Friday, February 11, 2022

Sarah Abel's "Permanent Markers"

Sarah Abel is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Centre of Latin American Studies.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Permanent Markers: Race, Ancestry, and the Body after the Genome, and reported the following:
The reader who opens Permanent Markers to page 99 will find some insights into one of the questions I am most frequently asked about DNA ancestry tests: do they actually work? The page describes the reactions of genealogy bloggers to an early version of AncestryDNA’s genetic “ethnicity” test (today the leading DNA ancestry test worldwide, by sales figures) which seemed to regularly produce unexpected results, such as “high levels of ‘Scandinavian’ or ‘Finnish’ ancestry or completely absent ‘French’ ancestry.” I cite two bloggers who took different stances on the issue: the first reminded his readers that genetic heredity obeys different rules than the transmission of oral and written histories, so we shouldn’t expect the two to coincide entirely. The second categorically disagreed: “[AncestryDNA’s] admixture percentages are simply WRONG. Period.”

I suspect many people who pick up Permanent Markers might be seeking concrete answers about how “reliable” and “objective” DNA ancestry tests are as a window onto our personal histories. In this sense, the Page 99 Test works fairly well: it throws readers into the heart of this debate, which – as the quotes from the two bloggers suggest – has no simple answers. Methodologically, DNA ancestry tests have various limitations, and making sense of their data requires a large dose of interpretation on the part of the test-taker. What’s more, by expressing a person’s ancestry (a concept that, a priori, could encompass multiple historical scales and diverse definitions of kinship, both genetic and social) as a series of apparently timeless “genetic ethnicities,” these technologies present a very reductive, racialized representation of the past. While companies continue to refine their techniques to estimate customers’ genetic ancestry with increasing resolution, the question I suggest we should be asking is not whether these technologies are accurate, but rather: how are they impacting the ways we think about race, identity, and – more broadly – our collective pasts?

In this respect, readers who only looked at page 99 would miss out on one of the book’s central arguments: that DNA ancestry tests should not be thought of primarily as a scientific instrument, but as a tool that is used to make diverse political claims about the relationships between our bodies and identities, both past and future. Those who browse further will find out, for instance, how DNA ancestry tests have been used in starkly different ways in the United States and Brazil to intervene in debates about racism and antiracism, and to talk (or avoid talking) about the legacies of slavery in each country. Permanent Markers thus reveals how a technology that claims to uncover universal truths about “who we are” and “where we come from” in fact draws much of its power from its capacity to produce highly malleable and ambiguous portraits of the past.
Follow Sarah Abel on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue