What my DNA Results Taught me about Science


Evan Hugge '23

Two weeks ago, I received an email in my inbox which read: “Your AncestryDNA results are ready!” An exclamation mark indeed. I had been waiting for two months since I mailed off a little vial of saliva to discover the secret to my genetic makeup. I had done some research on my family’s past, and I had a broad idea of where my ancestors had come from, but I wanted to see it  printed on my very own genes. The moment of proof…what? What happened to all the Italian, and the Eastern European? Where did that Scottish DNA come from? Why is there so much Irish? I felt as if I had been scammed. I was peeved that this company had the nerve to tell me that my own family’s history was not what I believed it to be. 

This is a common experience for people who believe, like I naively did, that DNA tests are a perfect representation of your ancestry, down to the last tenth of a percent. In fact, DNA testing is largely a game of probabilities, of telling you where your family most likely came from. It is meant to be a supplement to research into one’s family tree, not a replacement. However, you might not necessarily think that based on the slick marketing of Ancestry and other companies which offer similar services. In ads, people who have taken DNA tests talk about how their entire identity has changed based on their results, as if the imperfect data contained within a little vial of saliva is a stand-in for generations of family tradition and history.

The fact that so many of us are willing to accept our DNA results as gospel is a testament to how we have come to think of science as a fixed and unwavering truth. In fact, science, including the science of DNA analysis, is ever-changing and evolving. We certainly do not have the technology to definitively determine a person’s ancestral makeup today, but we may in the future. That is the nature of scientific progress. In the past year or so, I’m sure that we have all encountered people who moan about the “inconsistency” and even “hypocrisy” of the scientific establishment, and those who question the ever-changing COVID guidelines and recommendations. These people assume that experts either know everything about a particular subject, or that they know nothing. In fact, what is known about science is always changing and evolving.

However, even where our current knowledge and understanding of the world around us falls short, modern science can tell us things about ourselves and our future that we could never have dreamt of a few decades ago. For example, since the full human genome was mapped by the Human Genome Project in 2003, we have been able to use genetic testing to further understand the nature of hereditary disease and human evolutions. While the ancestry side of genetic testing is still imperfect, just the idea of being able to map a person’s family history, however imperfectly, from a small sample of saliva is nothing short of mindblowing. So what is my point in all this? My point is that we, in this age of rapid technological and scientific advancements, have become accustomed to thinking of science as something they are not. We think that science has the answers to every question immediately, and we disregard the fact that science is about experimentation and discovery, and that it always has been. Maybe my AncestryDNA results don’t fully reflect my family’s history, but for now I’ll embrace all that Irish inside my genes. Sláinte!