Greek tragedy: the dangers of DNA testing

By Sharon Greally

Featured in Capital #46
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This is a tale of two sisters who had their understanding of their family’s history changed forever by a gob of spit.

It is fashionable to seek to discover who you actually, really are, by having your individual DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) tested, to shed light on your family’ genetic history.

The DNA encodes all the instructions for the development of a living thing, as a member of its species and as a distinctive individual, influenced by a particular combination of its parents’ and thus its forebears’ DNA. Inexpensive genetic analysis of biological samples is now extensively available by mail order. It compares distinctive patterns in the DNA samples sent in by customers with vast databases analysing previous samples, checking for similarities and matches.

These matches can confirm recent, close genetic connections (notably parentage) pretty accurately, with a high degree of probability. They can make much looser connections with larger patterns in the databases of information, such as ethnic origins and migrations, with limited probability or certainty.

Globally, millions of eager people have paid up, sending off their saliva samples in kits to labs for DNA analysis. Statistics from databases and algorithms are used to make estimates and projections from the results, about their ancestors and their origins. But, as our story demonstrates, the effect can be to open a can of worms for people whose ethnic identity is an important part of their self-concept.

Maria grew up in Wellington, knowing she was Greek to her core. Speaking only Greek at home, she didn’t learn to speak English until she went to school. Both her parents were immigrants from Cyprus, and Maria’s mother was sent with her sisters to arranged marriages in New Zealand. They all lived surrounded by constant reminders of her Greekness from the doilies on the tables to the icons watching your every move, and Greek flags around the house. There were the family photos on the walls. And the food. Always the Greek food, from the vegetable garden, and olives from their own trees. Their family had celebrated traditional occasions such as religious ceremonies and name days, always with the extended family, around tables laden with delicious delicacies. Maria recalls flaounes, a Greek bread filled with a special Cypriot cheese, at Easter, and melt-in-your-mouth Kourabiedes biscuits at Christmas. Greeks hospitality is legendary. When Maria’s friends would come over, they were plied with food. They had never come across garlic before, or olive oil – hard to believe now, but her parents used to have to buy it from the chemist.

Maria’s sister Loula decided to have her DNA tested, just for fun. She was surprised by the result; the flag it raised was not a Greek one. Loula got on the phone to Maria with the dreadful truth: “We’re not Greek”. Loula took it calmly, but the news sent Maria into an identity crisis. “I got a real fright. I’ve always felt more Greek than Kiwi. But I’ve  discovered I’ve got no Greek blood in me.” The test results indicate the family’s DNA is 42% West Asian (Turkey and thereabouts), 26% Italian, 18% Sephardic Jewish, and 13% Middle Eastern.

Maria started questioning her identity and her culture. “Is it all a lie? It feels a bit like what it might feel to be adopted.” After a lifetime of belonging, she felt a sense of unbelonging. As a daughter and now a mother, Maria has woven traditional Greek practices into the fabric of her family’s life. But now all this was called into question. Was her daughter still Greek? Talk about a Greek tragedy: love, loss, pride, relationships crumbling, pain.

It’s taken tears, and much soul-searching, but Maria has come to the conclusion that, after all, she is Greek! In a moment of anagorisis, or insight, she realised that her ancestors way back chose to be Greek, to live in Cyprus; so that is what she is, her fate, her heritage. Traditions and societal values are what shape our identity.

Perhaps the DNA results would have been less disturbing if they had been represented more frankly, less dramatically. Maria has had emails from Norway, from people claiming to be “family” on the basis of some common DNA. The tests pick up DNA links with other people worldwide who’ve been tested. But not much can be concluded confidently from them.

Back in October 2007, the reputable journal Science queried common claims about ancestry from mail-order genetic testing companies. First, kit samples include only a small percentage of a person’s genome; and then the databases cover only a small (tested) part of the global population. The test results can tell you where in the world there are some people who share some of your DNA now – as distinct from where your ancestors came from, or their racial or social identity. Any conclusions about the “origins” or “lives” of ancestors are inferences from historic knowledge rather than the test results.

And which ancestors? A specific parental line of descent can be traced with some precision, but ten generations back you have more than a thousand ancestors. What these tests cannot deliver, then, is any certainty about the ethnic makeup of one’s ancestry. And conclusions from them also disregard historical shifts in ethnic and social identity – the basis on which Maria reclaimed her Greek heritage.

Before you send off that sample, be sure you really want to open that can of worms.


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