Genetic Testing Clashes between Biological and Cultural Tribal Identity

"There is no DNA test to prove you're Native American" - Kim TallBear, New Scientist, 2014


  1. With the onset of social media, it isn’t surprising that genetic testing is the new trend. Sure, DNA testing is accurate in predicting our biological ancestry; however, could there more to our identity than what is revealed in a cheek swab?
  2. You may ask, what’s genetic testing anyway?

  3. Simply put, human genetic testing examines one’s DNA, the biological backbone of most living organisms. DNA is inherited by offspring during reproduction and contains the genetic instructions used in cellular development, function and reproduction. For testing, human DNA is retrieved through sampling of bodily fluids.
  4. Why should I care?

  5. As you probably guessed, one benefit of DNA testing is in discerning ancestral lineage. Nonetheless, you may wonder how DNA testing can determine male lineage for females, who lack the Y-chromosome, or genes passed from father to son responsible for male development. Though the YDNA procedure would be unsuccessful for females, autosomal DNA testing can be used to determine male and female lineage in both sexes; offspring inherit 22 pairs of autosomal chromosomes from both parents. A normal human 23 chromosomal karyotype of autosomal and sex chromosomes is shown below.
  6. Discerning ancestral lineage isn’t DNA testing’s only benefit; others include assessing one’s medical history, proving inheritance or insurance claims, or establishing parental rights. According to the DNA Diagnostics Center, “DNA paternity tests are more than 99% accurate” (DNA Diagnostics Center, 2014); DNA tests are reliable.
  7. The Media and its Influences

  8. The influence of advertisements and social media greatly impact society’s portrayal of DNA as a means of innovation and success, accompanied with misunderstandings depicting one’s identity as inseparable from one’s DNA.
  9. Cypher Genomics on Twitter
    Cypher Genomics on Twitter
  10. The comic above portrays DNA as being the sole predictor of one’s life. Specifically, the man is attributing his life’s path to his biological inheritance, rather than his personal decisions.
  11. Similarly, the picture above shows that genetic testing is an accurate indicator of one’s past and future. The creatures identify themselves as animals, solely upon their biological lineage, as in the previous comic. Other media advertisements, such as Fastest Labs’s twitter post below, describe DNA testing as not only economically beneficial, but also as being a salvation from lies. Truth in this context is used interchangeably with problem solving, or success. It’s no wonder DNA testing is widely recognized, as the media constantly connects it with advancement and achievement. Particularly, DNA testing is portrayed as a path leading to a life encompassing greater truth and progress.
  12. Is there more to identity than DNA samples?

  13. Now, you may ask, is there more to one’s identity than is revealed through biological inheritance? Of course! Notably, the media subjects us to this very trap. The influence of one’s environment is often dismissed when examining self-identity. According to Oglala Lakota member Loretta Afraid of Bear-Cook, “Without your language or your land, you are not who you say you are” (Running Strong for American Indian Youth, 2014).
  14. Nature vs. Nurture

  15. The article above discusses whether DNA or cultural influences affect one’s identity. While several medical complications, such as breast cancer or sickle cell anemia, are affected by genetic inheritance,there are numerous genetically inexplicable phenomena that support the nurture theory. For example, chimpanzees “share 98.8 percent of…DNA” (American Museum of Natural History) with humans, but only share “60 percent of…personality traits with humans” (Tenofsky, 2013). This shows that varied interactions between humans and chimpanzees are plausible explanations for personality trait differences. Living in the wild compared to living in civilized society promotes different values, such as wealth, for humans, compared to physical strength, for chimpanzees, that cause behavioral differences.
  16. Supportive Parenting Can Prevent Substance Abuse

  17. A University of Georgia (UGA) study supports that environmental influences affect one’s identity. UGA Professor Gene Brody states “We found that involved and supportive parenting can completely override the effects of a genetic risk for substance abuse” (Mental Health Blog, 2016). Genetic evidence shows that the 5HTT gene,which transports serotonin to the brain, a neurotransmitter that induces mood and emotions, may predispose substance abuse; people who have at least one copy of the short 5HTT gene, instead of the long gene, are in greater risk of substance abuse.
    “Results were compiled over 4 years from…253 rural African-American families…Youth with the short version…gene that received…minimal supportive parenting [abused substances]…at rate three times more than youth who had high levels of parental support [where]…the effect of genetic risk was essentially zero [according to] UGA Institute Behavioral Research Director Steven Beach” (Mental Health Blog, 2016).
    Even though children with at least one 5HTT short gene are genetically predisposed to abuse substances, supportive parenting impacts a person’s decisions and behavior. The study above reveals that one’s environment influences one’s identity.
  18. The article above also shows the affect that environmental influences, due to federal laws and policies, have had on Native American communities. Laws “under the shamefully misguided idea of ‘Kill the Indian and Save the Man’ (Capt. Richard H. Pratt, The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites, 1892) and during the boarding school era, disconnected Native American children from their cultural upbringing. Boarding school assimilation, which forcibly placed Native children into boarding schools, would have distanced several Native Americans from their cultural heritage through rejection of their tradition and identities (Running Strong for American Youth, 2014). The children would have been pressured into adopting new cultural identities to fit in with societal expectations. The boarding school circumstances would have changed how Native Americans viewed themselves. Thus, our environment does affect who we are.