About those Ancestry dot com commercials

About those Ancestry dot com commercials

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84LnTrQ2us8]

In the fall 2017 quarter I kicked off my intro to cultural anthropology course with one of those Ancestry dot com videos. These are all over the place, and many of them carry the same basic theme. They all purport to tell people about their ‘family’ or ‘roots’ or ‘heritage.’ That’s fine, except for some of the troubling, misguided messages they send to the public.

The video I showed in class is really short (see above). It’s about a guy named Kyle, who starts off the video saying, “Growing up we were German.” He danced in a German dance group, wore lederhosen, and so on. Culturally, his family was ‘German.’

Here’s where the plot thickens. Kyle then started doing some family research on Ancestry dot com, and wasn’t finding any ‘Germans’ in his family trees. In the background of the video, a graphic displays a family tree with names like Flemming, Ross, and Stewart. Apparently he was looking for German sounding names, didn’t see them, and got to thinking. So he went and got his DNA tested (also via Ancestry dot com). Then the results came back. This is the big moment.

The verdict? Kyle has been living a lie! He found out that he wasn’t German at all! Instead, Ancestry dot com tells him that 52% of his DNA comes from “Scotland and Ireland.” In addition to that, 28% comes from Scandinavia, 10% from Greece and Italy, and another 10% is unknown. This is a game changer for Kyle, and one of the big lines of the video is when Kyle says he decided to “trade in his lederhosen for a kilt.” That’s where the commercial ends. The take home message is basically that these DNA tests tell you who you really are, despite your actual upbringing, cultural practices, family histories, and memories.

This is just wrong.

I understand the fact that people want to research their family histories and find out more about their heritage. Tracing your family genealogy can be fascinating. That’s not the problem here. Kyle’s case is a perfect example of how misguided these tests can be. From an anthropological perspective, one of the primary issues is that these tests seriously conflate culture and biology. The second issue is that these tests paint an oversimplified, if not outright false picture of culture, history, genetics, and genealogy.

To start with the first issue: culture is not genetic. This is a basic, fundamental starting point of cultural anthropology. There is no “Irish” or “German” gene or combination of genes. That’s just not how it works. Culture is shared, patterned, learned behavior. Humans may have the biological capacity for culture, but the specific expression of that capacity is a matter of social relationships and history. This is an old lesson in cultural anthropology, a point that Ruth Benedict drove home in her classic 1934 book Patterns of Culture. “All over the world, since the beginning of human history,” Benedict wrote, “it can be shown that peoples have been able to adopt the cultures of peoples of another blood” (2005:13).  What does this mean? It means that any given cultural behavior is not intrinsic or inherent. As Benedict put it, “Culture is not a biologically transmitted complex” (2005:14). Nobody is born with a certain culture or set of cultural behaviors–people learn it over time (even though, as Bourdieu might say, we tend to ‘forget’ that this has happened). We anthropologists know this. It’s Anthropology 101. Isn’t this old news?

Unfortunately…it’s not. It’s 2018 and this issue is front and center. Our friend Kyle is sort of an entry-level example of a much deeper, more egregious problem. Take, for example, the whole debacle with Kaya Jones (aka #IronEyesKaya), who claimed to be Native American–and therefore qualified to be a “Native American Ambassador” for the Trump administration–because of her genetic ancestry. Jones received a pretty thorough dragging by #NativeTwitter at the end of last year for her attempts to claim Native affiliation. Biological anthropologist Savannah Martin, who was among those to push back against Jones, highlighted the serious problems of what she called the “quantification of Indigeneity.” Martin clearly delineated the core problems with Jones’ claims:

Lastly, as evidenced by #KayaJones / #IronEyesKaya, the perpetuation of the belief that “blood/stereotypes = identity” permits non-Natives to claim Indigeneity at the drop of a tweet, the purchase of a DNA test, without engaging in the NATIVE aspects of Native identity. (7/n)

— Savannah Martin (@SavvyOlogy) December 27, 2017

In the aptly titled article “Sorry, that DNA test doesn’t make you indigenous” posted on CBC radio, Kim Tallbear explains that Kaya Jones’ attempts to appropriate Native identity are part of a broader pattern:

There is this national sort of story, and this I do see becoming more prominent in certain parts of Canada too, that you have people with no lived experience in indigenous community, they can’t even name any indigenous family or ancestors, but they have a family myth about a Cherokee great-grandmother, or they’re descended from Pocahontas, you get that a lot on Virginia. So I think it’s another kind of claim to own indigeneity, to try to have a moral claim or sense of belonging on the North American continent and so that’s the context in which these tests are so popular.

