Good grief, the Neandertal test kits have been sent

Blaine Bettinger (the Genetic Genealogist) writes that some commercial test offerings are trying to sort out a way to tell you how Neandertal you are:

Once [the Max Planck] study came out, I knew it was only a matter of time before companies began offering tests that examined the percent of Neanderthal contribution to a test-takers genome.

This is one of the stickiest places to be a blogger. Bettinger links to a testing company's information on its product (including promotion of "Neandertal themed art" for the customer, sold at their Las Vegas gallery). Others have linked to Bettinger, drawing more attention.

I think that as a scientist, more promotion is the last thing I should be giving this company. So I won't be naming or linking to their advertising.

Ironically, the promotional material does not make any false statements of fact. The material makes it perfectly clear that the product does not test any gene variants that scientific research has shown may have come from Neandertals. Instead, the product reports on gene variants that we don't know about from Neandertals.


You may wonder how a company can market such a product as a "Neanderthal Index". Since "Neanderthal Index" is not a scientific concept, a company can claim whatever it wants.

So what is it? According to the material, the Neanderthal Index is computed from (a very few) STR alleles shared with "archaic" populations. Those "archaic" populations aren't Neandertals, they're Basques, Turks, Syrians, and other living people. Anthropologists do not call these people "archaic", so this is not a scientific concept either. Nobody has demonstrated that the listed populations are more or less Neandertal-like than any other living people. Most of the differences between these living populations emerged during the last 10,000 years.

You'd do better putting calipers on your skull and measuring your cephalic index. At least that would tell you whether some real phenotype is Neandertal-like.

I don't imagine that customers beating down the doors for this product. I think it exists as a way of bringing attention -- Neandertals are in the headlines. That's a big reason to not give them any attention. The test has nothing whatsoever to do with Neandertals as we scientifically understand them.

Can you tell that I'm disgusted by this?

Here in my lab, we're in a very good position to say that no test today can accurately report on your individual proportion of Neandertal ancestry. Until we have characterized a broader set of gene trees than we have so far, we are really not able to give any answer about how similar any person's genome is to Neandertals. We can't say yet how heterogeneous the human population is today in its ancestry from different parts of the world during the Late Pleistocene. For the past thirty years most working geneticists completely ignored the possibility of such heterogeneity, we are only just beginning to investigate it seriously.

This kind of thing may not be why the FDA is looking to regulate personal genomics. Neandertal ancestry is not directly relevant to health. But if customers buy tests like this thinking that they are learning about Uncle Thag, just how much misinformation will they accept from other tests that purport to tell them something more important?