3 Apr 2019

DNA testing: Why it doesn't define culture

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:20 pm on 3 April 2019

It's pretty easy now to find out where you came from. Spit in a tube and send it off to a DNA website and you get back a breakdown of your ancestry. But do these tests do more harm than good?

DNA testing isn't actually all that it's cracked up to be, says geneticist Dr Caitlin Curtis from the University of Queensland.

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Photo: Pixabay

“I was asked to give a talk for the ABC and started reflecting on how all of these DNA tests are affecting the way we think about ourselves and how we relate to other people.

“You can’t really think about that without looking back in history about the dark past associated with genetics and the misuses where people thought that they could use genetics ideas as a way to sort of identify people and engineer a better future for humanity which of course ended in horrific consequences for a lot of people.”

In other words – eugenics.

“We all sort of want to know about our history and our past and how we fit in to the whole picture of humanity and I personally think that it’s pretty normal.

"It’s a natural curiosity."

But this huge new trend of people taking tests to find out - 26 million tests have been sold – accentuates the things that divide us, she says.

This pie chart breaks down percentages and gives us an artificial sense that we’re very different.

“It isn’t really as clear cut as that.”

"In fact when you look at what these tests are showing us overall, it is more of a story of unity."

And she says, people are much more mixed than they would think.

“These tests have some very definite limitations, it isn’t appropriate to use them in that context that you’re quantifying groups.”

There’s a disconnect between our cultural identity and our biological identity and we identify ourselves with our cultural identity, she says.

“I absolutely think that as a geneticist, it’s my personal opinion that it’s a really disturbing trend that we would be seeing biological definitions of who we are, I wouldn’t propose using those genetic tools for that at all.”

The at-home kits tend to be marketed by accentuating the scientific process. Curtis says while this is a scientific process of analysing DNA, it’s comparing data in a database, it’s an estimate.

“It’s really an educated guess.”

It’s really highly influenced by who’s in the database, she says.

“It’s sort of the best guess, at the moment, of what it seems like you might be.”

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