Tallbear also explains that cultural affiliation extends far beyond the merely genetic or biological: “We construct belonging and citizenship in ways that do not consider these genetic ancestry tests. So it’s not just a matter of what you claim, but it’s a matter of who claims you.” What Tallbear is pointing out is that cultural identity and affiliation are matters of social relationships, not simply biology (let alone some results you get from a main-in DNA test). They are about mutual relationships and histories, not just some fly-by-night Twitter assertions. This is precisely why Kaya Jones’ claims were so strongly rejected, and also why our friend Kyle’s Ancestry dot com results don’t make him Scottish or Irish. Sorry Kyle.

This brings us to the second issue, which is that Kyle’s Ancestry dot com commercial wreaks tremendous havoc on understandings of the relationships between culture, genetics, genealogy, and history. What a disaster. We already have Kyle’s account that he grew up culturally German. If this is true—and not just some embellishment for the sake of the commercial—then it raises a lot of questions. When Kyle got his Ancestry dot com results back, they said that 52% of his DNA comes from Scotland and Ireland, 28% is from Scandinavia, 10% is from Greece and Italy, and another 10% (not a small percentage) was “unknown.” Ok, one thing to realize here is that these tests are based upon a population database. How does this work? Well, as Jon Marks explained in an article written by Barbara King:

They take DNA from people from disparate regions and compare yours to theirs. The numbers reflect a measure of your DNA similarity to those of the divergent gene pools. How do they calculate it? Don’t know; the algorithms are protected intellectual property. Are they accurate? About as accurate as looking in the mirror.

In the same article, King highlights one of Marks’ fundamental points (he explains this more in his book Is Science Racist), which is that these corporations are producing a kind of “fabricated meaning” that is “superimposed” over seemingly objective, raw data. What does this mean? Well, let’s go back to Kyle’s case. When he got his DNA results, he apparently assumed that they meant his family practices were wrong, disproven by science. Kyle read his results to mean that he was mostly from Scotland or Ireland, and therefore culturally Scottish or Irish. This is where Marks’ “fabricated meaning” comes into play. The primary problem here, as genealogist Roberta Estes explains in a very, very detailed article, is that “This technology is not really ripe yet for that level of confidence except perhaps at the continent level and for people with Jewish heritage.” This isn’t the story that Ancestry dot com and others are promoting, of course. What Estes means is that these kinds of DNA tests are only roughly accurate at the continent level, and even then require careful interpretation. Estes explains:

When dealing with intra-continent ethnicity—meaning Europe in particular, comparing one country or region to another—these tests are not reliable and in some cases, appear to be outright wrong.

Kyle’s results, which appear to give him a more detailed understanding of his genetic background, simply cannot be read at that level of confidence. This is due to the limits of technology, but also the realities of human populations. Why? Because humans move, intermix, and generally make the quest to pinpoint any specific ethnic identity on a given geographic population really, really difficult. Kyle was searching for “German” ancestry, but what does this mean? Who were the Germans? Estes asks a great question in her article: “Who or where is the reference population that you would use to represent Germans?” Are we aiming for 2000 years ago? Maybe 1000 years ago? Or 500 years ago? And how does this connect to the reference samples that these companies have today? There are so many variables here, and these mail-in DNA testing companies don’t even come close to addressing them. Again, it’s important to think about migration, war, population mixing and all the fluidities of the human story. It’s all very slippery, complex territory. But again, that’s not the story (or product) that Ancestry dot com is selling.

In Kyle’s case, his results told him that his DNA was mostly Scottish/Irish (aka in the British Isles) and Scandinavian. But who settled the British Isles? A couple of “Germanic” populations come to mind: they’re often lumped together as the “Anglo-Saxons.” Of course this makes any reading of his DNA results much more complicated than his commercial suggests. Not to mention the fact that the “Scandinavian” reference sample—depending on which populations have been used—may be largely indistinguishable from any surrounding “Germanic” population. Remember, these tests are only roughly accurate at the continent level. As Marks puts it, they’re about as accurate as looking in the mirror. So there’s quite a bit of storytelling going on here, a lot of filling in the blanks for the sake of selling DNA tests to eager consumers who want to know “who they are.”

