Statistical Data Analysis

Technology is turning genealogy on its head

Towards the end of the Second World War a boat full of Polish orphans arrived in New Zealand. There were 732 children and the story of how they came to be here would fill a book in itself. In fact it already has: several of them. This is a useful summary.

To take up the story from there, most of the Polish children thrived in their new-found rural NZ home. They grew up, married and had children, who integrated into New Zealand society but never forgot – nor were allowed to forget – their Polish roots. The language, traditions and cultures that the first generation had experienced in Eastern Poland were handed down to the second generation, and the third.

Some of the people in those later generations are my friends, even though I moved to NZ just a few years ago. My wife is Polish, our children speak a little Polish and they too are keeping Polishness alive in New Zealand.

But Polishness means different things to different people, and it's clear that the two cultures have diverged over time like Darwin's Galapagos finches. The Poles from New Zealand have different ideas about being Polish to the newly-arrived Poles from Poland. Same beginnings, different outcome. Sometimes this can cause friction, at other times merely bemusement.

Folk dancing is big on the agenda here, for example. Both my daughters take part, because, despite my initial scepticism, they enjoy it and they've made good friends through it. But to a visitor from 21st century Poland it can seem anachronistic. Would you define a modern-day English person in terms of Morris dancing? Probably not.

So who are we, each of us? Are we the products of our parents, our upbringing, our culture, half-remembered traditions and rituals from a previous generation? All of the above?

The search for identity is often rooted in the past, which is why genealogy remains so popular. Technology has helped in many ways, from making it easy for home family-tree builders to create diagrams and search local council records, to powerful servers crunching data to find geographic correlations that might imply family connections. And then there's our DNA.

Watson and Crick's discovery of the double-helix DNA 'code' didn't immediately change the world. But as computing power has increased, so too has the scope of DNA analysis. Sequencing that once cost tens of thousands of dollars now costs much less than one percent of that – and it's sequencing that tells us who we are biologically, or at least what we're made of. That's especially true of mitochondrial DNA, which is handed down from mother to child.

Mitochondrial DNA analysis allows scientists to trace family trees back much further than any parish records ever could: hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of years. Fragile DNA fragments in well-preserved archaeological finds are carefully amplified and sequenced. The rest is statistics: identifying matches and correlations with other finds and with newer information from living people.

On a species level this is telling us about our real roots. The 'out of Africa' concept no longer seems true, or at least not the whole story. Human migration around the planet over the past 100,000 years has been more complex and unlikely – and at times more ambitious – than was ever suspected.

It's all very well knowing that your great-great-great-...-great-grandmother once walked across the ice separating South America from North, but what does this mean for the individual?

DNA sequencing technology is increasingly being made available to individuals. Genealogy companies such as offer DNA analysis for $100 or so, using the results to help place you within your own genetic family tree. 23andMe, with financial backing from Google and run by co-founder Sergey Brin's wife Anne Wojcicki, offers a similar service in the US and elsewhere.

These tests can do more than tell you whether your great-great-...-great-aunt once worked as a parlour maid for King Henry the Eighth. They can give you some idea of your genetic ethnicity, not to mention your predisposition to various diseases. Both of these are ethically tricky areas.

People might feel comfortable identifying with a particular ethnicity, but they may also feel more 'in-group cohesion' - and therefore be more likely to persecute others who are not part of 'their' group. This is especially illogical since there's often greater genetic similarity between individuals in different ethnicities than within a single ethnic group.

And predisposition to illness is just that: predisposition. It doesn't mean you'll get the illness, just that you are statistically more likely to than average. Lifestyle choices, access to healthcare and sheer chance also play a big part. None of which makes insurance companies any less likely to want to get their hands on this data, and charge their customers accordingly. Not surprisingly, privacy campaigners aren't keen.

All of this leads back to the issue of who we are, but it doesn't answer the question. If anything it obfuscates it further. Perhaps identity is a question that can't be answered neatly.

So instead of looking back, maybe it's more sensible and egalitarian to define identity by actions, behaviour and connections in the present day. Or, to put it another way, my daughters are part-Polish because they feel they are.

There may not be a solid scientific foundation to such a definition, of course. But basing identity on long-dead mitochondrial connections or links to people who share a sub-set of genes for similar skin tone doesn't seem very scientific either.


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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