WHEN 23ANDME FIRST debuted at-home DNA testing kits in 2007, they were prohibitively priced at $1,000 per test. And that was a steal next to the $2,500 charged by their rival at the time, Navigenics. In the subsequent decade, 23andMe gained consumer momentum, largely by lowering their prices. At the 2018 apex of home-testing-kit sales, more people purchased kits than in all previous years combined; by early 2019, some 26 million people had taken a test. It is estimated that that number has now grown to 30 million worldwide, with an estimated one in five Americans having now used a consumer DNA kit.
That ratio may experience another bump should the pricing take another sharp drop. Many feel that the benefits of accessing one’s genealogical data make the test a no-brainer. Family history buffs can answer long-held questions. Those who want to understand their medical predisposition to genetic diseases can uncover potentially lifesaving information. But for a growing number of people, these test results have shaken what they thought they knew to be the makeup of their immediate family. And they’re taking to social media to support each other through these life-altering discoveries.
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Annie* had just finished making her daughter’s school lunch when she blithely checked her email on her phone and opened up a 47-year-old secret: “23andMe says you’re my half-sister. Who are you?”
Annie had been on the site for three and a half years, craving a better understanding of who she thought to be her paternal grandfather, a man she’d always felt connected to. When Annie went to architecture school, she learned that he, too, had been an architect. “I had dark hair and darker skin — I don’t look like my parents or my sister. My mother always said, ‘Must be your grandfather.’”
How do we understand our relatedness to people we’re just meeting for the first time?
Turns out, this “grandfather” wasn’t connected to Annie at all. His son, Annie’s “father,” was merely the man who raised her. Her untraceable physical qualities had actually come from her biological father, an Ecuadorian orthopedic physician; her mother had been his office secretary for a number of years in the 1970s. Annie had grown up going to barbecues at his house.
George* had always known that he’d been adopted. But he didn’t expect that, some months after submitting his Ancestry.com sample, a message from his biological mother would be sitting in his inbox: “It looks like we share a lot of DNA,” her message read. “How do you think we’re related?” The results on his end were not ambiguous. “It said with 99.9% accuracy that she was my mother. It was a layup, an assist — she was putting the ball in my court, in case I didn’t know I was adopted.”
George soon came to learn that his birth mother had secretly delivered him at age 16 in her family’s basement rec room — solo — while her sisters and parents were none the wiser upstairs. She then calmly drove herself (and him) to the local hospital, placed the baby on a gurney, got a nurse’s attention, and drove home. The nurse’s family would go on to raise him.
But how do we understand our relatedness to people we’re just meeting for the first time?
I spoke to Dr. Jada Benn Torres, a genetic anthropologist and director of the Laboratory of Genetic Anthropology and Biocultural Studies at Vanderbilt University, about the complexity DNA discoveries can create. Dr. Benn Torres’ work focuses heavily on the genetic ancestry and population history of African and Indigenous Caribbean peoples who were enslaved. In discussing the discovery of parentage and lineage in her field, Dr. Benn Torres is highly sensitive to the use of the word “family,” which she is careful to distinguish from “folks who share some of your DNA.” More specifically, she believes more discussion is needed around what obligations we have to those whose DNA overlaps with our own. She emphasizes the tension between the word “family” and “biological relatedness” for which, culturally, we don’t necessarily yet have the language.
Neither Annie nor George had sent away their spit anticipating the magnitude of what they would uncover. But their stories are shockingly common, so much so that there are now private Facebook support groups for folks processing these discoveries. NPE — a phrase taken from the genealogy community for “non-paternity event,” and now broadened to stand for “not parent expected” — counts thousands of members among their group. They consult one another on everything from best practices in contacting new relatives to holding space for one another through what is frequently a life-changing process. “We’re not a dirty little secret” is the group’s motto.
DNA tests have been on the market for 15 years now, and the resultant groundswell in data means we are now in the middle of a large-scale reckoning when it comes to not-parent-expected discoveries. The sales of home kits have declined precipitously in the last two years, owing to growing privacy concerns and a saturated market. Even the Pentagon issued a warning for military members to stay off the sites, citing “personal and operational risks.”
Home-testing businesses are still expanding, primarily in the areas of health screening and DNA tourism — ‘heritage tours’ and ‘genealogy cruises’ planned entirely around one’s DNA results.
But home-testing businesses are still expanding, primarily in the areas of health screening and DNA tourism — “heritage tours” and “genealogy cruises” planned entirely around one’s DNA results. A new frontier of bespoke experiences is being mined, DNA idiosyncrasies now dictating next-level customization. Along with DNA tourism, there are also DNA-informed nutritional and exercise protocols, and prophylactic medical procedures recommended to combat not only mortality but also purely aesthetic predispositions, such as stretch marks. Data from these tests hold a truly “just for you” world of new lifestyle catering.
The lure of advanced medical insight revealed by DNA is another related driver for the popularity of home tests. In these frightening times, fear of the unknown may be upping the appeal of anything we can possibly predict or control, particularly when it comes to health and mortality.
Dr. Benn Torres warns, however, that the average person is not equipped to interpret the information contained in a full DNA report. The science is being made available to consumers at a rate that has eclipsed the resources available to process the information. She feels there are questions that have not been adequately addressed and answered by DNA testing companies. What kind of science literacy is required to understand what you’re buying? And if consumers don’t have this literacy, how can they be expected to properly interpret their results?
Still, the tests continue to offer a vehicle for escaping the here and now. The challenges the COVID-19 era has presented may look meager when compared with the difficulties one’s relatives endured just a few generations back. To that end, we may soon see the development of VR gaming — getting to meet these ancestors through your Oculus. In this way, DNA kits might allow yet another nature-bending possibility: a way to time travel.
My DNA-kit story is a hair less cinematic than Annie's or George's. Perhaps because I am mixed race, I have always been acutely aware of the vast expanse of continents my ancestors spanned. My Filipino-ness is visibly etched on my almond-shaped eyes and jet-black hair; my father’s Germanic-Irish-Scottish blood makes me a literal head taller than all of my Filipino relatives, hovering above my titas (aunts) and having to bend down low to take my lola’s (Tagalog for “grandmother’s”) hand and touch it to my forehead in the traditional Filipino greeting for elders.
My Ancestry.com results failed to reveal a hidden sibling or even a rogue Ashkenazi gene. The most thrilling DNA reveal for me came from Wisdom Panel, a pet DNA testing company, where I learned that my treasured 15-year-old rescue dog Rocky is 13% chow chow. “He’s Asian like we are!” exclaimed my daughter.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum of belief in the utility of fine-grained DNA knowledge, the stunning shift in human behavior that is happening in real time as a result of these tests is irrefutable. But are we really moving closer to Socrates’ “examined life worth living” with this data? Or is DNA knowledge but one of the Russian dolls on our path to enlightenment?
*Name has been changed at the subject’s request.
Ivy Elrod Writer
Ivy Elrod is a multidisciplinary creative living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has most recently been published in the new Playgirl Magazine. She is also an actress and a playwright, and was once the youngest Rockette at Radio City. She is now principal designer and founder of Wilder, an experiential showroom and contemporary design firm.
Gigi Rose Gray Illustrator
Gigi Rose Gray is an illustrator and fine artist born and raised in New York City, now living in Los Angeles. She received a BFA in illustration at Parsons School of Design.