“Heredity,” Ruth Benedict once wrote, “is an affair of family lines.” Beyond that, she argued, “it is mythology” (2005:15). I think she’s right, and it helps to think about how and why we construct these mythologies, and what they mean. I totally understand the reason why people like Kyle would want to learn more about their family histories and discover more about themselves. Who doesn’t want to know more about where they came from? I love learning about this stuff. But there’s a problem when we have companies creating and selling false narratives that claim to clarify these questions, when in fact what they’re doing—at best—is muddying the waters. At worst they’re promoting highly deceptive answers about the past, especially with commercials like the one Kyle appears in.

In the end, if Kyle grew up with all of those culturally German practices, there’s probably a reason for it. I don’t know the story, but something tells me that he didn’t come from Scottish ancestors who arrived in the Americas and suddenly traded in their kilts for lederhosen. I suppose it’s possible, but I doubt it. It’s more likely that Kyle’s family histories and practices were grounded in shared, patterned, learned behaviors that were passed down from one generation to the next. In anthropology, we call this culture. It’s not a biological or genetic thing, and if you’re trying to find out more about it, depending on companies like Ancestry dot com to give you all the answers is not the best plan.

Ok, so you want to learn more about where you came from and who you are. You want to learn about culture. Where to begin? Well, you can always take a cue from anthropologists: A good place to start is taking the time to ask and, more importantly, listen. Yes, I’m talking about asking and listening to people (not machines, or apps, or websites). I realize I’m channeling my inner Luddite here, but sometimes it amazes me just how much we trust technology to tell us everything we want to know about ourselves. Or, even worse, to tell us some truth we want to believe or claim as our own (here’s looking at you Kaya Jones). It’s important to think about why we search for these answers, and what we’re hoping to find. Are we looking for simple, quick, easy truths? Or are we willing to take the time to delve into it all? Are we open to finding out who we can claim, but also who claims us, as Tallbear put it? In Kyle’s case, he may have gotten a lot further by simply grabbing a notebook and sitting down with a close family member and asking, “Who are we?” That’s just the beginning, of course, but again, it’s a good place to start. Sometimes better answers require more than pushing buttons and swiping credit cards. But they’re worth it. Now get out there. Talk. Take notes. Listen.


Benedict, Ruth. 2005[1934]. Patterns of Culture. New York: Mariner Books.

*Updated to correct for typos on 5/28/18.

14 Replies to “About those Ancestry dot com commercials”

  1. Ryan, very nice. I am curious, though. How do you explain to your students “tribes” that make a traceable bloodline lineage a necessary or sufficient condition for membership, e.g., groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution, for which membership is continent on a lineal connection to an ancestor who fought on (or provided material support to) the winning side in a war?

    1. Organizations like that don’t use DNA as proof. They require primary source documentation that proves any applicable lineage.

  2. Kristin, you are absolutely right. I know because my wife is a DAR and a genealogy enthusiast who frequently uses ancestor.com. I am doing what I teach my students all good researchers do, searching for examples that complicate explanations, in this case the one that Ryan has so clearly articulated. Consider the following, at this point entirely hypothetical case. A non-Native American child is captured and brought up Native American. From the usual anthropological perspective, she becomes Native American. Then, however, she marries another non-Native American and for her descendants she is their only direct lineal connection with her Native American identity. Is this connection sufficient for them to be counted as members of a Native American tribe? And does the answer vary from one tribe to another?

  3. Spot on. I am adopted, and like to say I was “raised Dutch” – a brunette surrounded by blondes. Finding my biological family did not make me more German or less Dutch in any way.

  4. Spot on assessment of these ancestry websites. Another important point about these genetic testing agencies on top of what you have put forth here is that they can all give you different results, and usually do, because their methods of matching genes with cultural groups vary. Some are also far more broad in the regions they match you to, while others attempt more specific groupings. Just browsing through Youtube you can find confused individuals who have submitted to various companies or methods of testing and end up with conflicting or varying results, and without a proper comprehension of culture and genes, or their relationship to one another, they are absolutely lost in deciphering this information given to them. These companies are profiting off the ignorance of the average person, and reinforcing negative notions of heritage with the largely arbitrary lines they draw, not to mention commercials like this that teach favorability towards a sense of genetic kinship over cultural kinship when taking these tests; it hints of racialism in this way and I don’t like it one bit.

  5. Hm, I feel a few points are missing from this discussion. What if a hypothetical Kyle did not feel he was German, even if he was raised that way? Can he take that DNA test and learn the other culture? Which feels more right to him than what he experienced at home? It is a paradox, DNA test suggest you have inborn other culture, but aren’t you suggesting that Kyle had inborn German culture and can’t switch it, even if DNA test feels right to him?

