Thinking Out Loud

December 10, 2018

Thoughts on the Popularity of DNA Testing

This weekend we were discussing the popularity of DNA testing sites like (or in Canada) and (the latter’s name referring to the 23 pairs of chromosomes in normal cells) which, along with a handful of other similar companies can provide a profile based on the DNA sample you send. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it involves mailing your spit — the preferred term is saliva — to a testing site where you are then supplied with fairly specific information about your ethnic roots. A broader term to describe the services of such companies would be genealogy testing.

Not all that surprising is that Ancestry website’s roots lie in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a quasi-Christian religion which has specialized in genealogical research owing to a belief in something called “baptism for the dead;” a form of proxy baptism for departed relatives carried out in the Church’s temples on behalf of people who did not have the opportunity to receive the rite (or ordinance) in life. The more detailed version of their belief is that the departed can then accept or reject the rite carried out on their behalf, as in, ‘I know you drove 300 miles to the nearest temple so I could get into the Kingdom of God, but I think I’ll continue to try my odds as an atheist.’

Without getting into details about the nature of the reports people received, I wanted to share here three reasons why I think the tests resonate with people outside of the CofJCofLDS.


I think that people today want to know who they are.

It’s interesting to consider as we approach the Christmas season that the genealogies at the beginning of The Gospels often create many yawns as the text are read, not to mention the dread of being chosen to do such a reading and having to navigate the pronunciation of all those names. But the people in Biblical times knew their family history just as sure as you know several dozen user names and passwords today. They would even recognize areas where we’re told the texts we have contain shortcuts or deviations from the standard form; as well as the scandal of inclusions like Rahab. Seriously, Rahab? Not in my family tree, please.

If you have a child who has memorized the Periodic Table of Elements; it’s the same type of crowning achievement to be able to go back generation after generation without mistakes. (‘Morris was the son of Franklin, who was the son of Percival, who was the son of Ira, who was the son of August…’)

Today, we have so many children who were adopted. Children of divorce. Children who were supplied false information. Many people aren’t entirely sure who their fathers and mothers are, let alone any history dating prior to those parents.

So DNA testing is a step down that path. Which brings us to…


Ethnicity is only one component of identity. A love for a certain branch of the arts or a certain sport would be another. There are those who identify in terms of their political leanings or their faith. There are yet others whose primary identification is in terms of where they reside now.

But knowing ethnic roots gives one identification in terms of a nation or tribe. Being Navajo, or Italian, or Norse gives one a potential community with which to connect. (The websites also potentially provide means of making those connections more specific, including connecting people with lost siblings.)

Of course, knowing such things also has a certain caché, which brings us to…


This Christmas, many people will find a DNA testing kit gift-wrapped under the tree. At a list price of $99 (though frequently on sale) this type of gift is a luxurious, First World indulgence.

The same people who need to know their DNA are the same ones who also need to know their Myers-Briggs type (mine is ASAP) or their Enneagram number. In a previous century the Astrological Sign would suffice for some people. (I don’t believe in Astrology, but then again, we Geminis are naturally skeptical.)

DNA testing is the latest rage. Some will see it as a diversion, but others are heavily invested in the results. If those findings differ from anything you ever believed about yourself up until that point in time, I can imagine the results could go as far as to be life-altering.


Update: I decided not to discuss the health factor for the reason outlined in a reply to a comment, but I do encourage you to read the response from @George whose story says it better than I would have.

Appendix 1 – Who Am I by Petula Clark.

Appendix 2 – Who Am I by Casting Crowns

Appendix 3 – The I Am Poster


  1. Initially, I was largely disinterested in DNA testing. This was despite the fact that I was given up for adoption at birth by a teenage mother, and could have possibly used it as a search tool. I was born in a state where adoption records are closed, and long before DNA testing was available, I had fully accepted that I would never have any contact with my biological family — which was fine with me. My adopted family are the most wonderful people imaginable, and I genuinely lacked for nothing in terms of “wondering where I came from”.

    Then a few years ago, my adult daughter got a DNA test as a gift from her mother (my ex-wife), and through a series of completely unexpected events, ended up discovering and contacting our biological family on my mother’s side, including my mother herself! Since then, we have been in touch with them, had several visits in person, etc. Pretty life-altering stuff.

    But I still had not had a DNA test done, even after all this. My biological mother knew almost nothing of my biological father and his history — theirs had been a fairly brief summer romance as teenagers, and they had lost touch before I was born. I have had a number of interesting (and at times concerning) medical conditions through the years that I really wanted to dig down into, and DNA testing is a wide-open frontier of information when it comes to learning things about your medical history. They’ve already discovered a vast number of genetic markers that indicate the possible or likely presence of specific genetically-inherited medical conditions.

    So my primary reason for the DNA testing was to learn about my genetically determined medical predispositions. There are new services that allow you to take your DNA test results, plug them into a specialized web site, and get a list of genetic markers that indicate likely medical conditions that you may have, or are more likely to develop. A number of these can explain medical problems we are experiencing, as well as recommending specific treatments, preventive steps, or supplements that help cope with them (certain MTHFR Mutations, for example, can be treated with specific Vitamin B supplements).

    But the DNA service providers offer a word of caution about this technology, that is well-heeded by anyone who might be thinking about doing it — basically, would you want to know if it’s reasonably likely that you will be developing a very frightening degenerative disease? It could be quite life-altering to know that certain cancers, or Alzhiemer’s, or dementia, or ALS, or any other number of terrible things could be in your future. While nothing is certain, and the technology is still just getting off the ground, the implications of this sort of knowledge are potentially very intense and overwhelming.

    So, yeah… maybe it’s just a trendy thing for some people, who want to be able to point to a map and say “my tribe comes from there”, but it’s quickly developing into something altogether different for many others.

    Comment by George — December 10, 2018 @ 1:19 pm

    • George, thanks so much for taking the time to write all that out!
      I wrestled with including the health factor here. I know it’s been a big difference-maker for many people. I hesitated because the health industry has had access to this technology for a longer period of time than the more recent popularization — including television advertising — of doing the tests on your own or even giving a test kit as a gift.
      To be honest, I would love to have had several hours to discuss the types of reports available and therefore the various types of information people are receiving, as well as the ability of the tests to connect people (including such use by law enforcement.)
      I decided to keep it simple, but I’m going to include a referral to your comment in the main body of the article.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — December 10, 2018 @ 2:03 pm

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