Smoky Mountain Family Historian

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Social Life of DNA





Nelson, Alondra. The Social Life of DNA: Race, Repartations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.

Alondra Nelson's exploration into African-American DNA ended up being more of a commercial for one firm, African Ancestry, and the pursuit of the political agenda of "reparation" than an honest look at DNA. The testing firm offers PatriClan and MatriClan testing, but Ms. Nelson does not go into detail in describing how the comparison database was built. The firm's website does not specifically state that persons in those countries were tested but states that it is based on lineages from the countries and ethnic groups. With the presence of many erroneous lineages, one would hope for a database with more reliability. Genetic genealogy speakers at national conferences all caution testers that the admixture is the least reliable portion of the test. Ms. Nelson never provides this caution. She does state that African Ancestry tells people "You will not learn countries or ethnic groups;" however, it is clear that they do provide that information, both from Ms. Nelson's examples pointing to ancestral origins in Ghana, Equitorial Guinea, Mozambique, and many other countries as well as to specific ethnic groups within those countries and the company's website. At one place, she does mention that African Ancestry has a base of 45,000 testers. If this includes the sample group, it is too small of a testing base.

Early in the book, Ms. Nelson discusses the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings DNA case study. While she cites many scientific studies, her failure to include Helen F. M. Leary's discussion of the case entitled "Sally Hemingsā€™s Children: A Genealogical Analysis of the Evidence" which appeared in National Genealogical Society Quarterly (volume 89, no. 3, 2001, pp. 165-207) is a serious omission.

On page 38, Ms. Nelson incorrectly identifies Greensboro as being in South Carolina instead of North Carolina. It is clear from the context of the materials, it was the one located in North Carolina. On page 66, she states that Ancestry by DNA operated from 2002-2009; however, this test is still available, misleading many persons into thinking they are testing with Ancestry.com's product. The company which originated the test (DNAPrint Genomics) went out of business in 2009.

On page 96, she makes a reference to NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are." NBC's last season airing the program was in 2012. It was then picked up by TLC.

In one place the author's information is dated due to changes too recent to have been included in the book. This occurs on page 10 where she refers to Ancestry.com's Family Tree Maker. On 8 December 2015, Ancestry.com announced that it was discontinuing sales of Family Tree Maker and syncing with their online trees effective 31 December 2015. On 2 February 2016, the sale of Family Tree Maker to Software MacKiev was announced.

The last part of her book focuses mainly on the idea that African Americans are owed "reparations" because of their enslavement and because of the suffering in the Jim Crow era. While these are big black marks on our nation's history, Ms. Nelson fails to present any arguments that might be raised against this agenda and address those. For example, I could see many people asking if African Americans are not better off in the United States today than they would be in their ancestral homelands. While many of the questions that could be potentially raised are difficult to address, the author's approach leaves readers feeling they have read only one extremely biased interpretation. Ultimately Ms. Nelson shows how some have used genealogy to bring cases to litigation, but that paper trails often end, and that genetic genealogy has the potential for bridging the gap. She does discuss promise and problems in this approach.

She includes a discussion of diasporas in an international sense which leads readers to ask questions about why other groups who suffered persecutions leading to similar diasporas are not also asking for reparations. She never addresses that question begging to be asked beyond a couple of examples that are really less similar to the slave trade than are some of the others.

I am not addressing whether or not I believe reparations are justified, but simply the lack of addressing the other side of the argument. While Ms. Nelson's book was potentially promising, its agenda and several errors that should have been corrected before it went to print, mar its impact. This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program with the expectation that a review would be written.

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