    Another thing, in anthropology we are taught to think that culture we learn… Until we start working with neurodiverse people. Cultural expressions of autistic people, or synesthesia, or afantasia do challenge the view that culture is learned, not something we are born with. Many geeks are geeky, because they are born with a differently wired brain. Would it not be wise to at least consider that there is something in those tests, which points towards the certain prefered cultural forms. Why people like them more and think they are more accurate than their upbringing?

    And last… behind every machine there are people. Ancestry sites are run by people. It does not rise from the rule of the machines, but from the people trying to make sense from their national confusion. I was raised in CCCP… my nationality in that upbringing sense does not even exist anymore, times change. Maybe anthropology also should view these things not as just a machine data… most of the data is actually very personal and human. 🙂

    1. “Hm, I feel a few points are missing from this discussion. What if a hypothetical Kyle did not feel he was German, even if he was raised that way? Can he take that DNA test and learn the other culture? Which feels more right to him than what he experienced at home?”

      One of the points here is that cultural affiliation isn’t just about people taking tests and picking a new identity. It’s a matter of actual relationships. That was Tallbear’s point when she said it’s also about who claims us.

      “It is a paradox, DNA test suggest you have inborn other culture, but aren’t you suggesting that Kyle had inborn German culture and can’t switch it, even if DNA test feels right to him?”

      No, I’m not suggesting that Kyle’s German culture was inborn at all. The whole point here is that culture is not inborn. It’s not something in our DNA. If Kyle grew up with all of these German cultural practices, that gives us a reflection of the social relationships he was a part of. It’s not that his German culture was inborn, but rather that he learned these practices as he grew up (which is how culture works; again it’s not genetic). His cultural practices were an actual reflection of the social relationships and histories he was a part of, but this commercial suggests that all of that is somehow invalid because of these vague DNA results. These tests are basically a denial of his actual family history, which is one of the big problems with accepting them at face value.

    2. Hm I think the question of social relationships is an interesting one, especially when we speak about the next generation – the so called generation “game on” (kids who are 10-20 now). I think it makes sense to separate social relationships and SIGNIFICANT social relationships. In a traditional society those would overlap, but when a significant part of your young life /relationships passes online, where nationalities do not matter (or at least do not carry much weight), there just might be no other indication? Only a DNA test to define your national affiliation?

      I mean, ofc, there is a big question what are the actual reasons why people take those DNA tests – simple curiosity probably is the main one. However if they make that kind of commercial, it has to hit something in the audience, some kind of existing belief? There I am curious what it might be? Sure, there are some cases of abuse, radicalism, etc., but while we look at those, we might be missing the general shift, a shift in erasing nationality as one of the self identification criteria? I mean, if we have lets say a German kid, growing up in English society, he probably would have at least some questions who he/she is?

      Also when we look at “If Kyle grew up with all of these German cultural practices, that gives us a reflection of the social relationships he was a part of”… imho we also have to consider an increasingly individualized identities. I remember reading in one of the interviews with the new English princess, where she discussed her identity (I am sorry I do not remember the link quickly) – when she was a kid, she had to tell if she was black or white and she could not answer the question. Then her father suggested her to make “your own box” – and I would think these kind of interviews carry quite big role in shaping the public views. I think we are dealing with a lot of “own box” stuff in the modern culture, the “cult of Self”, where relationships do not matter that much, unlike in a traditional culture.

      There I also think of some of my research kids, who spend about 5-10 min/day talking to their parents and about 5-10 hours online, talking in English in nationality-void environment. One of the parents described it as their REAL life, and their actual language and customs are just well, to deal with surrounding older people when necessary, but it does not carry any value and it is increasingly difficult to relate to your own kids value wise. I wonder if those DNA tests/commercials are part/indication of this shift?

  6. Aurelija asks a great question. Anthropological theory is right to point out that humans are not born with genetically inscribed cultural identities. Anthropological theory is questionable when assumptions include an individual’s having a single discrete identity acquired by growing up in a culturally bounded community. As sociologists Barry Welllman and Lee Rainee point out in Networked: The New Social Operating System(MIT Press, 2012), the technologies that make conversations like this one possible are having profound effects on how individuals construct their identities. In addition, for people like me, no Tiger Woods or Barrack Obama but still a North American mutt of mixed Scots-Irish-Franco-German ancestry, my identity is no more a simple function of culture than it is a simple function of genes. Like the Kachin and Shan described by Edmund Leach in Political Systems of Highland Burma or the Nuer and the Dinka in the Southern Sudan, I have options when it comes to deciding who I am. I may recognize and be appalled by the racism still so entrenched in the nation whose citizen I am and the nation that after nearly thirty-eight years feels like home to me and agree than my genes are only one part of my story. I am equally appalled by “tribal” identities preached by nationalists/ multiculturalists who essentialize cultures and turn them into metaphysical “thingies” instead of on-going conversations shaped by shifting social and material circumstance. To me the most interesting thing about that ancestry.com ad is not the spurious claim that Scottish genes have a bigger role to play in Kirk’s identity than his German upbringing, but the way in which his DNA results make it possible for him to consider shifting from from lederhosen to kilt in how he sees himself. Yes, DNA has been wrongly used to support racism. Here, however, it adds to the scope of individual freedom to choose.

