted version of this story and it simply isn't out there.

If I'm making this story out correctly, Ms. Franklin-Barbajosa used to work for National Geographic and was involved with the project that really got the word out about sex-linked DNA testing for genealogical research, the Genographic Project. It looks like she ran her own mitochondrial DNA and initially got back results that would indicate that her direct maternal ancestors were of Native American origin (Haplogroup B). This is somewhat, although not staggeringly rare among African-Americans. However, a further refinement of the test indicates that her matrilineal line is actually of Polynesian extraction (Halogroup B4).

There's a theme in this article that seems to indicate that such a discovery was identity challenging to Ms. Franklin-Barbajosa, along with several other African-American women whom she met on the FamilyTreeDNA mtDNA mailing list.

First of all, to thoroughly upset The Dean of Cincinnati, one thing Ms. Franklin-Barbajosa says in this article is "Race is a very real part of American life."

Although I tend to agree with The Dean and Jessica Alba that we are trending TOWARDS a time when race will not be as much of an issue in America as it is now, it does still exist for the present, although it is virtually impossible to define in the way way that one would, say, define the element hydrogen.

In practice it's much like Denmark Vesey might say, paraphrasing the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart - "I can't define it. But I know it when I see it."

I do think Ms. Franlin-Barbajosa has mis-interpretted the work of Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin. She says that there is "more genetic variations within so-called racial groups than between such groups".

Not quite.

There is more genetic variation between modern-day Africans than between ALL OTHER GROUPS COMBINED.

Actually to get a handle on this concept, you have to be somewhat familiar with the phylogenetic tree that represents all life on Earth. What you find there is some astonishing information that knocks your socks off once it settles in. One of the things is that, for instance, mammals (humans included) represent the only survivors of TWO major groups of reptiles. All land aniamls combined represent only one of TWO survivors of the lobe finned fishes - the other is the coelacanth.

That of course is QUITE difficult to get a handle on - just about everyone you've ever known - your parents, your children, your cousins - and every land animal you've ever visited at the Cincinnati Zoo (bugs excepted) - is a lobe-finned fish. Deep.

Similarly (get ready for it, folks - particularly you Dean) - everyone you have ever met who is not a full-blooded African is a member of a single, TINY African tribe that wandered to other parts of the world 80,000 years ago or so. We're ALL Africans. Just those of us with ancestors who left 80,000 years ago look a little bit different from those who left 400 years ago.

Back to the article - "... people who identify themselves as black, white, Asian or Native American based on their physical characteristics may find that they're something else entirely."

You mean based on a sex-linked chromosome test? It doesn't QUITE work that way.

The B4 mtDNA marker evolved a MONSTROUSLY long time ago - something on the order of 10,000 years ago.

Of course what I'd imagine Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa might be interested in is when the person that we would identify as Polynesian might have entered her family tree - and it may very well have been more than a couple of hundred years ago.

As Henry Louis "Skip" Gates discovered, he has European mitochondrial DNA, but the best interpretation of the paper records would tend to indicate that the "White" ancestor in his mother's past may have been an Irish indentured servant from the early 1700's or before.

The funny thing about sex-linked DNA markers is that they go back a LOOOOOOONG way. As many as 1/3 of African-American males have European-identified Y-chromosome DNA because, yes, for some reason many of the slave owners liked making babies with their slaves - ALOT of them.

However, to get a better handle on what we think of as race in America in the early 21st century, there's another company called AncestryByDNA that does an "admixture" test that is gutsy enough to test nuclear DNA to give you a rough idea of what percentage of your DNA is European, sub-Saharan African, Native American, and East Asian.

The results of this test can be even MORE alarming.

Henry Louis Gates himself, head of the African-American studies department of Harvard University, in ADDITION to having "European" sex-linked chromosomes, has fully 50% European NUCLEAR chromosomes.

In fact, using Halle Berry and Barack Obama as other "reference points" as individuals presumably with an admixture pretty close to 50% European and 50% Sub-Saharan African, and a couple of guests of Skip Gates' African American Lives @ ~ 12 - 20% sub-Saharan African but clearly self-indentified as "White", we find ourselves finding a "transition zone" from "Black" to "White" at nowhere NEAR the "one drop" concept, but probably somewhere in the 25 - 40% sub-Saharan African range.

However, it's certainly the case that admixtures are not ultimately defining. For instance, in Cincinnati Mrs. Axinar is "Black". In Puerto Rico, she's "Cuban".

But, yes, in the interests of dragging this thing out as long as possible and THOROUGHLY upsetting The Dean, we need to get Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa an admixture test ...

And for those of you just joining us, here are some Axinar's postings for your review:

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At June 30, 2008 at 10:33 PM, Blogger Steven C Perkins said...

Thanks for the post.

B4 may have entered her ancestry from Mozambique or Zanzibar both having traces of Polynesian DNA and languages.

See the Free African Americans website. There were Polynesian/East Indians held as slaves in Maryland. They sued and won their freedom through evidence given by others from the same part of Africa. The DOVE family is one.

Steven C. Perkins
a former Cincinnatian.

Steven C. Perkins
Researching Indigenous Peoples' Rights
Indigenous and Ethnic Minority Legal News
Online Journal of Genetics and Genealogy
Steven C. Perkins' Genealogy Page
Steven C. Perkins' Genealogy Blog

At July 2, 2008 at 8:26 PM, Blogger Crankster said...

So what do you call Indians then? :)

And I'm aware I'm opening myself to insults with this question.

At July 3, 2008 at 7:34 AM, Blogger Axinar said...

I'd have to say the term "wound up" comes to mind ... :)

At July 1, 2009 at 5:58 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

What are you all getting excited about!

I have had my DNA test and discovered I am E1b1a (E3a in old money).

I am a white Englishman who can trace his ancestry back to c1650.

We are all the same colour under the skin.

Brummy Boy

At August 27, 2009 at 1:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

She didn't have so much a misunderstanding as she did not enough information. She needed a deeper subclade test to reveal her deeper genetic markers. It was a proper guess that if she was haplogroup B, she would be of American descent. I had a similar problem. My maternal markers pointed to haplogroup M. I supposed that it was haplogroup M1 that is found in Africa. That is wrong. It was really Indian haplogroup M5. Quite surprising for someone who grew up in African-American culture.


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