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  • Writer's pictureAndy Lee

Can DNA Testing Determine Race?

Multi racial group

With the different ethnicity reports, many people wonder whether or not DNA can actually tell you your race. This question doesn't have a simple answer.

The Difficulty of Defining Race

When we're trying to understand DNA and race, we have trouble defining terms.

First off, DNA is a very much defined term. We define DNA as- deoxyribonucleic acid. It is something that is inside of all living things that we know about. For humans, 99.9% of that DNA is the same.

When it comes to defining race, there are many different meanings. Those definitions have changed over time. It is still evolving. In short, racial identity is a very fungible concept.

99.9% of All Human DNA is Identical

Inside of our DNA, 99.9% of my DNA is the same as yours. It's the same as every other human on the earth.

The remaining 0.1% causes some differences that I have, which you don't have. It doesn't matter where we find people in the world. You and any person in the world are going to have some of these differences.

Thumbnail for YouTube Video Can DNA tell me my race

Watch this video.

DNA Markers Overlap Around the World

Using a whiteboard in the video, I drew several overlapping circles to explain the following concepts.

If we look at Africa, there is going to be this set of genetic differences. These mutations that many people, not all people, but many people in Africa may have. Simultaneously, not every person in Africa has all of those different mutations distinguishing them as African.

On the other hand, if we look at Europe, we see a set of mutations that many Europeans have.

As shown in the video, you'll notice that the African and the European circles overlap a bit. That's because there are some mutations that people from Europe and Africa and in common.

That doesn't mean all European and Africans have these overlapping DNA segments. It does mean that a subset of Europeans and Africans share the same DNA markers.

I repeat the overlapping circles for various parts of the world until you see many areas of common DNA that creates a lot of confusion.

Ultimately, we end up with many overlapping populations group with some distinct and identifiable mutations. But not everybody in that population has those distinct mutations.

Historical Intermixing Blurs the Lines of Race

Through the last 80,000 years since leaving Africa and started journeying out, humans still had contact with the older populations. We've intermixed with these populations. Different groups live worldwide that are not originally from that place. However, the majority of their DNA might have originated or been indicative of that place.

But because of these other groups that intermixed, we have his nice kaleidoscope of DNA around the world.

For instance, I have a sister-in-law from Mexico. When I look at her DNA, what I see is. I see shades of European, American Indian, Sub-Saharan African, and East Asians. I can't define her as Mexican or one specific race, but rather a mixture of intermixed races.

On the other hand, my ancestry is primarily of European heritage. But that doesn't mean that I don't have smaller fringe races mixed in.

Trace Ethnicities Cause Confusion

When people have their DNA tested, they may see that they are a majority something with a few trace elements of other ethnicities. All those trace elements indicate is that people intermixed, not necessarily that your 2% ethnicity is indeed from that region.

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What Defines Race?

As stated above and drawn out in the video, you will see so many overlapping areas that create confusion in specifying race.

We begin to ask ourselves the following questions.

  • Suppose a subset of people within a group we call African are distinctively African. What race are the people that lack the distinctive markers but do come from Africa?

  • Are individuals with distinct European markers the only Europeans?

Even though you may not have a distinct marker for a specific place, it doesn't mean that it's not in your family tree.

Can DNA tell me about my race?

Not really. Racial identity is really the wrong term when we're talking about DNA.

Races have always been defined by people.

DNA only cares about your genetic parentage.

Enjoy the fact that you are this conglomeration of hundreds and thousands of people over the centuries in the millennia. They have all combined to become what is uniquely you.

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