Elizabeth Warren: Genetic Tests for Native American Ancestry?

Continuing the discussion from What is Polygenesis?:

I was wondering with this would come up.

At Peaceful Science, we are interested in this from a purely scientific point of view, with a goal of understanding for ourselves and educating the public. Political or partisan comments on this topic won’t be permitted, but there is a lot here in the science to understand more carefully.

I hope that this is a cultural teaching moment to understand the science of ancestry better, and genetics too. This could be a really good thing.


Pretty sure I don’t have Native-American heritage in my direct ancestry. Unless you go back to somewhat before ‘crossing the Bering Strait’ periods. Plenty of cousins with 1/4 or more, however…

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45 years ago, doing Christian street theatre in Wales (as you do), I found myelf in serious danger of assault by a member of the Free Wales Army. Trying to ease the situation I mentioned I had some Irish ancestry, and suddenly I was an ally rather than an enemy. Maybe that was some kind of affirmative action on their part.

My genealogy subsequently showed me that although my Irish MRGA (most recent Garvey ancestor) was five generations ago,giving me around 3% Irish genes, it was on the male side, so presumably I still have most of my Y chromosome, giving me close to 6% of the iron-founder Terence’s genes.

But later I discovered that one of my maternal great-grandmothers came from Dublin, giving me a whopping 18.25% of Irishness altogether. That could have been a problem, in that not too many decades ago, signs on boarding houses would say “No Coloured - No Irish.”

It might matter if any of those genes meant anything significant. But they don’t, since the family has been as English as anyone for well over a century, probably since my grandfather Garvey lied about being born in Dublin to get into an Irish cavalry regiment in 1899. I may have inherited the insubordination that got him demoted from sergeant, but that’s not especially Irish. I don’y say “Begorrah” and I don’t even get drunk on St Patrick’s Day, whenever that is. Though it did interest me mildly when Croag Patrick, the sacred mountain close by the ancestral Garvey family seat, was mentioned in the news.

But I would feel decidedly dishonest about claiming membership of a minority group. Sadly 10% of Englishmen have at least one Irish grandparent, making 6 million of the Johnsons and Smiths more Irish than I am.

How does that compare with native American or Black ancestry over there?


This topic brings to mind a related downside of disinformation. Some genetic analysis companies are misleading the public with grossly inaccurate claims of identifying presumed fine-graded distinctions of heritage. It has become the “I traded my lederhosen for a kilt” advertising strategy. It is creating a lot of confusion about what DNA can and can’t tell us about geographic homeland, cultural identity, family history, etc.

I have been pleased with the Y-DNA testing I did some years ago because it helped address the mystery of why an ancestor in my paternal lineage may have been so secretive (even with his own children) about his background. (Originally, I had wondered if he or his father possibly came to America as indentured servants but Y-DNA analysis allowed me to strongly suspect a far more interesting history related to a government edict against a particular much-hated group in the 1600’s which arose from a tribal feud. His secrecy was probably nothing other than wise self-preservation and sparing his children any social stigma.)

On the other hand, much of the AncestryDNA type of advertising is focused on autosomal DNA analysis, as with the infamous lederhosen-for-a-kilt campaign. I just now noticed this paragraph on the Ancestry.com website which still promotes TV commercial subject Kyle Merker’s story:

For 50 years, Merker believed his ancestors were German. So imagine his surprise when a genetic test by AncestryDNA showed that he wasn’t really German at all. The test said that 52 percent of his DNA came from Great Britain and Ireland and 28 percent from Scandinavia.

Really? He was surprised? I wonder if many people pause to consider that the Saxons (sharing tribal history with the northern German state of Saxony among others) came to England in such numbers that today “Anglo-Saxon” describes many millions of people in the UK and USA. (Moreover, the royal family of the UK has German roots for much more recent reasons. And until WWI, they usually spoke German in the palace residence. The name “House of Windsor” was coined at that time in order to de-emphasize their German heritage. Indeed, when fighting the Great War against the Kaiser, the “House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha” doesn’t have a great sound to it.) And does Mr. Merker realize that Scandanavia (especially Denmark) was the homeland for many of the Saxons who sailed across the North Sea to settle the island of Great Britain?

So wouldn’t we expect a lot of people in England and Scotland to have “German” DNA markers, including Mr. Merker’s ancestors who he discovered in tracing his more recent family tree?

Of course, if someone wants to focus solely on their surname and Y-DNA lineage, geographical clues from DNA analysis can be extremely helpful. In my case, I can identify the specific county which in recent times has had the greatest concentration of males with Y-DNA closely related to my own. (There is also lots of historical data to suggest that much of that county’s native population has seen little migration in the past several centuries.) Yet the promotional material I found on DNA-testing websites tends to promote autosomal testing and often does a poor job about explaining what DNA does and doesn’t tell the average customer.


I’m often asked about the value of these publicly available tests. At the moment, they appear to be comparable to horoscopes. At best, their interpretation is based on the falsehood that current populations reflect past populations. At worst, they reinforce racial stereotypes.

