The Misconceptions of Ancestry DNA Testing

Abigail Elperin, Staff Writer

In many ways, testing DNA to learn about ancestry is like the ultimate Buzzfeed quiz. It can provide condensed, digestible answers to big questions about our origins as human beings. However, the results received are often taken with unquestionable credibility, overestimating the abilities of these DNA tests. For example, the percentages that a DNA test may assign ethnicities are estimates that are made with a lot of wiggle room. Unlike paternity tests, there is no definitive way to tell a person’s origins. DNA testing companies produce results through the comparison of your DNA to sample populations. says, “To figure out your ethnicity regions, we compare your DNA to a reference panel made up of DNA from groups of people who have deep roots in one region.” However, there is an immense gap in diversity in sample populations., for example, was founded in Utah, and it is likely the first people that were tested were white Americans. A likely byproduct of this is that currently tests DNA for 1640 regions in Europe while only testing for 68 in Asia and 114 in Africa. Considering that both Asia and Africa individually have a larger population than all of Europe, a substantial shift of priorities needs to occur to provide all its customers with the same quality of results. One common misconception is that your DNA is inherited from your grandparents proportionately. For example, if one of your grandparents is 100% Indigenous American, you would not always test as 25% Indigenous. An article from National Geographic says, “If your maternal grandparents are biracial, for example, your mother will have a random mix of those ethnicities. That leaves a more diverse set of genetic possibilities for her to pass down.”  

Privacy remains a big issue in the world of DNA testing. Many companies that test for DNA are believed to be inadequate in their measures of privacy protection. An article from says, “DNA testing companies can share or sell your information to third parties, such as medical researchers, pharmaceutical companies, biomedical industries, law enforcement, insurance companies, and employers.” However, many believe that taking a DNA test inherently risks privacy but can prove worthwhile when you pay and consent to it. Freshman Matthew Finnegan says, “If someone is taking a DNA test they are consenting to having information found out about them. I do not think it is particularly invasive.” It is still reasonable to demand that companies who process DNA add additional layers of security to their practices. Junior Calvin Rodrigue says, “DNA testing companies should not make the data they collect public and leave the data only to people who need it, such as officers of the law. And ask consent before sharing it.” 

When discussing the societal effects of testing DNA for ancestry, the distinction between race and ethnicity is important to know. Neither race nor ethnicity are biological; however, race is purely a social construct, and ethnicity describes a particular group of people with a common history from the same place.  People who share an ethnicity may also share genetic similarities that a DNA test could recognize. Despite the miniscule genetic differences that people of different ethnicities may find, humans still share nearly 99.9% identical DNA. Many worry that the neat percentages a DNA test shows can divide people and re-ignite a type of eugenicist thinking. Sophomore Alma Scott de Martinville says, “When Latin America was being colonized by the Spanish and Portuguese, there were many different social rankings based on your race. If they had DNA testing back then, it would have led them down an even darker rabbit hole.” The concept of DNA being “from” a certain place is also largely false. A video from Vox says, “Human genetic diversity is not organized neatly into groups like countries or continents.” DNA itself can not identify as a certain ethnicity. Despite what a DNA test tells you, your DNA cannot be 10% French or 36% West African. The only reason genetic differences may exist between ethnic groups is because of variations that arise from sexual reproduction and mutations. Phenotypically, differences between ethnic groups arise from adaptations to environment. For example, if your ancestors lived in a mountainous region, like Nepal or East Africa, you may have a larger lung capacity. There is also the concern that DNA tests can make a person feel inadequate to their culture. Biology teacher Denise Moberly says, “If someone is raised under a certain culture and that is their cultural identity, but their DNA says it is not their identity, it can be really hard for people to deal with, and can be pretty exclusionary, too.” 

DNA testing for ancestry will likely only grow in popularity as the quest to learn about roots grows more accessible. Curiosity about ancestry is human nature and generally beneficial. However, remember to consider the potential privacy risks, inaccuracies, or uncomfortable realities a DNA test could present in its results before you purchase one.