Posted by: Kash Farooq | March 27, 2013

The National Geographic Genographic Project: Is it akin to genetic astrology?

A few years ago I donated some DNA to The National Geographic Genographic Project.

I was very pleased with what I discovered about my ancestry.  I blogged about it, and even recorded a Pod Delusion report about it. I know for a fact that based on that Pod Delusion report and my general raving about the project, friends also bought the kit and joined in.

The Genographic Project logo

The Genographic Project – is this the equivalent of genetic astrology?

Recently I have started reading articles like this:

These articles were the result of this: Sense About Science’s “Sense About Genetic Ancestry Testing” publication (PDF). I respect the work that Sense About Science do, and as I’ve been recommending the National Genographic Project for years, I thought I should investigate further.

Sense about Science state:

Many companies now offer to tell you about your ancestors from a DNA test. Adverts for these tests can give the impression that your results are unique and that the tests will tell you about your specific personal history, but the very same history that you receive could equally be given to thousands of other people. Conversely, the results from your DNA tests could be matched with all sorts of different stories to the one you are given: you cannot look at DNA and read it like a book or a map of a journey. This guide will help explain why, and what it is exactly that genetic ancestry companies are offering.

That sounds fair enough.

I left it for a while, but the number of “DNA” Google searches arriving at my blog spurred me to carry on investigating. I went to the National Geographic website, fully expecting that by now they would have responded to the Sense About Science publication in an FAQ or something.

Nothing.

I searched across their website for the word “astrology”. No hits. Same for “Sense About Science”. No hits.

So, I thought I’d do some proactive skepticism. I decided to write to them. I sent the following email to the general contact email address, but also to the press department (as I thought they may be up for doing a Pod Delusion interview in response to Sense About Science) [Their replies in italics]:

Hi,

I participated in the Genographic Project years ago.

I loved the results and as I contribute to a UK podcast  (The Pod Delusion), I covered the project for the podcast.

Here is a written version of that podcast report: https://thethoughtstash.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/wanted-your-dna-for-national-geographics-genographic-project/

Recently I have started reading articles like this:

Do you have any information in response to this?

I’d like to do a follow up report on any information you provide. Perhaps interview someone via Skype for the podcast if you’d like to explain to our listeners why your testing is scientific and not astrology!

Many thanks

After a week or so I received a reply:

Kash,

Thank you for contacting the Genographic Project. For information on the science of genetic testing and the Genographic Project specifically, please refer to the website here https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/science-behind/. You may also want to do some basic research on DNA and genetics via the internet or an encyclopedia

That’s it. And no, that link didn’t answer my question.

So I responded, letting them know that I’m going to put their replies on my blog (in the hope they’d give me a better response).

Hi,

I’ll add your reply to my blog for my readers to get more info.

I’ve looked at the link you provided but it doesn’t really answer my question:

My question is: Are the National Genographic DNA tests akin to “genetic astrology”?

Thanks

Kash

And their reply:

Kash,

I believe that the article/podcast is making an analogy to genetic testing being akin to astrology in that it is “taking general information as more personal than it really is” much like astrology does with astronomy. However, that is not the case and the confusion comes from a lack of knowledge and/or background in the field of genetics and anthropology.

So there you go. Are they saying that Sense About Science are confused? Or that I am? I am definitely confused!

I’m not sure how I should progress further with this. I’m unsure if Sense About Science are saying all these DNA Ancestry tests are practically useless and a waste of money, or just some of them. It’s certainly put me off “upgrading” to the latest Genographic Project offering: Geno 2.0.


Responses

  1. My impression of Nat Geo has diminished over the years. As a child, I loved it, but as I grew older–I felt it to be a watered-down version of real science. Its mission (may be) to educate but it has a very wide audience. The level of sophistication may not be for a Ph.D. scientist–but just right for a High School level individual.

    Science is for all–whether Nat Geo is misusing the data–I doubt that notion.

    I try to remind myself that Nat Geo has to sell a magazine–and they have an audience which they try to “lure in”–I really don’t believe it is astrology as much as it is the manner of “magazine marketing.”

    My two cents tells me that if we are all related to Romans, Vikings, and Attila the Hun, etc.—then it would seem that our DNA is dilute, “melting pot” of everyone and anyone. If I am getting your point, correct?

