Link: DNA conspiracy theories

2 minute read

In a post this week on the Anthropology News site of the American Anthropological Association, the sociologist Joan Donovan describes her work on DNA identity and self-described white nationalists: “Written in Blood”.

As social scientists, we wanted to know more about how white people, particularly white nationalists, interpret DNA ancestry tests to justify racial purity. It was an important question for us because we were also witnessing the early growth of a white nationalist movement, rebranded as “the Alt-Right” in 2015. Fast forward to December 2017 and the satirical website reported that an anonymous employee from a DNA ancestry company said that they were purposefully messing with some customers’ data in order to anger racists. How and why does a conspiracy theory like this emerge and spread?

This piece is worth reading as a contribution to the conversation on DNA and race.

I have a slightly different perspective than Donovan on this issue. is in fact a satire site, and many “conspiracies” today get started as satire. But I don’t think there’s anything ridiculous about the idea of DNA genealogy companies “tipping the scales” on ancestry results. For one thing, during just the last few months, we’ve seen a number of stories in which DNA genealogy testing companies gave “Native American” ancestry to samples that (without the companies’ knowledge) had been taken from dogs.

Here’s a story describing one of these cases: “Another DNA Testing Company Reportedly Gets Fooled by Dog DNA”.

Such cases point to the real problem that some companies doing business in this area are not maintaining best practices, to say the least. Without commenting on these particular cases, consumers should make themselves aware that some DNA ancestry tests may be unscrupulous or fraudulent. Indeed, even companies recognized as legitimate businesses may have been reporting results to customers that diverge substantially from the best scientific knowledge about human genetics.

And it is well-known that even the most responsible companies base their reports of “geographic ancestry” upon samples that are very large in Europe but tiny in Africa and the Americas.

All this makes it hard even for experts to tell genuine from fraudulent results in this area, without having access to the algorithms and DNA results. For the public, such “ancestry” tests are simply a black box.

With this “Wild West” atmosphere, it is hardly a stretch to think that a company might report DNA results more skewed to political or commercial interests than to reality.