CitiGen post-doc Sarah Abel discusses her recent visit to the UK’s largest family history event, Who Do You Think You Are? Live, held from 6th-8th April at the NEC in Birmingham.

“Who Do You Think You Are? ”

The signs loom large at the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham: an expansive convention hall, annexed to the international airport that serves Britain’s second largest city – a place both celebrated and maligned in recent years for its cultural and ethnic diversity. This is the third year that Birmingham has hosted this, the UK’s largest family history show. However, just eight days after Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50, officially launching the process of Britain’s exit from the European Union, the event’s title – which previously seemed to convey a gentle, tongue-in-cheek provocation – now appears a gapingly open question.

I have attended the event once before, in February 2013, when it was being held at the Olympia in London. Now, as then, the convention hall is filled with rows of stands sponsored by DNA testing companies, various organisations hoping to extract funds from the show’s main demographic of retirees and senior citizens (wildlife and pet charities; life insurance companies; cancer research organisations; a stall selling special orthopaedic in-soles, among many more), as well as numerous regional genealogical societies and businesses. There is the Irish Family History Centre; the Jewish Genealogy Society of Great Britain (JGSGB); the Kresy Family stand (specialising in Polish roots); the Solihull and Birmingham Caribbean Family History Group; and the Families In British India Society (FIBIS) stall, decorated (among other things) by a pair of antique safari hats. This last stall is positioned opposite the show’s “dedicated military zone”, where some vintage light military vehicles have been put on display for visitors – a perhaps incidental, yet apt reminder of the conditions under which some British genealogies came to branch out into societies and regions like India and the Caribbean.

However, there have been some changes to the line-up of exhibitors since the last time I attended the show – particularly regarding the DNA testing companies that have turned out to display their wares. In 2013, one of the largest DNA testing stalls at the show was sponsored by BritainsDNA – a company originally founded in 2004 under the name Ethnoancestry, which underwent a rebranding in 2011 after it came under the ownership of Scottish writer and journalist Alistair Moffat. According to the glossy brochures handed out to visitors to WDYTYA on that occasion, the company (which included the subsidiaries CymruDNA, IrelandsDNA, ScotlandsDNA, and YorkshiresDNA – as if to cater for any possible separatist or regionalist movement on the horizon) promised to answer “fundamental questions” about the origins and identity of the British people, as part of a “new project to map the DNA of Britain”. Among other things, the company claimed to be conducting research into two physical traits deemed to be particularly common among the British population, as opposed to elsewhere in the world: red hair and blue eyes.

Excerpt from BritainsDNA publicity brochure, 2013. [Photo by S. Abel]
In fact, at the time of BritainsDNA’s appearance at WDTYTA in 2013, the company had already been embroiled in a series of heated disputes with British-based academics and genetic genealogists, mostly regarding outlandish scientific claims and bogus press releases that had been made by the company and disseminated, often uncritically, by various outlets of the British media (including the claim that the genetic variant for red hair was at risk of dying out due to climate change). Aside from these instances, a hallmark of media appearances by representatives of the company was to offer a DNA test to presenters or guests on the show, in order to subsequently point out, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, the “contradiction” between the test-taker’s culturally formed notions of identity and the origin “story” indicated by the genetic analysis – so that a Scottish presenter could be revealed to be “really” an Englishman, for instance. This well worn formula (which is by no means unique to BritainsDNA) was presumably intended as proof of the company’s assertion that “[a]s a nation at the farthest reach of Europe, our origins are diverse, unexpected and fascinating” (BritainsDNA publicity brochure, 2013). Yet what deep truths, if any, can we take away from the assertion that someone who has grown up identifying with a particular place, language, and cultural and political identity, turns out to be genetically “from” somewhere else?

At the end of 2015, BritainsDNA was sold to the Nottingham-based laboratory Source BioScience, who rebranded the firm as MyDNA.Global and seem to have done little since in terms of actively promoting the company’s ancestry testing products. Since then, a new British-based DNA ancestry testing company has emerged on the market. LivingDNA is a subsidiary of DNA Worldwide, and the company’s 3-in-1 autosomal, Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA test first went on sale at the end of September 2016. Over the past few months, LivingDNA has appeared at various science and genealogy shows – including, most recently, WDYTYA.

Billed in the company’s marketing material as “the world’s most advanced DNA test”, LivingDNA’s main selling point is the large number of “world regions” that are featured in the breakdown of each customer’s genetic ancestry: 80 worldwide, and 21 for Britain and Ireland alone. The high-scale geographic resolution that the company offers for these last two regions is thanks to the inclusion of the People of the British Isles (PoBI) dataset in its reference database, as well as the company’s collaboration with the PoBI researchers on a new Irish DNA Research Project. So far, LivingDNA’s product has been met with some anticipation by American genealogists looking for a finer-scale breakdown of their British ancestry. But what about the company’s reception among potential British customers? Is there a danger that, amidst the rise in open manifestations of racism in the country since last June’s referendum, a DNA test claiming to reveal customers’ proportions of regional British ancestry with pinpoint precision could add fuel to divisive far-right groups like Britain First and the English Defence League?

