How accurate are the ‘ethnicity estimates’ claimed by DNA genealogy companies?

dna heritage test x
Credit: Vitagene

Since 2012, more than 18 million people have mailed their spit-filled vials to [Ancestry DNA], which analyzes the genetic material for markers that indicate regional heritage and sends back reports on the geographic areas from which each customer’s ancestors hail, broken down into percentages. [A recent] revision to these estimates [that indicated many people have more Scottish heritage] elicited elation, panic—and no small amount of confusion.

An American woman blamed her Scottish ancestry for her loud mouth, while another man seemed more distressed by the news: “Help before I go out and buy a kilt!,” he tweeted @Ancestry.

Jokes, jokes, jokes. And yet, they reveal some popular misunderstandings about what these tests really mean. Of course, nobody actually became more Scottish. Ancestry’s scientists simply refined the company’s algorithm.

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But the social media reactions suggest an erroneous belief, one that these companies’ marketing sometimes helps advance: that race and ethnicity are genetically determined, and that they tell you something about your essential nature.

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“There is no Korean SNP or French SNP,” says Barry Starr, Ancestry’s director of scientific communications. “So it really comes down to probability: This particular SNP at this particular spot is a bit more common in France than it is in Korea. It’s the building up of all those small probabilities that gives you the strength to make a prediction.”

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