    I think of my son-in-law, German via his mother and Irish via his father, whose veneration for his father, who fought in World War II (albeit in the Pacific and not on the Western front) is part of his claiming his Irish identity, raucously celebrating St. Patrick’s day with green beer and corn beef and cabbage, while paying less, if any attention, to Oktoberfest. I recall an anthropological question I have often asked myself: Why is it that there are so few cultures like the Scots and the Irish that seem so attractive that people of all sorts of backgrounds celebrate their holidays all over the world? Why is it that there are, for example, Japanese bagpipers and celigh dancers? It isn’t just the Scots and the Irish, of course. Japanese are also heavily into samba and hula and belly dancing. So what is going on here? The choice of celebrated holidays certainly depends in part on cultural transmissions shaped by imperialism and diasporas. Is this, however, the end of the story?

    1. You know, it is really interesting how that “tribal” identity idea is preached both by nationalists and multiculturalists – and it is not the only spot where those two overlap. It is some kind of childish denial (we are not fascists, really… it is old indoeuropean symbol, that swastika… sigh), combined with the insistence of beating certain subjects to death (anti-Semitism for example, which both exploit for political gains to a rather disgusting lengths, sometimes even attacking the actual Jew communities and outspoken people…) and a weird kind of fighting for a certain person/group, when at the same time trying to strip that target group of its identity (Muslim women for example, both insist that Islam is wrong and evil religion, when fighting… for Muslim women rights… like dear Muslim women, please abandon your culture, because it is the cause of all evil, then, when we free you from yourself, you will be happy…)…. when at the same time legitimizing own existence by pointing out the existence of the other side of the spectrum (aka we, nationalists, are needed because look at those tolerance idiots, or we, social justice warriors, are needed because look at those evil white men).

      But going back to the topic… I am not sold on the tribal identities idea. I just don’t see tribal in Internet cultures, in the traditional, real tribal sense – and I am working with it for 20+ years. I see pre-nationalism though, at least in the European sense, think more of 17th-19th century Europe, when the borders were way less defined and class, not the nationality, were the main indicators of belonging (except maybe Jews and gipsies). You cannot call 18th century early industrial society a tribal one, even though it is not a modern national state.

      Also about celebrations, what I find interesting is what kind of celebrations make it into the computer games or other global virtual environments. Usually it is Xmas (winter turn), Chinese New Year (light and fireworks), Mardi Grass/Valentine (love day), Easter (eggs and return of life), Midsummer(summer turn), Octoberfest/Harvest/Patrick’s day (drink and gorge), Halloween (candy, ghosts and death), with some smaller ones in between, like birthdays and other events significant to the particular community. Ofc most of them are striped to the bone of the archetype, as far as the narratives are concerned, but I see a lot of traditional in there, under the digital form. Maybe that’s what is actually happening, some of those archetypes need to be dressed in a new suit, but overall they are still there? I mean, similar process happened already, when the “pagan Europe” holidays had to be merged with Christianity, those that hit some core feelings about the world stayed, the rest faded away?

  7. It is not surprising that both multiculturalists and nationalists preach tribal identities. Both develop from the 19th century Romantic nationalism that preached the same one folk, one blood, one nation ideology famously summed up in German as “Ein Volk, Ein Blut, Ein Reich.” Stepping back a bit for a broader perspective, both reflect the Romantic view that nations, along with selves and works of art, should be clearly bounded aesthetic and emotional wholes. The appeal of this ideology is rooted in the inequities of aristocratic empires in which only elite men and their nations are treated as equals, creating the context in which the “lower orders,” whether men, women, of different religion, whatever, reflexively demand the same privileges. Whether the ongoing evolution of a world of individual and national monads will result in harmony or chaos remains to be seen. My bet is on chaos. My hope lingers in Martin Luther King’s “WE shall overcome.”