With LivingDNA’s Hannah Morden-Nicholson (left) at RootsTech. [Photo by S. Abel]
I put this question to Hannah Morden-Nicholson, the company’s marketing director, when we met at the RootsTech conference back in February. Morden was quick to acknowledge the turbulent political context into which the company had emerged, saying that the product had been launched “at an extremely relevant time”. Nonetheless, Morden pointed out, the theme of antiracism is prominent throughout the company’s publicity materials, and an integral part of the company’s public outreach mission involves spreading the message that “We are all made up of all of us”. To this end, LivingDNA has partnered with the British educational charity Show Racism the Red Card and, according to Morden, the company currently allocates nearly half of its proceeds towards funding public presentations and talks, in which they aim to highlight the fact that race is a socially constructed and not a biological phenomenon.

So far, this approach has won LivingDNA the public approval of several prominent British academics and genetic genealogists, including Mark Thomas and Debbie Kennett – previously some of the staunchest critics of BritainsDNA, both of whom are featured giving positive reviews of LivingDNA on the company’s website. Certainly, at a time when migrants and political refugees are viewed with increasing distrust and blamed for numerous social ills, it is encouraging to see some genetic ancestry testing companies spreading strong messages about the fundamental genetic commonalities shared by all humans, and underlining the fact that all of us, at some point, are descended from migrants.

Yet there is also a limit to the ability of genetic knowledge to subvert prejudices and cure social divisions. This point is brought home to me at WDYTYA during a conversation I share with two couples who have converged on one small table in a crowded makeshift café. Noticing that the woman sitting opposite me (who speaks with a faint West Country accent) is holding a MyHeritage DNA kit bag, I ask her if she is planning on taking a genetic test, and she replies that she and her husband have indeed bought two kits for themselves. A second woman, who seems to be from the Birmingham area, cuts in: “Complete waste of money those tests! You spend a lot of money and they tell you so little…” She and her husband both took a test with AncestryDNA, she explains, but he is still waiting for his results. The first woman seems taken aback, and the conversation moves temporarily onto the more neutral topic of the difficulties of researching ancestors who actively tried to conceal their pasts.

After a while, however, the conversation drifts back onto the topic of ancestry testing. The second woman seems keen to elaborate on her earlier statement, and states: “I took a test, and –” she leans in dramatically – “they told me I was 100% European!” She spreads her hands and raises her eyebrows. “Thanks a lot!”. Amidst incredulous laughter, the first woman jokes: “I bet you didn’t vote that way…”. “Well, actually, I didn’t!” The second woman says, conspiratorially, disclosing that she was the only member of her family to vote Leave in last June’s referendum. The first woman takes heart, telling her that she voted Leave as well. “I didn’t vote to be in the EU; I voted to be part of a free market agreement. Now it’s just gotten too big, it’s not nine countries any more – and we’re putting in all that money, and what are we getting back?”

Intrinsically linked to the economic issues, both women agree, is the problem of immigration. Both are at pains to mention European immigrants they know and like (“ever so hardworking – some of them work harder than our lot who don’t want to do those jobs!”), yet they mutually agree that “it is a bit irritating when they take all their child support money and send it back to Poland…”. As the conversation goes on, however, the complaints against Britain’s immigrants become more heated. At one point, the husband of the first woman leans in to remark that in some towns “the street’s like a foreign country – you can’t hear a word of English!”, and the second woman confides that in her area they have had a lot of trouble with “thieving”. She is interrupted at this point by the arrival of her own husband, bearing cups of coffee, and the first woman takes the opportunity to say pointedly: “Then again, we have to remember that Britain has always had tonnes of immigrants. Always”. Remembering what started the conversation off in the first place, she tells me that she and her husband are open to learning whatever their genetic result might say about them. “We’re very open-minded”, she assures me.

Reflecting later on this brief exchange, I am reminded of a passage from the final Unesco Statement on Race [pdf], published in Paris in September 1967. The first Unesco Statement on Race was written by a group of scientists from around the world after the end of World War II, and with its publication and diffusion in 1950 the authors hoped to correct the scientific fallacies about human “races” that had until then been used by the governors of colonial and post-slavery states to justify the unequal treatment of populations labelled as “non-white”, and most conspicuously by the German Nazi regime to justify the violent persecution of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other ethnic and social minorities deemed by the Third Reich to be “inferior”. The first Statement began with the affirmation that “Scientists have reached general agreement in recognizing that mankind is one: that all men belong to the same species, homo sapiens” and ended with the following words: “every man is his brother’s keeper. For every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, because he is involved in mankind”.

Over the next fourteen years, the Unesco Statement was modified and republished twice more, to take into account ongoing debates among the geneticists and biological anthropologists about whether or not “race” really was a useful taxonomic concept for their fields of research. The fourth and final permutation, however, was published at the height of the US Civil Rights Movement, and this time included a greater number of social scientists among its signatories. While the fourth Statement noted that “racism grossly falsifies the knowledge of human biology”, it also went on to say for the first time that “the human problems arising from so-called ‘race’ relations are social in origin rather than biological”. Thus, the writers propose: “In order to undermine racism it is not sufficient that biologists should expose its fallacies. It is also necessary that psychologists and sociologists should demonstrate its causes”.

Fifty years on, I am inclined to agree with the writers of this fourth Unesco Statement. As much as the idea that genetic ancestry testing might be able to cure prejudices on the grounds of culture, nationality and race is appealing, genetic knowledge alone cannot be enough to dispel the xenophobia and social divisions that have been brought to light in Britain (and elsewhere) over the course of the past year. At the very least, a thorough understanding of the social, economic, and historical conditions underpinning our societies’ inequalities are also sorely needed. In sum, the lessons of the past still bear repeating.

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