DNA testing comes with issues of proprietary rights that exposes family members who never requested a test of themselves. Descendants of enslaved persons of African descent who are targeted by companies offering the service should proceed with caution.
Genetics Home Reference describes DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, as the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA. Most DNA is located in the cell nucleus. This means that a DNA test may reveal not only a hereditary chain but also race and these features of blood relatives will also be exposed.
Historian Dr Tara Inniss who has been looking at issues of DNA testing, the perception of DNA testing, how DNA testing has been used to market to, especially, people of African descent and people in the Caribbean, has said persons should make themselves aware of all factors before taking the test because that information is owned by the testing company providing the service.
“When you provide the sample, even if you request it to be destroyed afterwards, it becomes the property of the company.
“You may own your DNA for your lifetime but that sample, or the information derived is theirs forever and since that sample is the representative’s genetic information, the company owns that as well, even if family members did not provide consent.”
Addressing a recent meeting of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society Genealogy Group, she said pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline recently purchased shares in one of the leading DNA testing companies and now has access to all the data the company had amassed from previous tests.
This further brings into consideration the issue of privacy she said, adding, “when big pharma enters the area of DNA testing [they] gain access not only to a persons’ DNA file but that of family members who did not consent”.
DNA tests are pursued by persons wanting to know about their racial composition or hopefully find family members.
Dr Inniss, who was speaking on the topic, Just Who Do We Think We Are?: The Frontline and Fault Lines of Genealogical DNA Testing in the Caribbean, pointed out that it is the curiosity of unknown family members and racial composition that make African descendants of enslaved persons in the Caribbean, the USA and the diaspora, special targets of the multi-million dollar DNA industry.
“Caribbean descendant persons, especially those of African descent, are increasingly being solicited for their genetic information for the purpose of genealogical and ancestry research.
“In 2017, more than 12 million persons mailed saliva samples for genetic testing. We still find subscribers, especially among African-descendant persons in Europe, North America and the Caribbean, many of whom have enslaved ancestors.
“For this reason alone, the prospect of geological DNA testing is attractive for lay family historians because of the perception that it can unlock this unknowable past.
“But some of these family lines only stretch back so far into family trees and are not usually any further than the mid-18th Century, for which we have very limited documentary sources to prove family relationships especially for enslaved ancestors who were anonymously traded into our Caribbean slave societies through the trans-Atlantic slave trade, were often not mentioned by a traceable name in records or represented in any kind of family group.
“The oral traditions that many families rely on are often by silences that mediate politics and respectability after emancipation that labelled illegitimacy as inferior and one’s racial origins as being subordinate.
“So for generations of Caribbean people, the past seemed tangled, warped and unknowable. The promise of genealogical testing is that it will help to untangle, unwarp that past and make it knowable.”
But, she said, the testing also represents the extremes of both the use and abuse of that information exposing some of the fault lines for how individuals, families and even the state assert their ownership over the storage and use of this information.
“African descendant people, in fact all people who have been survivors of the colonial trauma of genocide or coerced migration are vulnerable in that they want to know an unknowable past but they have few means to access it, and a promise of this testing is that it will help to unlock that door.”
Dr Inniss, who has taken the test herself, advised persons who decided on doing the same not to raise their expectations too high about discovering ancient ancestors.
“You cannot capture in DNA today an ancestral genome. You’re only capturing the genetic markers available today of all the people who have been tested from one period to the present.
“The analysis of the results is based on mostly each company’s access to its own or shared databases and are reflective of the time and space in which samples are collected.”