In the case of Warren’s test, it appears they did not have Cherokee DNA, and used Mexican/South American as a substitute. If this is true, she may be more related to Spanish or Aztec ancestors than Cherokee. As should be clear (and I mean this non-politically), it is a consequential to equicovate NA identies by grouping them all into a single class.

For now, think of these tests like horoscopes, or cold reads from a psychic. It seems that is about how they are functioning now in society.

Okay, now everyone can jump on my emminently defensible thesis.

I once looked into the statistical methods for paternity testing, and this uses published data for the frequency of certain genetic markers in various populations. Many smaller groups were not listed at all. That was some years ago, so I assume those databases have improved since.

Even then, testing for paternity is a much simpler problem than identifying a mixture many of source populations from a single sample. Paternity testing uses up to 15 genetic markers, which is plenty for that task, but not nearly enough to ID genetic heritage with any reliability.

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This is based on a SNP array, not tandem repeat markers. It works differently.


Indeed. One of the useful aspects of the tandem repeat markers on the Y-chromosome is that people like me with a very common surname can easily find which Y-DNA database men with the same surname are likely to share a MRCA within relatively recent (or even very recent) generations based on the observed mutation rates of each marker. Unfortunately, not all of the heavily advertised DNA analysis companies even offer Y-DNA testing of that sort and those which do generally fail to put a lot of effort into client-education in how to use the test results. I had to do a lot of self-study to make the tandem repeat markers useful to me.

Some of us recall the articles published in Science Digest and other popular-level science magazines of the 1950’s and 1960’s which dreamed of the future possibilities of individualized DNA analysis. Frankly, I never thought I’d see such in-depth and economical Y-DNA analysis in my lifetime—let alone tools like CRISPR.

Oh, another geography complication which I came upon in my own research was my grandfather’s occasional mention of our ancestors being from Sweden. The “trade one’s lederhosen for kilts” mentality may find that confusing but in my research I discovered that many Irish and Scottish men moved to Sweden in the 1600th century (for example) to serve as mercenaries. (I was even told that a look through a Stockholm phonebook nowadays will yield a lot of Irish and Scottish clan names.) Indeed, in the many European wars, it was common for the losing side’s soldiers to be forced outright or to desire to leave the area—and they often became warriors-for-hire in some distant land. So population diversities got churned again and again.

It just seems downright crazy to make overly specific geographic and cultural assumptions based on DNA without also conducting serious genealogical research.

I’m glad to see that the media has given Cherokee leaders an opportunity to explain their perspective on tribal identity and to emphasize the limitations of DNA analysis.

Despite the fact that we are all “mutts” of constantly “churned” lineage, I remember from my childhood various families who made a big deal that they were of “blue blood” lineage or “My ancestors came over on the Mayflower.” [No doubt the original Mayflower passengers would have been absolutely amazed if they could have known that they would someday represent some sort of “elite” group!] I can remember comedians back in the 1950’s making jokes about their grandmother having explained to them when they were very young that “Our family is an important one because we came here before most other Americans. One’s prestige is based upon how early one’s ancestors came to America.” The punch line was always something like the little kid replying, “Wow! So that means the Indians have way more prestige than all of us!”

Hitler and the Nazis banned Darwin’s books and opposed so much evolutionary biology (at least in the context of propaganda campaigns if not consistently at every university) because the science directly defied “Master Race” doctrine which claimed that Arayans were specially created by God while Jews were somehow descended from animals. (I’ve not put a lot of research into that latter claim but in the past I found the details a bit murky to sort out. The Nazis had the complication of reluctantly recognizing the inconvenient fact that Jews and Aryans could marry and produce fertile children.) I suppose all of this comes to mind because of the polygeny thread. I think of these historical facts whenever I hear Ken Ham and various Discovery Institute materials complaining that Hitler was a “devoted Darwinist.” (After all, if Hitler and the Nazis in any way affirmed the Theory of Evolution, then that theory must obviously be invalid!)

[POSTSCRIPT: Admittedly, there were a lot of contradictions in Nazi propaganda. From what I could tell, there was anti-evolution propaganda for the general public at the same time many educators were teaching evolutionary biology. Darwin’s books were removed from some libraries while they remained undisturbed on the shelves other libraries. I’ve had difficulty sorting out a consistent policy among the Nazis. No doubt that were confusion among various Nazi officials as people struggled to figure out what was allowed and what was disallowed. Nevertheless, it is easy to see how evolutionary biology would seem like a threat to Master Race doctrine.]


There’s woo in dog DNA testing too.

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In Canada native Indian genetic percentages are very important o decide about special advatages in money etc etc. It is a reflection on the percentage things they used to use in the South about blacks/whites etc. nothing changes except winners and losers.
DNA association will never unite souls. All mankind is DNA united and never helped. Its about Soul identity.
Therefore there is nothing to be gained in learning about dna relationships. UNLESS it touches the souls impression of its identity.
by the way I question these dna claims. I think they too quickly draw hard and fast conclusions.
For example in england they claim they can tell the difference between celts and germanic influences to a great degree.
Hmmm. i don;t mind it but something funny about such intimate atomic things. Why not more options for overlapping without a biological heritage/trail.