    Didn’t we all come from a certain “common ancestral individual” from the Africa many millennia ago?

    Please correct me if I am wrong?

  2. There’s a vicious spat going on. The Sense About Science article you cited is by one group of scientists attacking the claims of another group who — the attackers say — are quacks selling hokum. My problem with the attackers is that they’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    Some genetic ancestry testing is “genetic astrology”; some isn’t. Hokum and quackery exist in most fields, alongside the real stuff. It’s especially the case now with genetic testing; many quick-buck artists are looking for suckers.

    So how do you tell “real” from :fake”? One test is smell; you can tell a lot from the promises made. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true. Then there’s reputation; is the seller respected in the field? Finally, product; what does one get for the price and is it worth it?

    It’s a fairly reasonable hypothesis that Celts, Romans, Vikings and Normans all left their DNA sloshing around Great Britain. The trick is in saying which specific present Brits have what parts of which DNA. Proponents say they can tell; attackers say “impossible”.(It does seem the Roman-proponents’ tests are awfully expensive for what one gets.)

    I prefer to call the real stuff “genetic anthropology”. While it may tell us something general about SOME of our ancestors, it’s more focused on broad groups than individuals. We’re talking now about deep ancestry, more likely prehistoric.

    At the origin of our species, there wasn’t much difference in the DNA of every human alive. Then we multiplied and spread around the world; the DNA changed and kept changing and differences magnified. Genetic anthropology is the study of those differences and what they mean.

    NGS’ Geno 2.0 is, I believe, a real scientific endeavor. It’s probably less for the benefit of those who get the tests than for adding to our knowledge of our human heritage. With good scientific design, execution and luck, the NGS findings may make it possible for the present over-reaching claims to become realistic.

    That NGS hasn’t responded to your queries with more than generalities probably signals it doesn’t want to get into the middle of the Romans & Vikings controversy.

    • Ralph, no doubt you believe yourself related to every member of nobility that made a name for themselves. After all, through DNA you most likely share similar genes or even the same haplogroup.

      Unfortunately, for the average person, not only did the nobility share those genes and haplogroups – so too did the soldiers, the chamber maids, and the stable hands. Which is what these quack sites saying “everyone” is related to royalty, etc., etc., doesn’t bother to say. Nobility / wealthy, etc. did NOT possess alien genes to the commoners – and this would be doubly so in regions where nobility was generational.

      Eg. everyone claims to be “related” to King N through DNA. Well King N is the great grandson of King B of the same regional area who would have shared the same genes and possibly the same or very similar haplogroup. As too would have most of the village rabble. Because genes and haplogroups are expanded by the WINNERS not the losers – why do you think everyone and their mother is “related” to Vikings and yet the LOSER gene is very hard to find [the ancient basque for example are nearly as rare as a purple spotted cow flying overhead].

      I have the fortune, through FORTY YEARS of research by my uncle and his father before him, of actual pedigreed lineage to a number of kings, queens and nobility of France (600s). This is historical records, church records, etc., etc., etc. It really boils the blood when idiots discount my claims because everyone else is “related” to the same nobility through the quackery of these DNA claims when in all actuality they can count themselves lucky if they weren’t actually descended from the village idiot of the time.

      • Actually, there’s good mathematical & genetic evidence that everyone alive ten (or so) generations in the past is an ancestor of everyone alive today or of no one alive today. We’re all related to both the king and the peasant. Any quackery is in saying that this is somehow unusual or prestigious; it’s only a factual coincidence with which we, ourselves, had no part .

        There is quackery by SOME genetic genealogy providers; I don’t dispute it. But the NGS Genographic Project isn’t one of those. It’s not about whether anyone is related to Cleopatra or Charlemagne or Ivar the Boneless. It’s a legitimate scientific study to survey the DNA of many different groups of humans, to learn about our origins — all our origins — and how the human race has spread and developed over the millennia. Don’t conflate population genetics with grandiose speculation.

        Now, the Vikings (to take one example) were genetically different in some respects from natives in whose lands they settled; the traces of that difference can be assessed in people living today. It is a bit tricky because (A) Vikings weren’t genetically homogeneous and (B) there’s been a lot of intermixing since.

        And, don’t conflate the quackery with genetic genealogy, a combination of genetic and “paper trail” (documentary) evidence. In this field, the two types of evidence support each other.


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