GENEVA — Have you heard the story of the white supremacist who found out on live television that he's part-Sub-Saharan African? It happened on NBC last month when Craig Cobbs, who wanted to turn a small North Dakota town into an all-white enclave, agreed to take a DNA test. Broadcaster Trisha Goddard, a British woman with Dominican origins, announced the result: Cobbs is 14% black.

The racist was exposed to his ancient extraction thanks to genetic genealogy, or what we might call recreational genetics, a commercial extension of genetic science spreading thanks to a rise in people seeking to affirm their identity, and a more basic curiosity.

It's also being made easier and more affordable by technology. In the past, you had to look deeply into birth registers to explore family roots. But these days, it’s possible simply to send saliva samples to one of the many companies on the Internet, who will tell you your haplogroup (a group of human beings who have a common ancestor and share some genetic mutations), your “people of origin” and the migratory route your ancestors traveled.

“They told me that my group of ancestors traveled from Africa to the Middle East, and from there went to Central Europe before heading south to Spain and finally to Northern Europe,” explains Michel Goyard, a now-retired French engineer we met on the forum. “There’s a police-investigation feel to it, the challenge of discovery. There’s also, potentially, a redefinition of your identity.”

In September, a sanitary worker from Zurich found out that one of his ancestors was the mummy Ötzi — a man who died 5,000 years ago and whose body was preserved in the icy Alps. The news came by mistake when his father hired a Swiss company, iGenea, to learn more about his origins. “We started in 2006,” says company founder and geneticist Joëlle Apter. “Before that, we used to do paternity tests, but there were few growth prospects in that field. That was the beginning of genealogical DNA tests in Europe.”

The price of basic tests, which are done in a U.S. laboratory, can range anywhere between 199 and 1,099 euros. “The test shows three things,” Apter says. “First, the location of your ancestor of maternal or paternal lineage and what their prehistorical group was. Second, your people of origin during antiquity. And finally, the region where your genetic profile is the most typical.” This is more about ancestral origins than just figuring out a family tree. “At iGenea, only 30% of requests are genealogical. But in the United States, the proportion is reversed. It’s logical: In Europe, and particularly in Switzerland, we go very far back with classical family trees.”

Jewishness is genetic

People are authenticated as Hellenic, Viking or Jewish. Yes, Jewish. The suggested link between genetics and Jewishness triggered a backlash from Switzerland’s Intercommunity Organization Against Anti-semitism and Defamation in 2008 but, Apter claims there’s “nothing racist” about the designation.

“I am Jewish myself,” she says. In fact, her wish to confirm “Jewish roots” is shared by many clients and was even an important driving force for iGenea. “Tests show that this is a group we can genetically differentiate. It’s not just a religion. These genetic markers are due to the fact that Jewish people didn’t mix with other people and always had children inside their community. The same thing can be observed with people from the Basque country.” She stresses, however, that there is no absolute certainty. This is the kingdom of probability.

Genealogy tree of the Zawisza family (Wikipedia)

“We have various African groups on our lists, like the Berbers and the Bantu, or from Latin America like the Mayas or the Inca,” she says. “But if you’re part of a people that science hasn’t studied yet, there won’t be any result.”

Does that mean we can’t come from different groups of people? “We’re all the result of a great mixture, but this test only points to one people because it’s about finding one single ancestor: the male ancestor that passed down the Y chromosome if you’re a man, or the mitochondrial DNA for maternal lineage.”

Discovering the complete recipe of our genetic cocktail is trickier. “There are other tests with which we can set up a percentage of genetic code for each group, but these only go back five to seven generations.”

Pierre Darlu, a population geneticist who is head of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research, dedicated an chapter of his book to genetic genealogy, which is a “simplistic” vision of things. “First, if you go back 10 generations, your ancestors already represent over 1,000 people. Finding the trace of only one of them offers an extremely reduced indication on somebody’s origins,” says Darlu, who co-wrote DNA: Superstar or Supercop? with Catherine Bourgain. 

Another issue is anachronism. “These companies use data on the distribution of modern-day haplogroups,” he says. “But actually, for them to be able to link you to a population in the past, they would need data banks of fossilized DNA. Or they should consider migration phenomenons, and only historians or prehistorians can give them this information.”

That said, some genetic genealogy websites do mention all these factors. 

Categories of people

A sign of the times, the “fast genetics” trend reveals a strange and typically contemporary duality as it evokes both a great melting pot and a very simplified form of belonging.

“It shows that every individual is genetically complex,” Darlu says. “At the same time, it strengthens the idea that we can create categories of peoples or races. So you either tell yourself that you’re the result of mix, at the end of a genetic continuum, or you instead biologize your cultural belonging, which could lead you to believe that races exist in objective terms.”

Although they seem potentially insidious on a community level, the repercussions appear to be a lot more modest on an individual level. Michel Goyard is less impressed by the fact that his ancestor was born in Denmark 6,500 years ago than by the discovery he made through classical genealogy. “I have a Swiss ancestor. She migrated to Mulhouse [in France] between 1750 and 1800, because life in the mountains was difficult at the time.”

Small world.